Interview | Zhang Genghua: Four Difficulties in Historical Theory Research

2020-07-09 | By Historian | Filed in: Culture.

Zhang Genghua: Four Difficulties in Historical Theory Research

On the morning of July 6, 2020, Professor Zhang Genghua from the History Department of East China Normal University gave a video lecture on the theme of “Four Major Problems in Historical Theory Research” online. The lecture was presided over by Professor Dong Lihe from the School of History of Beijing Normal University. This lecture is one of a series of lectures on history in Li Yun Academic Lecture Hall of Beijing Normal University. It is sponsored by the Academic Affairs Department and hosted by the History College. More than 500 teachers and students participated in this wonderful lecture through the online conference platform.

The lecture mainly focused on the theme of “the truth of history”. At the beginning of the activity, Professor Zhang pointed out that the specific content of the lecture was presented in the form of four questions, hoping that the audience would reflect on these questions. Professor Zhang first talked about “the truth of historical facts”. According to Walsh’s theory, to verify the authenticity of historical knowledge is to examine whether it conforms to objective historical facts. However, historical facts must be expressed by language. In other words, the paradox of this “correspondence theory” lies in the fact that historians cannot see reality independent of language and cannot verify historical knowledge. Professor Zhang took “Caesar Crossing the Rubicon River” and “Napoleon Died on May 5, 1821” as examples to further explain this issue, pointing out that the academic circle believes that the statement of a specific historical event has “authenticity”, which actually means that scholars reach a consensus on the statement of a certain issue. In this regard, the first question of the lecture is: Is the “truth” of historical facts consistent with the “truth” or is it the “truth” unanimously recognized and agreed by everyone?

Next, Professor Zhang introduced “the truth of historical narration” with the argument between Hayden White and Eagles. Hayden Hayter thinks that historians can choose to combine literature materials in different arrangement ways, thus forming narratives of different natures. Eagles points out that historians’ narratives on the same problem have common rational standards to follow. Professor Zhang thinks that the targeted confrontation between the two is not obvious. According to Mandelbaum’s point of view, historical narration should be carried out according to the “relevance” of historical events themselves, and should not be far-fetched or arbitrary. Professor Zhang pointed out through the comparison of the writings of different historians on the “Hu Weiyong Case” that among the completely different narratives formed for specific events, it is difficult for readers to determine which narratives have “authenticity” or both have “authenticity”? Can their “authenticity” be compared? In this regard, the second question of the lecture is: Is there a “true” distinction between different historical narratives? If so, how to distinguish?

Later, Professor Zhang talked about causal interpretation and the “truth” of theoretical propositions. Professor Zhang pointed out, taking “Caesar’s Death” as an example, that historians need to seek the causes of the events from the appearance of the events to the depth of history, while the causes of historical research cannot be verified. The exploration of cause and effect in history has external margin and internal margin. The former focuses on whether the causes of specific events can be exhausted, while the latter focuses on the ambiguity of the cause and effect proposition in historical theory. In other words, how can the cause and effect proposition in historical research be truly verified? Therefore, the third question of the lecture is: Can the theoretical proposition in history be verified as “true”? Can it evade all kinds of doubts so as not to be refuted?

Finally, Professor Zhang talked about “true understanding” of history. From the perspective of academic history, there are two kinds of “understanding” of history in academic circles. One is to emphasize empathy experience and the other is to emphasize deductive explanation. Professor Zhang’s discussion focuses on the former. By citing the writings of Chen Yinque and Lv Simian, Professor Zhang pointed out that empathy experience includes not only psychological experience, but also the repetition of experience, as well as the imagination and reconstruction of historical scenes. However, this understanding integrates the subjective feelings of the writer and is therefore difficult to duplicate and popularize. Bloch’s experience shows that the historical understanding maintained by individual experience is difficult to exhaust. Therefore, some scholars believe that deductive explanation is more suitable for historical research. However, according to Wu Ze’s Introduction to Historiography, this academic orientation is easy to lead to the disadvantage of “strengthening history as I am”. Therefore, the fourth question of the lecture is: Can the “true understanding” of history be copied? Is “true understanding” endless? At this point, the teaching part of this lecture is over. Professor Zhang hopes to arouse the audience’s thinking through open questions, so he has not given a conclusive answer to each question.

After the lecture, Professor Dong Lihe concluded that “truth” is the most important issue in historical theory and is the foundation and premise for historians to construct discipline beliefs. Through vivid examples in history, Mr. Zhang Genghua revealed the complexity behind “truth” and also showed the charm of historical theory. In the following question-and-answer session, Mr. Zhang Genghua gave detailed answers and responses to the audience’s questions about individual understanding and common understanding, pragmatic view of truth, reading of Lv Simian’s text, scene matching theory, and how understanding and explanation are compatible.

Due to limited time, Mr. Zhang did not answer all the questions raised by the audience at the scene. After the lecture, Teacher Zhang also took time out of his busy schedule to give detailed answers to the students’ 20 questions.

