Foucault and theoretical approaches to history

Mar 2010
297
New Orleans, LA (well in August anyway)
#1
As an undergrad, I double majored in both history and English, and most of my cultural theory grounding comes from literary studies. As I am about start my MA/PhD coursework in history, I am wondering why historians have been generally so reluctant to take more theoretical approaches to the subject. I think everyone by now accepts that the study of history is an interpretive field and not scientific. Am I missing something. Also I think this could naturally evolve into a discussion of foucault, so what do you think of his theories of language structuring reality and systems of order, etc.?
 

Toltec

Ad Honorem
Apr 2008
7,923
Hyperborea
#2
I do tend to agree with you, "evidence is everything" these days in history and theoretical historians like AJP Taylor (whom I like) are really out of fashion.

The problem with an evidence based approach to history is of course the evidence is incomplete and subjective and the further back in time you go totally innadequate. However the scientific mentality of we must accept what the evidence points to until more evidence comes along is the trend at the moment. Pointing out to a historian as to a scientist, that in areas of little knowledge this is a poor methodology because, the knowledge is only temporarily true, soon new evidence will come along and replace it, so why believe it now, is a form of heresy. It's dumb but it's science.
 
Dec 2009
19,933
#3
As an undergrad, I double majored in both history and English, and most of my cultural theory grounding comes from literary studies. As I am about start my MA/PhD coursework in history, I am wondering why historians have been generally so reluctant to take more theoretical approaches to the subject. I think everyone by now accepts that the study of history is an interpretive field and not scientific. Am I missing something. Also I think this could naturally evolve into a discussion of foucault, so what do you think of his theories of language structuring reality and systems of order, etc.?
I do tend to agree with you, "evidence is everything" these days in history and theoretical historians like AJP Taylor (whom I like) are really out of fashion.

The problem with an evidence based approach to history is of course the evidence is incomplete and subjective and the further back in time you go totally innadequate. However the scientific mentality of we must accept what the evidence points to until more evidence comes along is the trend at the moment. Pointing out to a historian as to a scientist, that in areas of little knowledge this is a poor methodology because, the knowledge is only temporarily true, soon new evidence will come along and replace it, so why believe it now, is a form of heresy. It's dumb but it's science.
Maybe you should both elaborate a bit more; prima facie, I would tend to disagree.
IMHO Foucault simply disputed some reductionist approaches, notoriously the Marxist historical materialism.
For any research that deserves such name, evidence is indeed everything, in History or elsewhere.
Naturally, no science is beyond interpretation artifacts, not even Physics; remember the Heisenberg uncertainty principle?
There can be certainly myriad interpretations of any single fact, which of course doesn't alter the singleness of such fact.
Any research is as good as the evidence backing it, and many modern historians have been and are working extremely hard for retrieving the best possible evidence, which is BTW what you can ask from any science.
The obvious limitations of the historical method (e.g. the virtual absence of experimental confirmation) doesn't mean by any measure that the rules of evidence can be avoided; otherwise, any "historical interpretation" would simply be the personal dogma of any of us.
 
Mar 2010
297
New Orleans, LA (well in August anyway)
#4
I don't presonally view history as a science, I think it should firmly placed in the cantagory of the humanities. History is an act of narrative construction. It all depends on the selection of facts to create your narrative. I think Foucault is particularly effective at pointing this out, how narrative constructs reality, etc. I think it's an important distinction. Is history a science or is it merely an interpretive exercise. I also think Foucault is helpful in viewing science as a construction. The questions one chooses to ask predetermine answers. It's all about position in society etc.
 
Aug 2009
208
#5
I don't think historians (at least as an academic discipline) are that averse to theory. You only have to look at a lot of the publishing in the last few years to see that it is deeply indebted to (often controversial) theoretical and methodological work. Post-structuralism, literary criticism, Foucault, anthropology, sociology and even (rather problematically, I think) psychoanalysis are being employed regularly. Perhaps the broad (temporally and spatially) sweeps of Whig or Marxist history are no longer fashionable, but I suspect this is partly due to their positions being rather indefensible, and also valuable local studies being generally patchy and not powerfully synthesised.

I don't know what field you are interested in, but Wickham has tremendously interesting things to say about the middle ages; Sewell has offered a powerful new analysis of the French Revolution (and indeed political history in general); Laqueur and Lyndal Roper have redefined gender history. I see theory everywhere I look in modern historians.
 
Dec 2009
19,933
#6
I don't presonally view history as a science, I think it should firmly placed in the cantagory of the humanities. History is an act of narrative construction. It all depends on the selection of facts to create your narrative. I think Foucault is particularly effective at pointing this out, how narrative constructs reality, etc. I think it's an important distinction. Is history a science or is it merely an interpretive exercise. I also think Foucault is helpful in viewing science as a construction. The questions one chooses to ask predetermine answers. It's all about position in society etc.
The suggestion of the answer by the question itself is a cognitive bias that is common in any kind of research, even Physics: as any othe bias, it should be controlled as much as possible.

IMHO, your first statement is a good example; it answers the wrong question.
Any research inherently tries to be as scientific as possible.
What makes any research "scientific" at all is essentially the rigor of the methodology employed for verifying (strictly speaking, falsifying) the available evidence.

The obvious empirical fact that a lot of the evidence used by the historians is often in practice not falsifiable doesn't imply that the rules of evidence shouldn't be used when and wherever it is feasible.
As for any other research, the conclusions of the research of any historian have the same value as the evidence and methodology they are based on.
 

Pedro

Forum Staff
Mar 2008
17,151
On a mountain top in Costa Rica. yeah...I win!!
#7
I don't personally view history as a science, I think it should firmly placed in the category of the humanities. History is an act of narrative construction. It all depends on the selection of facts to create your narrative. I think Foucault is particularly effective at pointing this out, how narrative constructs reality, etc. I think it's an important distinction. Is history a science or is it merely an interpretive exercise. I also think Foucault is helpful in viewing science as a construction. The questions one chooses to ask predetermine answers. It's all about position in society etc.
Not only do I agree with you but we have a world renown authority on our side. Barbara Tuchman, whose delightful essay entitled, "The Historian As Artist" can be found in her book 'Practicing History- Selected Essays'.


One relevant quote (in regard to your opening sentence) from her essay:


"George Macaulay Trevelyan, ... champion of literary as opposed to scientific history, said in a famous essay on his muse that ideally history should be the exposition of facts about the past, “in their full emotional and intellectual value to a wide public”. Trevelyan always stressed writing for the general reader as opposed to writing just for fellow scholars because he knew that when you write for the public you have to be clear and you have to be interesting and these are the two criteria which make for good writing.”

I would add that it not only makes for good writing but good history, and good politics, and good everything else.
The italicizing of clear and interesting were hers, and certainly worthy of being posted over the writing desk of all historical scribblers no matter what their philosophy.
 
Dec 2009
19,933
#8
I would add that it not only makes for good writing but good history, and good politics, and good everything else.
Seemingly not good evidence.

I might have misunderstood you, as I have not read her yet; but I certainly can't understand why the artistic and literary abilities of any historian must clash or simply be related with the rigor of their methodology.
 

Pedro

Forum Staff
Mar 2008
17,151
On a mountain top in Costa Rica. yeah...I win!!
#9
Seemingly not good evidence.

I might have misunderstood you, as I have not read her yet; but I certainly can't understand why the artistic and literary abilities of any historian must clash or simply be related with the rigor of their methodology.
You really don't have to read her in order to understand me.
 

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