Interview with Peng Gang: Is what History? Speech transcript

2020-06-10 | By Historian | Filed in: Character.


Historical research is not to study the past, but to study the traces left by the past to this day. If there is no trace of what we say, think, do or experience, it means that these facts have not happened. -Elton, British historian





Summary: History needs to be sufficiently alert and humble to its own discipline boundaries. The nature of historians’ work is what. What history can and cannot do is what. Such problems cannot be avoided by historians and need to be considered. Historians can only indirectly contact the past through texts, but the restriction and restraint of the real past to historians are constantly displayed through historical materials. The discipline norms and historians’ skills formed by history for a long time are the sources of its vitality and legitimacy.


Like all other disciplines, the development of history often requires historians and historians to constantly reflect on their own discipline premise. The issue of “what is history” has become more and more recent. It involves the subject nature of history, the research object of history, the relationship between historians and the history he studies, etc. In my opinion, through the investigation of the development track of western historical theories in the 20th century, the recovery and solution to this problem can be summed up into three directions, namely, the historical views of reconstruction theory, constructivism and deconstruction theory.


01

Reconstruction theory



History
The true colors of can be rebuilt and restored.

One of the core elements of an important heritage received by history from the 19th century is that history should seek truth, rebuild and restore the true nature of history, and achieve objectivity as its own goal. In Europe, compared with the 18th century, the 19th century is a historical century. The reaction to the Enlightenment brought about the initiation and development of historical consciousness. History has made great progress and gradually moved towards specialization, becoming a modern discipline. This is an important legacy received by history from the 19th century.

One of the core elements of this legacy isIt is believed that history should seek truth, rebuild and restore the true nature of history, and achieve objectivity as its own goal.This is what American historian Beard later said about historians’ “that noble dream”. It can be said that this is what we call the “reconstruction theory” view of history. Rank, who laid the foundation for the specialization of history, is of course a figure with complicated thoughts and faces, but the most profound impression he left to later historians is his famous saying of “writing truthfully and directly”.
At the beginning of the 20th century, when positivism was popular, some historians believed that history could eventually discover its own laws like natural science. Many historians deny that there are laws similar to those in the field of natural science in history, but they also believe that there is no difference between history and natural science in the goal of seeking truth and the ability to achieve truth and objectivity. Therefore, there is Bury’s famous saying: “History is science, no more, no less.”
History needs two conditions to realize that “noble dream” and become one of science. One condition is the collection of historical materials and strict and detailed textual research. The research object of history is different from other disciplines-human activities in the past have disappeared and never returned. However, human activities have left behind various historical materials. Collecting and examining historical materials can help us establish the facts of the past. The accumulation of past facts will naturally reveal their correlation with each other and the pattern and significance of the historical process. Another condition is that historians need to eliminate subjective factors and not mix their own national, political and personal preferences into their research and writing. They must be as objective, neutral and impartial as possible.
The combination of these two conditions seems to achieve the objectivity of history. Rank said that the history of the religious reform he wrote should be acceptable to Protestants and Catholics alike. Sir Acton, who later presided over Cambridge Modern World History, also demanded that the writing of Waterloo should satisfy the French, Germans and Dutch. Historians, like a mirror waiting for them, clearly reflect the facts presented in historical materials and become a perfect picture of historians’ work. Therefore, from the end of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century, some historians who held similar beliefs expressed with some pride and some frustration that in some research fields, historical materials have been collected completely, research has gone deep enough, all kinds of skills of historians have been used up, and future generations have nothing to do. This gives rise to Acton’s “ultimate history”, which probably means that every historian’s work may be separated from others. You study ancient Greek currencies and he studies Hitler’s war decisions. However, in the final analysis, the accumulation of research results points to the “ultimate history” that reveals the real appearance of all human civilizations in the past.
The historical view of reconstruction theory contains the following points: historical facts are contained in historical materials, which can be revealed by impartial and skilled historians; The accumulation of historical facts will naturally show the original appearance and significance of the past. Human beings have a single and unified past.
Therefore, we can see that, on the one hand, historians believe in “grand narration” and believe that the history of human beings in the past is a unity developed according to a certain clue, regardless of whether this clue can be recognized by people. On the other hand, historians are becoming more and more specialized in their work. Academic historians, like experts in other disciplines, are becoming more and more aware of smaller and smaller things.
These two aspects of the situation, wonderfully combined. “Rank devoutly believes that if he takes care of the facts himself, God will take care of the significance of history,” Carl’s sarcasm of Rank is a vivid portrayal of this situation.


02

Constructivism



Historians should “revive” history with their own spirit.