On-line lecture site


Question 1: Can Mr. Zhang talk more about the so-called “laws of historical development”? In general, We can see that when Chinese scholars study western history, they seem to be mostly straightforward, while a few western scholars seem to be constantly deconstructing and constructing new concepts and propositions when discussing Chinese history (such as Neiya, New Qing History, etc.). Is this the preference of historical research methodology or is it more subjective? Is it possible for western historians or ordinary people to understand China’s history, culture and behavior habits through western history books?

Hello, classmate! On the issue of “historical laws”, we can discuss it from two aspects. One is from the ontological aspect, such as whether the development of history is rising, retrogressive or circular. And so on, can also be discussed from the aspect of epistemology, for example, what can be called law? What are the characteristics of historical laws? How to test the historical laws (theoretical propositions) we have summarized? And so on, these two aspects have research value, everyone can choose different research directions according to their own interests or accumulation. As for “when Chinese scholars study western history, it seems that they are mostly plain and straightforward”. My reading experience may be a little different. In fact, besides plain and straightforward, we can also see many writings that use macro theories to interpret western history. It seems that “when western scholars discuss Chinese history (such as Neiya, the new Qing history, etc.), they are constantly deconstructing and constructing new concepts and propositions”, which seems to have little to do with the “law of historical development” asked earlier. As for saying that such research is their “preference for research methodology”, it is not impossible. Western historians or ordinary people, in order to understand China’s history, culture and behavior habits, of course need to increase their understanding by reading Chinese cultural classics, but they can also experience perception through actual observation. This is a bit like what Carl said: use history to understand the present and use the present to understand history.


Question 2: How do you understand that “history is understanding, not judging”? What are the advantages of understanding over judgment? What is the significance of historical understanding?

Hello, classmate! Your question is about “history is understanding, not explanation”? In academic history, there is a long-term debate on whether history is to understand or explain (rather than “is history to understand or criticize?” The debate). The debate on understanding and explanation, and my views, is discussed in a special section in my small book (the truth of history, formerly known as “introduction to philosophy of history”), which can be consulted when I am free. I don’t think the two are opposite, either. For example, Hempel used a case when emphasizing the historical explanation, saying: “Farmers in the dryland of the American prairie moved to California ‘because’ the prolonged drought and raging sandstorms pose a growing threat to their survival, and because California may provide them with better living conditions. This explanation is based on the general assumption that people always migrate to areas that can provide better living conditions. ” If a reader is just thinking about this problem, if our history class is just interpreting this historical event and its reasons, the reader can read the historical event and its reasons according to Hempel’s explanation, and the history teacher can also explain its reasons to the students in this way. However, if readers or students want to truly understand the principle that “population always migrates to areas that can provide better living conditions”, they still need to have certain experience or experience: a reader or student who is not deeply involved in the world and has simple experience can only learn this principle externally, but cannot really understand its meaning. Only when he has a certain life experience, preferably living in arid and dusty areas such as prairie for a period of time, can he be said to have a true understanding of this principle and the reasons for historical events. General assumptions such as “people always migrate to areas that can provide better living conditions”, Or is it a principle close to common sense and easy to understand, Others, such as “bad coins drive out good ones” (often used to talk about the history of Chinese currency or the monetary reforms of past dynasties), “over-densification theory” (often quoted to talk about why commercialization in Ming and Qing Dynasties could not lead to modernization), etc., are more abstract and difficult, and only with considerable experience or reference experience can they be truly understood. Therefore, rather than discussing who is more important and who is more effective and reliable, “understanding” and “explanation” are like the wings of a bird and the two wheels of a car, both of which are indispensable. As the saying goes, “If we combine, we will have two beauties; If we leave, we will have two injuries”


Question 3: Recently, the late student is reading the relevant collected works of Mr. Lv Simian and writing the relevant graduation thesis. As the collator and publisher of the collected works of Mr. Lv Lao, do you have any suggestions in reading the works of Mr. Lv Lao? How should it be applied?

Hello, classmate! My suggestions are as follows: 1. Pay attention to the edition of Mr. Lv Simian’s various writings. Although Mr. Lu’s writings are not ancient books, there are also problems in edition that need to be paid attention to. Generally speaking, the books and papers published during the Republic of China were not abridged although there were also typos and corrigenda. Since the 1980s, many of Mr. Lu’s writings, which have been reprinted or even reprinted in new versions, have been edited to some extent. For example, “History of Chinese System” has been edited by tens of thousands of words, and “Reading Notes of Lv Simian” has also been edited in many places. Therefore, it is best to use the Complete Works of Lv Simian recently published by Shanghai Ancient Books Publishing House (all abridged places will be corrected and restored). 2. Pay attention to some biographical materials or writings about Mr. Lv Simian. In this respect, there are “Chronology of Mr. Lv Simian” (Volume 26 of the Complete Works of Lv Simian) and “Chronology of Mr. Lv Simian”. The Complete Works also include Mr. Lv’s theory of time, old articles, poems, miscellaneous notes, etc., which are all materials that can be consulted during research. 3. Mr. Lv Simian has written a lot and his research scope is very wide. It is suggested to choose a certain aspect to do some thematic research, even in the special topic, and then take a certain small fragment and problem for research, which is easier to start with and grasp.


