“The Languages of History”
Let us begin with a dreamperhaps a nightmare: we dream that we are wandering through interminable corridors flanked by shelves tightly packed with books, collections of periodicals, and reprints. After a while we fear that we have been trapped in Jorge Luis Borges' "total Library," but we are relieved to discover that the Library is surrounded by walls. The Library is not infinite, but it is nonetheless colossal. It has to be because it holds all the writings thus far produced that can be filed under the label "History," with as many sublabels as needed. We shall give it a name: the "Herodotus Memorial Library," or HML for short.
In order to avoid messing things up more than necessary, I propose to adopt a variant of Occam's rule. I will call it "Sallustius' Scissors" (in honor of one of the most concise historians than I know of). My rule has two sections: 1. 'History' is to be understood as 'human history'history of human beings and of their achievements no less than of their more abundant failures. Therefore, we will allow in the HML no writings about subjects such as "Natural History"although we will permit, of course, histories of human research in the field of Natural History. 2. HML will be strictly historiographical. It will hold only historical writings, namely pieces written by historians, whether professional or amateur. It may hold lists of such writings, or bibliographies of historical writings, but not materials which historians may have used, or could use, to write their pieces. The proper application of rule 2 may require a few guidelines, for it may not always be perfectly clear whether we are dealing with "historical writings" or with "materials for writing history." Is an autobiography a historical writing or is it a material for historiography? Obviously, it could be both. On the other hand, it may be safely assumed that documents, scrolls, sermons, political speeches, baptismal records, inscriptions, lists of archeological findings, and so on will not be a part of the HML. The same happens a fortiori with films, records, videocasettes, and objects such as jars, clothes, or pieces of furniture.
Even with the help of Sallustius' Scissors, the HML will probably be enormous in size and bewildering in variety. It will contain chronicles (which are descriptions, often rather detailed and sophisticated, of historical events), histories of all kinds of human communities (tribes, nations, races, political parties, religious associations and churches, social classes); histories of particular periods in the life and development of such human communities, histories of interrelations among at least some of them; histories of so-called "ages" (the "Age of Reason"), diplomatic history, undiplomatic history, histories of institutions, revolutions, wars, peace treaties; histories of counties, cities, villages, hamlets, and so on. To be sure, the HML will also contain histories of specific human activities: politics, economics, agriculture, industry, technology, art, religion, science, with any number of subdivisionsfor philosophy, history of logic or of epistemology; for science, history of physics or biology; for art, history of literature or music. Needless to say, it will contain histories in which the various possible subject matters will be combined; we shall have one or two histories of Indian logic, one or two of Hungarian folkmusic, one, at least, of Sicilian architecture between 1415 and 1567. The subject matter can be made as varied as possible; we shall have histories of superstitions, of the struggles against superstitions, of fashions, gardening, nursery rhymes, bad poetry, culinary arts, burlesque, and so on. Historical writings themselves will not escape the tentacles of historiography. A reasonable portion of the HML will be devoted to histories of historiography, and when there will be enough of them, a section will be added with histories of such histories, and, of course, bibliographies of all of them, plus bibliographies of such bibliographies, and thus ad infinitum, if not ad nauseam.
In view of this stupendous variety, we begin to have doubts about the pertinency or practicality of any subject matter called "History," regardless of how minutely it is specified. Would it not be more sensible to organize our other nonhistoriographical Libraries in as many sections or branches as needed, with subsections called "History of . . . " appended to each one? Thus, if we have a section devoted to, say, astronomy, we will reserve a subsection for the History of Astronomy; If we have a section called "Sri Lanka," we will have sections reserved for the history of Sri Lanka, for the history of its political institutions, of its music, and of its literature. 'History' will mean only some description and/or explanation of "what has happened" in the area, community, or field considered.
The problem is that historians can claim that their activity is perfectly legitimate and not necessarily ancillary to any other, so that they have their own problems to discuss and their own methodologies to fight over. The fact that such problems are not always easy to solve, and such methodologies are the subject of major disputes, is not a sufficient reason to do away with historiography as a major undertaking. History may not be, as the ancients claimed, one of the Muses, but it is the name of a full-fledged discipline needing its own library organization. How it should be organized is, if course, an internal problem of historiography. Some have claimed that historiography can be divided into two kinds of undertakings: one might be "history at large"meaning mostly "total history of a community"; the other one would be "specialized history"meaning "history of some particular aspect of a community or of some particular human activity." How to relate specialized history with total history is a historian's perennial quandary. The more philosophically-minded historians adopt, consciously or unconsciously, what in older times was acknowledged as a world view, with heavy emphasis, as the case might be, on politics, economics, or ideas. The philosophically more cautious historians adopt some kind of "parameter," like the so-called "mentality." "Total history," however, remains an ideal, for there is no end in the series of possible "views," "parameters," or "contexts." Not even Montalliou is a total history of Montalliou, since it presupposes a number of historical contextsfor instance, the context of the history of the Cathar heresy, which itself presupposes the context of Christian heresies at large. Hence some historians acknowledge that historical writings are inevitably specialized: a history of Greek geometry is a history of Greek geometry, and a history of Flemish painting is a history of Flemish painting. Whatever historians decide to do, however, there seems little doubt that their labors issue in a certain kind of discipline or intellectual undertaking, which is not to be confused with any of the natural sciences and not to be reduced to any of the social sciences, despite its close relations with the latter. In a way, historiography is, as earlier suggested, an appendage to each one of the sciences. In some other way, however, it encompasses all sciences, since all of them have a history. Thus, our HML is still worth maintaining, if only in our imagination. The problem is to know what kinds of writings it should hold.