In the view of history of constructivism, historySubjective factors such as family’s theoretical equipment, ideological height, empathy experience ability, etc., are not the objects of vigilance and prevention, but constitute the elements of historical research.
Common sense, we can divide history into three different levels: the real history, the history in historical materials, and the history written by historians. From the perspective of reconstruction theory of history, the results obtained by historians through studying historical materials will eventually show the face of real history. There is no insurmountable barrier or insurmountable estrangement between the three levels of history. The question is, is there any separation between the three and is it not as harmonious as the reconstruction theory assumes?
History studies what? Probably many people will answer without thinking: the past. However, according to Elton, a British historian, “historical research is not to study the past, but to study the traces left by the past to this day. If there is no trace of what we say, think, do or experience, it means that these facts have not happened.” As the ancient poem said, “Things are like spring dreams without trace”. Reconstruction theory holds that history should restore the true colors of the past, but probably no one will be naive enough to think that people can restore the past without any difference. However, people often unconsciously believe that all the truly important and valuable fragments of the past will always leave traces on which our research can rely.
However, is this really the case? Let’s give a few examples. Tombs are an important material for us to study ancient history. However, a large number of tomb owners who can reflect the system, culture and other factors at that time are only a very small number of people in the society who are in an advantageous position. As far as the “silent majority” is concerned, we often lack sufficient reliance to infer the relevant situation. For example, as many as 8,000 sacks of cabinet files of the Ming and Qing Dynasties were destroyed by Prince Chun at the end of the Qing Dynasty. Had it not been for the efforts of Luo Zhenyu, Chen Yuan and others, they would have turned into pulp. The importance of these archives to the study of Ming and Qing history is self-evident. There are too many restrictive factors and contingencies in the formation, circulation and preservation of historical materials. It is really a very lucky thing that many important things have survived. It can also be inferred that there are still so many important things that we cannot even trace their importance. It seems that stricter restrictions need to be added to the statement of “rebuilding the true colors of the past”.
Apart from the contingency of formation and retention, is historical data like a glass plate that allows us to clearly see through the past? Historical materials are created by people, and it inevitably brings a specific perspective. Karl said that our understanding of ancient Greece was lacking, mainly because the description of Greece during that period was made by a small number of people in Athens. We have no way of knowing what Spartans, Persians and Athens who have no citizenship think of Greece. “The picture we saw was chosen and decided for us in advance.“The bias and intolerance of historical materials have doomed it to be distorted and blurred to varying degrees, although it is not necessarily impossible for us to see the past, but it has doomed the picture we get from looking through historical materials.
Reconstruction theory holds that the facts are there, waiting for historians to discover them. Karl’s statement is that facts themselves cannot speak, and historians let facts speak. We can say that the historian has his concerns and his own problem consciousness. Only when these subjective factors of his project onto some aspects of the past can some facts in the dark be highlighted. “All history is contemporary history,” Croce’s proposition is familiar to everyone. One of the connotations is that historians always start from their current life and their own concerns and look to the past. Karl wrote in his masterpiece History Is what? “History is a continuous process of interaction between historians and their facts, and an endless question-and-answer conversation between the present and the past.” The relationship between historians, historical materials and facts is not what the reconstruction theory assumes. The former negatively reflects and presents the latter, but the interaction between the two sides. Croce’s “All History is Contemporary History” and Collinwood’s “All History is History of Thought” all emphasize that historians must “repeat”, “reproduce” and “revive” the ideological and spiritual world of historical figures in their own spirit in order to truly grasp the past.
After the Second World War, history showed a trend of social scientization. The development of social scientific historiography has not declined so far, but it is far from exclusive as it was when it was in the limelight. In the view of many historians influenced by social science, people cannot really understand the past without the observation of social theories and the intervention of conceptual tools. It can be said that this kind of thinking also focuses on emphasizing that the intervention from a specific perspective is the only way for people to grasp the past history.
The key point of constructivism’s view of history lies in that historians must intervene in historical research from a specific perspective with their own spiritual experience, theoretical observation and conceptual tools to construct their own historical picture.In sharp contrast to the heavy security of subjectivity in reconstruction theory, in the view of history in constructivism, subjective factors such as historians’ theoretical equipment, ideological height, empathy experience ability, etc., are not the objects of vigilance and prevention, but constitute the elements of historical research.