Question 4: May I ask Mr. Zhang, how do you view the “truth” in middle school history teaching?

As far as today’s lecture is concerned, we are involved in two kinds of historical truth, one is about the truth of historical statements one by one, for example, something happened in a certain year and month; The other is the truth of historical narration, such as a whole narrative about the prosperous time of Emperor Wu of the Western Han Dynasty. If there is an error (untrue) in the former statement in the textbook, of course, it must be corrected. For example, if something did not happen in that year, the textbook is wrong and needs to be corrected. As for the latter situation, it is more complicated. Usually, the narration about the prosperous times of Emperor Wu of the Western Han Dynasty is unlikely to make mistakes in the materials used. In other words, the historical facts used to describe the prosperous times of Emperor Wu of the Western Han Dynasty are all true. Sometimes, although the materials used in some narratives are real, they only give one side and do not describe the other. We read Records of the Historian, Pingzhun Book, and said: “When it is, the net is sparse and the people are rich, the money in service is arrogant and overflowing, or the people who annex and are proud of the Party will be arbitrary in their hometown songs.” After reading “A General Guide to Zi Zhi”, Dong Zhongshu said: At that time, “the rich are connected with the buildings, the poor are dead and upright, and the benefits of Sichuan and Ze are benefited. The more dissolute and extravagant, the higher the level, the higher the respect of the monarch, and the rich of the public……. The poor often dress in cattle and horses, but eat dogs.” You can see another side of Emperor Wudi’s prosperous time. If you feel that describing the prosperous times of Emperor Wu of the Western Han Dynasty should show many sides, at least not only one side, then you need to make some supplements in teaching so that students can see all aspects of history. The first is to correct. If there are mistakes, they can be corrected. The second is to supplement and supplement different historical aspects. At present, history teaching in middle schools also pays attention to “historical data demonstration”. However, if your teaching is only to repeat the conclusion in the textbook “empirical”, then such “empirical” is still decorative. Of course, for beginners, such repeated “empirical” cannot be said to be meaningless (let students know that any historical conclusion must be based on historical data). I think the above two aspects are the responsibility of history teachers.


Question 5: Teacher, I would like to ask you, is the understanding and use of deduction and induction by western scholars still similar to that of Mr. Wu Ze in recent years?

Thank you for asking! An Introduction to Historiography edited by Mr. Wu Ze was published by Anhui Education Publishing House in 1985. His discussion is not aimed at the discussion of deductive induction by western scholars in recent years. However, this problem has existed for a long time. In the early 1980s, academic circles have noticed the danger of applying deductive method to historical research. Especially after the detours of historical research in the sixties and seventies, people paid special attention to this point. The book has a section on “the supplement of deduction to induction in historical research”, which specifically points out that “deduction cannot be used as the main method of historical research” and “can only be used as a supplementary method of induction”, because history is a specific science and cannot “replace specific research with simple deduction so that complex historical facts can adapt to general principles and formulas”. (Wu Ze Editor-in-Chief: An Introduction to Historiography, Anhui Education Press, 1985, pp. 141 and 144.) “Use simple deduction instead of specific research to adapt complicated historical facts to general principles and formulas”, which is the mistake of “strong history is me” in the historical interpretation commonly criticized. There are many reasons for the mistake of “strong history is on me” in interpretation, one of which has not been paid much attention to by researchers, that is, many theoretical tools used for historical interpretation are obtained through the research of “ideal model” (rather than “induction”). (See Chapter III, Section 8, of the clumsy book “The Truth of History”) According to Li Celtic’s view, the research results (theories) on “ideal models” “only imply opposition to reality, that is to say, point out that the real things anywhere will not be completely consistent with these ideal models sometimes created by historians.” (Li Celtic: “Individuals in History”, compiled by Zhang Wenjie et al.: “Translation Collection of Modern Western Philosophy of History”, Shanghai Translation Publishing House, 1984, p. 28.) Weber also believes that the concept of historical science has obvious epochal and regional characteristics, and there is no eternal and decisive conceptual system, nor is there any objectivity beyond the era and region based on a certain concept. (Wang Yangchong: “Evolution of Modern Western Sociological Thoughts”, East China Normal University Press, 1996, p. 193.) Once you use theoretical tools extracted from “ideal models” to explain history, there will be a “strong history is me” type of explanation error.


Question 6: Teacher, how should the balance between true understanding and interpretation be grasped in specific historical research?

