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Against self-polishing.

March 13, 2009, 9:31 am

Historians consult sources that record past events, dismantle these sources into statements of fact, then reassemble these atoms into a synthesis of past events allegedly superior to the constituent sources. In the process we make many decisions: which sources to consult, which facts to distill from them, which facts to cull from the distillate and what emphasis to place on any of them. How do we make these decisions?

In October 1910, Carl L. Becker published “Detachment and the Writing of History” in the Atlantic Monthly, to reckon with this question.1

He began with the complaint of a non-historian about the Cambridge Modern History that “of fruitful generalization, there was little indeed, no effort having been made, apparently, to reduce the immense mass of facts to principles of universal validity.” Becker observed,

You cannot disconcert the orthodox historian of our day by saying he has got a great mass of facts together without knowing what to do with them: if the truth of them cannot indeed be questioned, he will know very well what to do with them: he will put them into a book. But imagine the sentiments of the authors if Professor Minot had said that ‘the beautifully coördinated generalizations, with which the Cambridge Modern History is packed, are most stimulating and suggestive.’ Their chagrin would have been immense!

Which is to say that on Becker’s account the historian of 1910 was far more likely to believe that “the business of the historian is to ‘get the facts’” than that he was then to do anything much with the facts. Detachment—a scientific detachment—was the profession’s ideal.

But, Becker went on, it’s not actually easy—or, in fact, possible—to exhibit true detachment from history: “But, in truth, the historical fact is a thing wonderfully elusive after all, very difficult to fix, almost impossible to distinguish from ‘theory,’ to which it is commonly supposed to be antithetical.”

After a nice blockquote from Nietszsche, who describes the perfectly detached man as a “self-polishing mirror”, Becker gets down to the problems at hand.

(1) How do we define a fact? Becker says, “The historical reality is continuous, and infinitely complex; and the cold hard facts into which it is said to be analyzed are not concrete portions of the reality, but only aspects of it”—and to perceive these aspects requires that we draw on our own experience, thus necessarily contaminating any facticity or historicity the thing in question is supposed to have.

Becker uses the example of a statement to the effect that Senators stabbed Julius Caesar in the senate-house at Rome.

As I read, a mental picture is at once formed…. But it is not the statement alone that enables me to form the picture: my own experience enters in. I have seen men and rooms and daggers, and my experience of these things furnishes the elements of which the picture is composed. Suppose me to know nothing of the ancient Roman world; my picture would doubtless be composed of the senate-chamber at Washington, of men in frock coats, and of bowie-knives, perhaps. It is true, the picture changes as I read more of the Roman world. Yet at each step in this transformation, it is still my own experience that furnishes the new elements for the new picture. New sources enable me to combine the elements of experience more correctly, but experience must furnish the elements to select from. The ‘facts’ of history do not exist for any historian until he creates them, and into every fact that he creates some part of his individual experience must enter.

Our experience thus colors our perception of the facts—but more, it informs our selection of the facts. Becker says, for example we do not admit the occurrence in the past of events we consider impossible now—i.e., miracles. “We must,” he says, “have a past that is the product of all the present.”

The presence of the present in any human perception of the past means that “there is no unit fact in history … the facts are only mental images … then, it must be very difficult to assert a fact without thereby making a synthesis.”

(2) How do we proceed to make a synthesis? Becker raises Fred Fling’s citation of Heinrich Rickert: that we choose facts that are unique, which have value on account of their uniqueness, which are causally connected, and which reveal unique change or evolution.

Aha, Becker says. But what about that concept of “value”? Isn’t that sneaking in your interpretation by the back door? Well, yes: we want to explain something, and certain facts are said to have value because they explain that thing. But in the definition of that thing, we already define the kinds of facts we’re looking for. Becker uses the example of Luther and the Reformation: is Luther a fact of essential value in explaining the Reformation? Depends what you mean by the Reformation, of course.

Here Becker takes what I regard as a fascinating tour through the interpretation of monastic life. We used to say, Becker notes, that men sought the monastic life for love of God. But we no longer regard such passion as sufficient explanation, so we see monasteries now as economic institutions—they served the purposes of wayside inns, for example, and “lack of inns” explains the proliferation of monasteries and monks clustering to them. But in this interpretation we don’t have any use for the true ascetic—Becker cites St. Simeon Stylites—so he gets written off as plain nuts.

That’s not the fascinating part, this is: Becker then says, but to a child—who has his or her own concept of what’s a fact with value—the likes of St. Simeon are going to stand out. A child is

unpatriotic enough to prefer the winged gods of Greece to John Smith or Daniel Boone. Seven-league boots and one-eyed men, impossible ladies and knight-errant without purposes, St. Simeon Stylites standing, solemn and useless, at the top of a pillar,—from these he is not detached.

Becker leaves this point here, but it contains a potential we might want to revisit later.

He sums up this section by saying not only that the theory, the concept, the interpretation does precede the facts, but that it must, it is inherent in the operation of human intellect.

It is the concept that determines the facts, not the facts the concept… Instead of ‘sticking to the facts,’ the facts stick to him, if he has any ideas to attract them; and they will stick to him to some purpose only if his ideas are many, vivid, and fruitful. Complete detachment would produce few histories, and none worth while; for the really detached mind is a dead mind, lying among the facts of history like unmagnetized steel among iron filings, no synthesis ever resulting, in one case or the other, to the end of time.

Consider the trained historian, intent on studying the sixteenth century. Before him are the analyzed sources—the ‘facts’—neatly arranged in cases. He begins thumbing the cards, reading the statements, taking in the facts. Doubtless he says to himself:—

This fact is unique, important because unique, causally connected; I will therefore set it aside to be wrought up into my final synthesis.

No such thing. As he goes over and over his cards, some aspects of the reality recorded there interest him more, others less; some are retained, others forgotten; some have power to start a new train of thought; some appear to be causally connected; some logically connected; some are without any perceptible connection of any sort. And the reason is simple: some facts strike the mind as interesting or suggestive, have a meaning of some sort, lead to some desirable end, because they associate themselves with ideas already in the mind; they fit in somehow to the ordered experience of the historian. This original synthesis … is only half deliberate. It is accomplished almost automatically. The mind will select and discriminate from the very beginning. It is the whole ‘apperceiving mass’ that does the business, seizing upon this or that new impression and building it into its own growing content. As new facts are taken in, the old ideas or concepts, it is true, are modified, distinguished, destroyed even; but the modified ideas become new centres of attraction.

That is the point in short: Becker renders a historian-specific version of William James’s proposition that “The trail of the human serpent is thus over everything.”

Becker’s conclusion very lightly makes a critical point, without driving it home too deeply: the value of detachment, because it is as he writes in possession of the field, shapes the history written because it shapes the facts collected. The historian prizing his detachment seeks facts that allow him to observe historical actors doing “a certain amount of good in a bad way”. Other kinds of facts—facts like, perhaps, St. Simeon Stylites—get left out. Detachment itself is a framework that determines the permissible facts, which leads to a certain kind of history—maybe not the best. “The state of mind best calculated to find out exactly what happened is perhaps incompatible with a disposition to care greatly what it is that happened; and whatever value the notion of detachment may have just now, the time may come—there have been such times in the past—when it is more important that every one should care greatly what happens.”

More whimsically, perhaps, but not less importantly, I think, the goal of detachment denies the child’s view Becker evoked in the middle of the essay. And it is as children—or in the way of children, appreciating the marvelous—that most people who take up any interest in history do so.


1UPDATED to provide full link, thanks to andrew. The essay is reprinted in the collection of the same title.

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