03

Deconstruction theory


History is the book that people write and call history


When historians write their own research into historical texts, they will inevitably inject their own thinking mode, ideological stand, aesthetic tendency and other factors into them, either explicitly or implicitly.
The historical view of deconstruction theory is actually the historical view of postmodernism, because postmodernism historiography “deconstructs” history and history into pure texts.
Postmodernism has exerted a wide and far-reaching influence on history and historical theory. Hayden White can be said to be a leading figure in postmodern historiography theorists. Let’s look at White’s statement first:History is a “structure of words, the content of which is both discovered and invented to the same extent.”The first half of this remark refers to the finished products produced by the work of historians, that is, historical works and papers, etc. It is a historical text and a language product. In the second half, it is said that the content of this language product includes both discovered and invented components. The “discovered elements” are well understood. History emphasizes not believing without a license and not believing a word or a word. Such elements in historical texts are discovered and found from historical materials and archives. “Invention ingredient” refers to what? Does it mean that there are also fabricated elements in historical texts? Of course not. A historical text, Even though every word of it is based on historical data, They all appear in an objective and neutral manner, but under normal circumstances, when historians study a topic and form their own historical texts, they always select some of the historical materials related to this topic that they may use and abandon the other (often more) parts to form their own historical picture. He always wants to give some facts contained in it a more important position, while putting others in a more marginal position. He will always choose a starting point and an ending point for the historical picture he has established. And so on and so on, to name but a few. These elements of selection, arrangement, processing and shaping are exactly what the word “invention” means.
We can see that White’s attention to history focuses on the characteristics of historical texts. In my opinion, the deconstructive view of history is to textualize history. The so-called textualization has at least the following two implications:
FirstHistorians work on all kinds of historical materials, which are mainly various documents, including archaeological discoveries, palace utensils and other material remains, which can be classified as texts in a broad sense, and eventually they will enter historians’ research in the form of language.The final work products of historians, such as monographs or papers, also appear in the form of language products. In this regard, historians can never really have direct contact with the past itself, but can only speak about the past with the help of various historical texts. Therefore,Textuality is the barrier that historians cannot break away from in all their work.This does not mean that deconstructionists will definitely deny that there was a real past, but what they emphasize is that historians have no direct access to the past, nor can they compare a real past with various historical scenes, thus determining the authenticity of the latter.
SecondHistorians, unlike natural scientists, do not have their own professional language. In White’s words, it can be said that they use “daily educated language”. Due to the opaque nature of daily language or natural language, historical texts cannot truly reproduce the past, and it is impossible to convey the true nature of history to readers without distortion and profit or loss.When historians write their own research into historical texts, they will inevitably inject their own thinking mode, ideological stand, aesthetic tendency and other factors into them, either explicitly or implicitly.Under the appearance of stating facts, historical texts contain factors of choice, imagination and creation. This is exactly the argument to be demonstrated in White’s book Meta-historiography, which laid the theoretical foundation for postmodern historiography. When the textualization of history goes to an extreme, it is not difficult to draw the following conclusion from White’s disciple and historical theorist Hans Kellner: “History is a book that people write and call history”.





What is the true meaning of history


The academic norms accumulated by history in its long-term development process, the constraints of historical materials on historians, various skills to help historians collect and examine historical materials, and the ingenious thinking displayed by historians when establishing their own historical prospects are the foundation of history.
After clarifying the basic ideas of reconstruction theory, constructivism and deconstruction theory, we will look at some passages of several famous contemporary historians and make a brief analysis.
First, let’s look at what Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg said: “Of course, the writing of history is a kind of ‘construction’. We have gathered together the fragments left over from generation to generation over a long period of time in order to create a credible image of the past, but this image is also a ‘reconstruction’. It is this internal tension-the unruly and usually unpredictable interaction between the two principles-that gives historical research a unique nature. ” Ginzburg added that literary form is a filtering mechanism that separates historians’ work from historical materials. In the previous words, Ginzburg meant that construction and reconstruction are not diametrically opposed, but have both tension and interaction. The latter remarks are quite similar to Hayden White’s thinking. This example shows that, on the one hand, there is an internal relationship among reconstruction, construction and deconstruction; On the other hand, although the emergence and development of the above three historical views have a successive historical context, they can also be regarded as “ideal types” in Max Weber’s sense. The position of a specific historian and theorist may not strictly conform to one of them, but these categories can help us effectively grasp various ideas considering the issue of “what is history”.
Then there is the example of American historian Robert Darnton. As for the facts, Darnton said different things on different occasions. He said that all historians should have a period of time to learn to report robberies, murders, rapes and other incidents for newspapers, with only one purpose and must get the facts right. The implication is to remind historians that their research should be restricted by historical reality. However, on other occasions, he added that the so-called facts can only be “presented” to a certain extent.“What you see in the newspaper is not what actually happened, but a report of what happened.”Darnton’s meaning, on the one hand, is that the text is not a direct and transparent reflection of the facts; On the other hand, the restriction and restraint of facts on the text cannot be ignored.
Finally, it is a paradox by Bernard Bellin, an authoritative scholar in American history. He said,History “has never been a science, sometimes an art, and always a skill”.The academic norms accumulated by history in its long-term development process, the constraints of historical materials on historians, various skills to help historians collect and examine historical materials, and the ingenious thinking displayed by historians when establishing their own historical prospects are the foundation of history. What Bellin emphasizes is exactly the characteristic of history as a “skill”.
From the previous analysis and citation, we can draw several simple understandings:
First of all, history is an empirical discipline, but like any other discipline, it needs to constantly carry out conscious theoretical reflection on its own premise presupposition. Secondly, it is necessary for history to maintain sufficient vigilance and humility for its own discipline boundaries. The nature of historians’ work is what. History can and cannot be what. These problems cannot be avoided by historians and need to be considered. Third, historians can only indirectly contact the past through texts, but the restriction and restraint of the real past on historians are constantly displayed through historical materials. When irrefutable historical materials question or subvert their own historical composition, a qualified historian must have the courage to give up his presupposition, which is the most common situation in historical research practice. This shows that, in any case, the past did not lose its utility and significance because of the textual nature of history. Finally, the discipline norms and historians’ skills formed by history for a long time are the sources of its vitality and legitimacy.


Reprinted from Public Number: Research on Historical Theory


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