Thank you for asking! As in my reply to the second classmate above, the understanding and explanation should also vary depending on the specific topic. In fact, we always switch naturally due to different objects, and there is no fixed rule. Lv Simian has a reading note on history, “Why don’t you eat minced meat?” It says: “The Book of Jin, Hui Di Ji: When the world is in famine and the people starve to death, the emperor said,” Why don’t you eat minced meat? ” Its hoodwinks are all of this kind. This remark may be suspected to be untrue, but Hui Di’s deception will not be falsely accused. “Jin Shi Sejong Ji”: “Liao Lord heard that the people were short of food, so he said why not eat dried wax?” This remark is similar to Emperor Hui of Jin’s “why not eat minced meat”. The Jin people did not necessarily make this remark to falsely accuse Tianzuo, but Hui Di did not necessarily have this remark. The situation in which a monarch lives is quite different from that of a constant person. Therefore, his opinion cannot be measured by constant reason. He has a balance that is ordinary… while those who see that they are not close to each other regard the monarch as close to each other, they are close to each other. ” (Lv Simian: “Why not Eat Meat Mimi”, “Complete Works of Lv Simian”, Volume 26, pp. 149-150. Province) If readers really want to delve into this kind of historical events that cannot be empathized with according to common sense, they will try to interpret it “with the help of the principles of abnormal psychology”. However, historical events such as Ji Zigao’s refusal to “buy a road and bury it” involve ordinary people’s common feelings. As long as they can feel and experience it according to common sense, it is not necessary to resort to “abnormal psychology” without seeking distance or difficulty. Therefore, Raymond Aaron said well: Understanding and interpretation are two completely different ways of thinking, and they “meet but do not coincide” in historical writing (see: Paul Ricoeur, translated by Wang Jianhua: “Contribution of French Historiography to Historical Theory”, p. 31)


Q7: Hello, teacher. Thank you very much for your speech. I have read some papers about Held this semester and feel that “understanding” this matter has a strong individuality. But is it necessary to raise individuality to a common “understanding”?

Thank you for asking! It is true that the method of understanding has a strong individuality. However, if we affirm that there must be communication and cooperation between people and socialized animals, then understanding needs to be changed from individuality to commonality, at least to a certain extent and within a certain range, understanding and communication between people are needed. For example, this is the case with family life. If everyone in the family sticks to their own individual understanding and refuses to communicate with other family members, how can the family be maintained? Therefore, a certain degree of communication and a certain degree of common understanding are still necessary for life. However, this is not a simple problem of understanding, but a problem of social practice.


Question 8: How do you do, teacher? How do you see the relationship between various changes in historical paradigms (especially in the study of modern Chinese history) and historical research?

Thank you for asking! The term “paradigm” borrows a theory put forward by Thomas Kuhn, an American philosopher of science, in the research field of philosophy of science. The study of the history of historiography or the theory of historiography often uses the concept of “paradigm” to describe the development and evolution of historiography. For example, the history of historiography is divided into different stages such as “capital learning paradigm”, “narrative paradigm” and “structure-functionalism paradigm” (e.g. Yang Yu: “History of Western Historiography”, Jiangxi People’s Publishing House, 1993, pp. 346-348). This is not limited to the specific meaning of Kuhn’s “paradigm” theory, but uses the most common meaning of “paradigm” to express the most general characteristics and changes of historical research methods. Mr. Chen Qineng has a special research in his “Historical Theory and Historical Research” (pages 115-117), which can be seen.

We know that historical knowledge is not the “passive giving” of historians, but his active participation and thinking processing. Active participation means that historians do not come “empty-handed” but with “tools”. The “tools” mentioned here naturally refer to all the thinking tools in historians’ minds. On this point, contemporary scholars have also reached a consensus: knowledge is always carried out and completed under the processing operation of the prior consciousness preparation of the cognizant. Piaget called this kind of pre-consciousness preparation “cognitive schema”, Heidegger called it “pre-understanding structure” and Gadamer called it “prejudice”. Although the terminology is different, the objects it refers to and their properties and functions are basically the same. As far as historical knowledge is concerned, the so-called cognitive schema can be interpreted as a thinking tool for historians to process historical information and form historical knowledge. If historians’ cognitive schema is highly consistent, then this produces the “paradigm” of history. However, unlike the cognitive schema of natural scientists, the internal elements of historians’ cognitive schema are more diverse and complicated (see Li Zhenhong: “On Historians’ Subject Consciousness” and “Historical Research” No.3, 1988): it has not only rational cognitive elements such as knowledge, methods, theories and concepts, but also irrational factors such as historians’ personal character, temperament and feelings. Some of this series of thinking and operation tools are used at the level of textual research, while others are used at the level of understanding historical events or evaluating historical significance. Therefore, it is normal for different historical paradigms and research paradigms to change. If there is only one paradigm for historical research and historical writing, and all the writings written by everyone are the same, how boring it would be!


Q9: Mr. Zhang, thank you for your wonderful lecture, which has yielded a lot of benefits. I have a question. In the theory of truth, there are mainly three propositions: the correspondence theory of truth, the integration theory of truth and the practicality theory of truth. This discusses the theory of correspondence and the theory of consistency, and many people agree with the theory of practicality in historical theory. For example, Hu Shi’s classic assertion that “history is a little girl who can be dressed up”. What does Mr. Zhang think of the practical theory in historical theory?

