Thursday, September 07, 2006

Why do we prefer one historical interpretation over another?

Miriam's post about Cowan and Habermas, as well as Jen's earlier post about Watt and other theorists of the novel, made me wonder about a fundamental aspect of our scholarly practices: why do we prefer one interpretation over another?

We often talk one interpretation "winning out" over others, or of one historian or critic emerging as the "standard account" over the claims of rivals, but we rarely analyze this process of persuasion hardening into institutionalization. (Offhand, I can think of Fish, or Kuhn, or maybe Samuel Weber, but it's surprisingly hard to think of examples)

One interesting writer on this question is F.R. Ankersmit, whose Narrative Logic (Martinus Nijhoff, 1983) I've been working through lately.

FRA distinguishes between the internal and external questions provoked by historical narratives: internal questions are "posed only on the basis of something mentioned in the [narrative]; [while] "external questions" may be formulated from any conceivable perspective" (30). FRA talks about the common scholarly situation in which two competing interpretations of the same subject-matter come about, "the first giving a satisfactory answer to all its internal questions while avoiding all the important questions that can be asked on the subject-matter, whereas the other answers at least a number of these questions, although sometimes unconvincingly."

FRA's example is the historiography of the persecution of witches. He describes how the 19c historian Lecky blamed the witch burnings on the stupidity, meanness, and superstitiousness of the medieval clergy. Keith Thomas, on the other hand, developed an entire causal argument about medieval superstition and the process of demythologization of Catholic dogma (30-1). Obviously, Thomas's explanation raises all sorts of new questions about what this "demythologization" entailed, but we nonetheless prefer the account of Thomas, which cannot resolve many of the issues it raises, to Lecky's. Though Lecky's account can answer its own internal questions more persuasively than Thomas's, it does seem to isolate witch-burning too much from other issues that remain external to its argument.

I think FRA's example helps explain how the broader explanation sometimes wins out against the narrower one, if we feel that the narrow explanation doesn't explain enough, or doesn't interest us in pursuing it further. It's hard to see, for example, how one could extend Lecky's explanation with further research.

So does Ankersmit's account of competing historical interpretations seem accurate to you? Is this why we still read Habermas or E.P. Thompson, even after others have written books on the subject-matter they helped to establish? What do you think?