Thursday, 21 August 2014

On What History is Not

I return to one of my favourite topics: why the criteria of authenticity are methodically deficient, and for this discussion I turn to R.G. Collingwood, that great philosopher of history who, not at all incidentally, deeply influenced Lonergan's thought on this matter. I should note that my good friend Jordan Ryan, a graduate student in the Department of Religious Studies at McMaster University (not to be confused with McMaster Divinity College) is working on an article-length treatment of Collingwood with reference to historical Jesus studies. Nothing here should be taken as stealing his thunder, for frankly Jordan knows Collingwood much better than I, and that article, when it is published (and it will be, as it's going to be just excellent) is going to far exceed anything that I write here.

That said, without further ado let us proceed with the discussion. Writes Collingwood in his Idea of History (257):
There is a kind of history which depends altogether upon the testimony of authority...[I]t is not really history at all, but we have no other name for it. The method by which it proceeds is first to decide what we want to know about, and then to go in search of statements about it, oral or written, purporting to made by actors in the events concerned, or by eyewitnesses of them, or by persons repeating what actors or eyewitnesses have told told them, or told their informant, or those who informed their informants, and so on. having found in such a statement something relevant to his purpose, the historian excerpts it and incorporates it, translated if necessary into what he considers a suitable style, in his own history. As a rule, where he has many statements to draw upon, he will find that one of them tells him what another does not; so both will be incorporated. Sometimes he will find that one of them contradicts another; then, unless he can find a way of reconciling the, he must decide to leave one out; and this, if he is conscientious, will involve him in a critical consideration of the contradictory authorities' relevant degree of trustworthiness. And sometimes one of them, or possibly all of them, will tell him a story which he simply cannot believe, a story characteristic, perhaps, of the superstitions or prejudices of the author's time or the circle in which he lived, but not credible to a more enlightened age, and therefore to be omitted.
Although Collingwood lived and died before the full development of criteria for historical Jesus studies, and in any case wasn't a New Testament scholar and showed no interest in HJ studies, he might as well have been describing the criteria approach. He might also have been describing HJ studies in general, going back to at least the work of David Friedrich Strauss. Convinced that the work of history consists of excerpting statements from the gospels and other potentially relevant literature which are then rearranged so as to reveal the real Jesus, HJ scholars developed ever-more elaborate criteria to determine which statements are to be excerpted and which are not. Qualifications were added: "Jesus said something like this," even though exactly how "said something like this" differs from "said this" is typically left unspecified; "Jesus did something like this," even though exactly how "did something like this" differs from "did this" is typically left unspecified. Alternatively, one might not look at individual statements but at the entirety of texts. For instance, it might be asked, is John's Gospel a reliable (i.e. trustworthy) reservoir of statements that might be cut from their context and pasted into our history? But this is just more of the same, only at the level of the gospels rather than at the level of statements.

Collingwood has already hinted, in the quote above, that this is a problematic procedure. Why is that? Again, Collingwood (Idea of History, 275):
The act of incorporating a ready-made statement into the body of his own historical knowledge is an act which, for a scientific historian, is impossible. Confronted with a ready-made statement about the subject he is study, the scientific historian never asked himself: "Is this statement true or false?", in other words "Shall I incorporate it in my history of that subject or not?" The question he asks himself is: "What does this statement mean?" The question he asks himself is: "What does it mean?" And this is not equivalent to the question "What did the person who made it mean by it?", although that is doubtless a question that the historian must ask, and must be able to answer. It is equivalent, rather, to the question "What light is thrown on the subject in which I am interested by the fact that this person made this statement, meaning by it what he did?" This might be expressed by saying that the scientific historian does not treat statements as statements but as evidence: not as true or false accounts of the facts of which they profess to be accounts, but as other facts which, if he knows the right questions to ask about them, may throw light on these facts.
Put more simply, history proceeds not by affirming or rejecting ready-made statements found in one's sources but rather of treating those sources as bodies of data from which one might draw inferences. Once that shift occurs--and it really is the shift from pre-scientific to scientific thinking--suddenly not only the appeal but even the epistemological legitimacy of the criteria falls away. They were, quite simply, calculated to answer questions unworthy of the term "historical science."

And again: watch in the near future for Jordan Ryan's article on this. It will be gold.


  1. Thanks for the shout-out, Jonathan. This is a very good treatment of the issue.

    1. Well, it's like I always say: a day without Collingwood is like a day without sunshine.