Thank you for asking! Your question is very good! I do not advocate the use of pragmatism in the study of historical theories. Because in this discipline, there is no natural consistency between truth-seeking and application. Such as in the 1940s, Some Marxist historians in China, in order to meet the needs of the domestic revolutionary struggle, wrote some articles that borrowed the past and said the present, which played a great educational role in the people’s revolution at that time (such as “On the Occurrence of Confucianism”, “The Life of Zeng Guofan, a Traitor and Executioner”, “Yuan Shikai’s Reprint”, “Looking at the Ming Dynasty from the Bottom of Peach Blossom Fan” and “The Eternal Age in the History of the Southern Ming Dynasty”. See Fan Wenlan: Compendium of General History of China (Introduction), Shanghai People’s Publishing House, 1966), which is used to stimulate and publicize the enthusiasm of patriotism and love for the nation. For example, in the 19th century, there was a Prussian school in the field of German historiography. Its representatives, Droy Zeng, Jubel and Trezick, did not hesitate to distort the historical truth in order to “arouse their compatriots to strive hard”. As a result, “they prepared their compatriots for the great change that was completed in 1870 and played a great role”. This is Gucci’s comment in his book History and Historians in the 19th Century. He said: “The members of this school were political teachers during Germany’s depression. They aroused their compatriots to strive hard, and this spirit of struggle finally led to a powerful empire. This school grew up because of the needs of the nation, and when this needs are met, there is no reason for it to exist. If the main purpose of history is to encourage a nation to take action, Droy Zen, Jubel and Trezick should all be among the greatest historians. If the basic purpose of history is to reveal the real situation and explain human activities, then there is no reason to count them as first-class history. ” “These historians served their political views with research and played a great role in preparing their compatriots for the great change that was completed in 1870.” (Gucci: 19th Century History and Historians, Commercial Press, 1989, p. 287) In short, it is very dangerous in history to define “true and false” by “useful and useless”, and I do not advocate its use.


Question 10: May I ask the teacher, how can we trace back whether the contents recorded in historical materials are true?

Tracing back whether the contents of historical materials are true or not, Mr. Chen Yuan has a method of historical origin, that is, tracing the source of historical materials to see its authenticity. There is a “Essay on Chen Yuan’s History and Source Studies”, which can be found and read. It must be very useful. However, tracing the source of historical materials does not guarantee that it is true. For example, we have seen an archive, which is original and cannot trace its source. However, it is not necessarily true, and its records may be false. This requires the use of various textual research in history (such as methods of distinguishing falsehood, etc.) to identify its authenticity. In addition to the authenticity of historical materials, modern historians should also consider the subjectivity of historical materials. Carl in “What is History? He said: “What we know about Greece in the fifth century BC is flawed, not mainly because many parts have been lost occasionally, but because, in general, this description was made by a small number of people in Athens. …… The picture we see is chosen and decided in advance for us, and it is not so much chosen and decided occasionally as by some people. These people, intentionally or unintentionally, are influenced by a specific view and believe that some facts supporting this specific view are valuable for preservation. …… These people knot this point, and ask others to believe this point “. (Carl’s “What is History?”, p. 9) If we pay attention to the 2017 edition of “History Curriculum Standards for Ordinary High Schools”, we will find that such problems have been incorporated into the teaching requirements for “Historical Materials Study” in high school history teaching (published by People’s Education Publishing House in 2018, pp. 39-40). This shows that the study of historical theory still has a positive effect and influence on historical research and history teaching.


Q11: Thank you for your wonderful lecture. I have a question to ask the teacher. You said just now that we should be on guard against “strengthening history is me”. When we write articles on Marxism and look for theoretical basis, we often have to return to Marxist-Leninist classics, but we often feel that we are looking for theories for the sake of looking for theories. How can the teacher grasp them? Thank you, teacher.

Thank you for asking! Marx himself is very alert to the danger of using theory to interpret historical events deductively. Marx has a famous saying, Often quoted, this famous saying goes like this: “He (Heyrovsky) must completely turn my historical overview of the origin of capitalism in Western Europe into a historical and philosophical theory of the general development path. All nations, regardless of their historical environment, are doomed to take this path,… but I want to ask him to forgive me. In doing so, he will give me too much honor and insult at the same time … very similar things, but in different historical environments, they have caused completely different results. If we study each of these development processes separately and then compare them, we will easily find the key to understand this phenomenon. However, using the master key of the general historical philosophy theory, it will never achieve this goal. The greatest strength of this historical philosophy theory lies in its transcendence of history. ” (See Selected Works of Marx and Engels, Volume 3, People’s Publishing House, 1995, p. 340) Therefore, according to my understanding, if we really learn Marx’s thoughts well, there will be no mistake of “strengthening history and taking me”. I am afraid that I am not seeking truth from facts, but I hope to have a “master key” to replace specific historical research, which will lead to the problem of “strengthening history to me”, and even, as Marx said, “giving him too much honor and too much insult at the same time”!


Question 12: Hello, teacher. I would like to ask the teacher: Is there a standard in principle for “true understanding” of history? If only based on documentary records, how should the viewpoints and opinions derived from different experiences be judged to be reasonable and correct in direction?

Several cases used in the lecture all emphasized the connection between literature and experience. Mr. Lv Simian attaches great importance to this point and has repeatedly stressed it. He once said: Learning is in space, not on paper. Reading is to know the phenomena in the universe, which is what the book says. And what is said in the book should also translate him into what he sees in front of him. In this way, the book records, and experience income, contract, is the real knowledge. In the past, people called it “the world is full of knowledge, and the practice of human feelings is the article”, which is indeed reasonable. Knowing this principle, one can invent it with the knowledge one has learned everywhere, and one does not have to tremble in the pile of old papers to make a living. Therefore, the environment for professional youth to do scholarly research is not necessarily worse than that for young people who specialize in studying, which is especially necessary today. (From the Experience of Learning History to the Current Learning Methods, the Learning Environment of Professional Youth, China-US Daily, March 23, 1941)

He added: Reading and observing the facts of the present society are mutually useful, while the latter is far more powerful than the former. Our view of learning is probably based on the current social income and then proved by books. There is absolutely no one who is at a loss to know a certain principle, but who can get it from books. Therefore, one can know whether one can cure a certain kind of knowledge or not before one has cured it. What is its method? First, talk about the facts studied by a certain knowledge. The person who can understand and have interest is the person who can cure this knowledge, otherwise he cannot. (Zhang Zhilian’s Introduction to Historical Theory, Wen Zhe, Volume 1, No.8, 1939)

Another great historian, Mr. Qian Mu, also said in the section “How to Study Social History” in his “Chinese History Research Law”: “To study social history, one should start from the current real society in which one lives. “Historical Tradition” is the record of the past society, while “Current Society” is the Zhang Ben of this history. All in history is the past society, while all in society is the present history. To look at society from this point of view, some customs have been passed down for thousands of years, and … society is the current destination of the historical process. “He urged scholars studying social history to” never immerse themselves in the library behind closed doors to find written materials. ” It is mainly to obtain vivid real images from the living real society. “He called this kind of real images” a historical gobbledygook without words. In addition, all historical books are only “gobbledygook with characters”. The value of gobbledygook with words cannot far exceed that of gobbledygook without words. “(Complete Works of Mr. Qian Binsi, Volume 31, Chinese History Research Law, pp. 55, 53 and 54)

The reason why I have quoted so many discussions is that I also want to emphasize the importance of opening up documents and experiences in historical thinking and opening up the past and the present. As for the principle of use, it is the principle of analogical reasoning. The connection between the past and the present, the connection between literature and experience, is analogical reasoning in method. How to ensure that analogical reasoning does not miss, it is necessary to follow the principle of analogical reasoning in the application of methods. This is specially discussed in some “logic” and “methodology” writings.


Question 13: How do you do, Mr. Zhang? What should we pay attention to in the study of historical logic? How to find the logical main line of the research object? For example, the historical logic of the evolution of certain concepts.

The word logic, in common terms, is a rule. For example, the logic of thinking is to talk about the rules of thinking, but also the rules of thinking. Broadly speaking, logic also refers to laws in general. In this way, there are laws of thinking and objective historical laws. Among the writings on historical methodology, there are special discussions on “historical methods and logical methods”. The former emphasizes concrete and historical research objects, while the latter emphasizes typical and abstract research objects. Historical research should unify historical methods with logical methods. The above-mentioned “Introduction to Historiography” edited by Mr. Wu Ze has a special section to discuss this pair of methods and how to use them. I used this book as a textbook in those days, but my understanding stayed at this level and there was no progress later. It is suggested that you look for this book first, and then on this basis, do more in-depth thinking, perhaps you can write a good paper on historical theory.


Q14: Hello, Mr. Zhang. I would like to ask a question about historical narration. You mentioned that “historians can write different historical narratives on the basis of the same historical facts” and the problem of seeking truth in history. Personally, I think it is impossible to seek truth purely. Because we have time and space that cannot be crossed from the past, and the history left behind by the past is invisible and intangible. We can only re-understand it through words and some cultural relics. Therefore, the purpose of historical research itself is not to seek truth. Just as all history is contemporary history. The writing history of our contemporary people always bears the unique ideas and marks of an era. We choose historical materials and carry out historical narration, which is usually selective. Because no scholar can use all historical materials. Therefore, teacher Qian Chengdan believes that “writing history is a creative process of human wisdom. It is not a simple restoration or a simple return to truth. Writing history is a combing of the human past and a selection and discrimination of the human past”.

Thank you for your question! I remember that at an academic conference, Mr. Liu Jiahe of Beijing Normal University put forward the “truth, goodness and beauty” of history in his speech at the conference, that is, history requires not only truth, but also goodness and beauty. This is a point of view that is very precise and worthy of our in-depth consideration. What you said “the purpose of historical research is not to seek truth” is easily misunderstood as “not to seek truth” and “not to seek truth”. I think it should be expressed as “the purpose of historical research is not only to seek truth”, but also “to seek goodness” and “to seek beauty”. You have quoted Mr. Qian Chengdan’s “selection” and “judgment”, which are “seeking good” and “seeking beauty”.


Question 15: How do you do, Mr. Zhang? How can we better combine the historical theory of Party history with specific historical research in the process of writing academic papers?

History has many branches of research, such as economic history, political history, ideological history, etc. Each branch has many categories, which can also be said to be small branches, such as economic history, monetary history, price history, etc. Each branch of research, of course, will have theories about its field. For example, the theory of economic history is of great significance to the study of economic history. We can take it as the starting point for further research. Sometimes we can use specific economic history cases to verify some theories, including correcting some wrong theories. However, if your research is to examine a certain era in history or to study the sentence reading of a certain document, then I cannot see any combination of the theories of economic history with your research. The same is true of economic history, political history and the party history you asked.


Question 16: Hello, Mr. Zhang. Your lecture was very wonderful. I would like to ask, if it is impossible to admit historical facts and the understanding of historical facts is the “truth” that everyone has always recognized, can it be classified as agnosticism in philosophical epistemology? Do you philosophically agree with agnosticism or agnosticism?

I have also written about the knowability and unknowability of history before, entitled “Some Thoughts on the Knowability of History”, which was published in the 2nd issue of Journal of Xuchang Teachers College in 1993. This topic is not a three-word and two-language judgment between knowable and unknowable. I am not satisfied with my article today, but I have no interest in studying it any more. If you are interested in this issue, you can take clumsy writing as the object of thinking and criticism and do further research. Because it is a little far from the topic of today’s lecture, I will not start here.


Q17: Teacher Zhang, thank you very much for your explanation. Can you tell me your opinion on the theory of matching scenes?

The theory of matching scenes was put forward by Walsh and discussed in detail in his Philosophy of History-Introduction. The theory of matching scenes affirms that the historical knowledge formed according to different concepts and different interpretation standards can become the true knowledge that conforms to their own facts and reality, but this true knowledge “is by no means the absolutely objective knowledge in the way required by scientific theories”. Can we go further on the basis of the theory of matching scenes? Walsh also made an analysis of this. He said: In his view, the only choice is that we should hope to finally obtain a unique historical view, a set of premise assumptions that all historians may be ready to accept. If this is possible, history can form a historical “universal consciousness” and develop a standard way of thinking on historical themes to solve it.

Walsh added: History (at least ideally) is a set of definite truths that are true to anyone. In my opinion, this is both true and not true. If the facts quoted by a historian are exact and credible, they are not his personal property in any sense, rather than the kind of things that every rational person must agree to if he conducts an investigation. The French Revolution broke out in 1789. It was not true to the French people who opposed the British, or to those who supported the French Revolution, but not to those who hated it. It is just a fact, whether we like it or not. (Philosophy of History-Introduction, p. 181)

Here, Walsh also seems to be sure that the statement “broke out in 1789” can be unanimously recognized by everyone, so it seems that statements such as “broke out in 1789” or “died in 1821” are not suitable for the interpretation of scene matching theory? In fact, statements such as “broke out in 1789” or “died in 1821” are generally recognized and accepted because everyone uses a common and consistent dating method. If the chronology methods are different, there will be different statements for the same time node, and there will also be “truth” of statements that can only form relative to different presenters, as the scene matching theory said. For example, regarding the chronology of the end of the Qin Dynasty, we can see four different statements (the chronology of the Qin Dynasty, the chronology of the Han Dynasty, the chronology of the AD, and the chronology of the Qin Dynasty). Each of them uses their own chronology methods, which are in line with the historical facts in their hearts. This can also be interpreted by “scenery matching theory”. The ending date of Qin Dynasty is quite complicated. Please refer to the clumsy article “On the Definition of” Truth “in Historical Statements-Verifying Mandelbaum’s Viewpoint” (Tianjin Social Sciences, No.3, 2020)


Question 18: How can the teacher tell whether a paper is a paper that is exhausted and then concluded, or whether he has ideas before looking for materials to prove it?

Thank you for asking! If we study a specific small topic, theoretically it is best to talk about the exhaustion of relevant historical materials and the fishing. As far as the research of some topics is concerned, we can do the exhaustion of historical materials and the fishing, because the discovered historical materials are always limited. However, if your research topic is relatively large, it is impossible to exhaust your resources and fish. When it comes to the method of induction, it is naturally impossible to exhaust the “individual” required for induction and fish. Generally, it is enumeration induction and statistical induction. For example, “those who win the hearts of the people gain the world, while those who lose the hearts lose the world” is the result of enumeration and induction. As for “ideas” and “materials”, it is not who comes first and who comes later. The “ideas” come only after reading the materials. Not looking at “materials” is to think out of thin air. However, “materials” are also guided by “thoughts”. How do you know this is “materials” without “thoughts”? What is Karl’s History? The first chapter of the book (pages 26-27) once said that the relationship between “reading” and “writing” is roughly similar to the question you raised. See.


Question 19: Hello, Mr. Zhang. You mentioned the examples of Chen Yinque and Bloch in the lecture. Mr. Chen Yinque mentioned that his wartime experience enabled him to have a deeper understanding of the historical events of the Song Dynasty. Can this understanding based on life experience really conform to the historical truth?

The cases of Mr. Chen Yinque and French historian Bloch were used in the lecture, because both involved “the experience of war” and were far from our experience. Therefore, I chose Mr. Lv Simian’s “Buying a Road and Burying” as an example, because this case is relatively close to our experience. Therefore, I said: Anyone who has “witnessed” or “experienced” things such as the law that is not responsible for the public but cannot abolish the law can make an “empathy” analogy between the documentary records and his own experience after reading Lu’s interpretation. At this time, you have a “sympathetic understanding” of Ji Zigao’s refusal to “buy a way and bury”. However, a primary and secondary school student may not have an understanding background for “the law does not blame the public”. Even if he explains these texts and cases one by one in class, he can only understand them literally and on paper, and the real understanding still depends on his future life experience and experience. In this sense, understanding cannot be simply copied.

Regarding Bloch’s case, Bloch said that although he had read and written books on war before, he did not really understand it. The “true understanding” here cannot be interpreted literally. Comparatively speaking, the latter is more “real” and “profound” than the former, both of which are true understandings, but there still seems to be some difference. For example, the above-mentioned “the law does not blame the public and cannot abolish the law and other things”. Although I do not serve as a “city governor” like Ji Zigao, I still often see such things. For example, there are many illegal buildings in the community where I live, which is certainly illegal. However, if the number is too large, it is a bit “the law does not blame the public” and the relevant departments cannot deal with it. However, if someone wants to build illegal buildings, the relevant departments will go out and inform (not allowed), otherwise it is tantamount to acquiescing that illegal buildings are legal. With such experience, I can really understand the reason why Ji Zigao refused to “buy a way and bury” and achieve a “true understanding”. If a few years later, like Ji Zigao, I also became the “mayor of the city” and met or dealt with “such things as” the law does not blame the public but cannot abolish the law “, at this time, my understanding of historical events will be deeper and more real. I am afraid this difference in the degree of” truth “is also unique to history. This is worth pondering! I wonder if you agree?


Q20: On the issue of understanding, we often see some articles written as “understanding of sympathy” and “sympathy of understanding”. Is there any difference between the two?

Indeed, these are the two writing styles we often see. Sometimes there seems to be no strict distinction between the context in which we read them. However, according to my understanding, there should be a strict distinction between the two and they cannot be confused. As far as the interpretation of historical figures and events is concerned, “sympathetic understanding” should literally be interpreted as: understanding a historical figure by holding the same feelings and feelings as him. “Compassion for understanding”, literally interpreted, should be: holding the same feelings, feelings, etc. as a historical figure or an event due to their understanding. The two should not be confused. For example, in the history of the Middle Ages in the West, there was a popular “fire sentence law” because people generally held the idea that innocent people would not be burned by fire. Therefore, one way to judge whether a person has committed a crime is to place red-hot iron blocks on the ground and let him walk through them. If he is scalded, he is guilty, and if he does not hurt his skin, he is innocent. This is a matter of history. If we knew the belief that they generally held at that time, we would understand this “Fire Punishment Law”. However, this is only understanding and cannot be equated with expressing sympathy for it because of understanding-the same feeling, the same feeling, and even agreeing to it, believing that this “fire sentence ruling law” should still be adopted today. Collingwood did not clearly discuss the difference here. He said: Historians are not God, looking at the world from above or from the outside world. He was a person and a local person of his own at that time. He looks at the past from the point of view of the present, and he looks at other countries and civilizations from his own point of view. This view is only valid for him and those in similar situations. But for him, it works. He must stick to this view, because it is the only one he can accept, and unless he has a view, he cannot understand anything. The judgment on the achievements of the Middle Ages is bound to be different according to the historian’s 18th century, 19th century or 20th century. In the 20th century, we knew how these things were viewed in the 18th and 19th centuries, and we knew that their views were not what we could share. We call them historical mistakes, and we can point out the reasons for abandoning them. (Collinwood, The Concept of History, p. 123.) To paraphrase Collinwood, we know the views and reasons of the medieval people who adopted the “fire sentence law”, but we must clearly realize that “their views and reasons are not the views and reasons we can share.” This is very important. Therefore, “understanding of sympathy” is also written as “sympathy of understanding”, which I think cannot be mixed.


This article is reprinted from the public number: Western Historical Theory Reading Workshop


Comments are closed here.