To this we can answer by telling the truth, only the truth and nothing but the truth: "The HML should contain all manner of historical writings," but this is true only because it is so trivial. In order to say something which is both true and substantive, we must follow another path.
Philosophers, who either like to meddle in everything or else remain completely aloof, have in their more approachable moods given a host of answers to the question: "What is history?" both speculatively, in the sense of "What is the reality (or meaning) of history?" and methodologically, in the sense here elucidated of "What is history writing, or historiography?" To that effect, they have written abundantly about such things as the structure of historical facts, the possibility or impossibility of historical laws, the nature of historical explanation, and so on. Also, they have discussed often "what" is, or at times "who" is, the subject of historyfor instance, great men (as Carlyle asserted) or "little men" (as Tolstoy claimed). They have spoken at length about whether civilizations exist and if so how many there are, and about whether history is progressive, degenerative, or merely repetitive. They have even concocted a discipline called "philosophy of history," which they have classified into two kinds: analytical, formal, and critical, or synthetic, material and speculative, with plenty of debates concerning the legitimate or illegitimate character of each one of these "philosophies." Above all, they have come up with ideas of their own about what historians "should do." Among their proposals, I select the following:
No doubt, each of the above proposals has some merit, particularly when, as it often happens, each is duly qualified. Thus, we can refine law-covering models until we gain a reasonable explanation of sets of historical facts or we can use idiographic procedures as starting points for further generalizations. We can also build all kinds of bridges between the method called "explanation" and the method called "understanding," until we come to the conclusion that these two methods, are not as mutually exclusive as was originally proclaimed.
Now, all these proposals, even the most open-minded and least dogmatic, have a flawthe very same flaw, I am afraid, that makes philosophers tick. They are all aimed at providing historians with rules, or at least with suggestions, for the "proper writing of history." The trouble is that historians perform their task without consulting philosophers of history, whether analytic or speculativemuch in the same way as scientists perform their tasks without elaborate epistemological analyses. It seems to me that we should begin with a declaration of trust: historians know what they are doing, and normally they do it in the best possible way. We should, therefore, scrutinize their procedures and eventually draw from them some philosophical consequences. This I will do by means of an examination of "the languages of history," that is to say, of historiography, or historical writing. The plural of the word 'languages' is essential here. Historians use, and are entitled to use, many different kinds of languages, namely, "many different kinds of linguistic expressions." In point of fact, any kind of expression used (in good faith) by any reputable historian I will consider as a good example of "historical language."
Now, when we read historical works, we begin to realize that, out of the many kinds of linguistic expressions which historians use, three can be singled out for distinction. I will group them under the names "Language I," "Language II," and "Language III." Before I sketch in what each one of these "languages" consists, I wish to make two preliminary remarks.
I will provide three examples of each of the "languages of history (or historiography)" and examine some of their interesting features.
Examples of Language I:
Bismarck's Elms Dispatch was made public on June 12, 1870.
(a) In historiography, these statements seem to play a role similar to that played in some of the natural sciences by such expressions as 'Heavy water boils at 104 degrees Celsius,' or 'Gelandine has small yellow flowers.' Nevertheless, there is an important difference between the two types of statements. Scientific statements of the kind introduced above contain names of classes of objectsor, as in the case of 'heavy water,' so-called "mass terms." On the other hand, historical statements in Language I normally contain names of particulars and directly refer to particular events.
(b) The "form" of historical statements in Language I seems to be closer to that of statements like, "The distance between the Earth and the moon at time t is 201.213 miles.' Although this distance may, as it were, recur periodically, the statement concerning this distance refers to a particular fact (or event) determined by time t. Yet, whereas 'The distance between the earth and the moon at time t is 201.213 miles' can serve to describe the initial conditions of a system, none of the three historical examples adduced describe initial conditions of any system.
(c) All the statements mentioned, both historical and scientific, can be verified or, as the case may be, falsified. The ways of verifying historical statements are, however, different from the modes of verification, or falsification, of many scientific statements of the type indicated. It has been said, mostly by adherents of the theory-laden doctrine in philosophy of science, that scientific verifications and/or falsifications take place within a certain context, and, at any rate, are carried on with the help of instruments which in turn presuppose the acceptance of some scientific theory. In this sense, there seems to be some similarity between some kinds of scientific statements and historical statements in Language I. This similarity is accentuated whenever theory-laden doctrinaires conflate a scientific theory with some form of hermeneutics. Two points, however, are worth noticing. First, doctrines about theory-ladenness can be interpreted in several ways. To say that a scientific theory determines what is to be counted as a fact does not always necessarily imply that facts ensue from scientific theories; it may simply mean that we can speak of facts only by means of some theory. Second, scientific theories need not be equated with hermeneutics. What counts as a fact in historiography is some historical context, not a hermeneutical view of facts, or assumed facts.
(d) The examples of Language I state events which, for the time being, are only presented as such. They are descriptive through and through. In order to make a pertinent statement we may need to be acquainted with a great deal of historical knowledge, but the statement does not say (or intend to say) more than what it says. We do not know what prompted Bismarck to make public the Elms Dispatch on June 12, 1870, although we are certain that he had reasons to do what he did when he did it. The reasons, however, will not alter the fact in the least.
(e) The three historical examples adduced are, even grammatically speaking, "simple." However, this does not make them similar to what some philosophers called "atomic facts," not even to "historical atomic facts." "Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453" may be said to refer to: some particular group of Turks; each one of the invading Turks; each one of the defenders of Constantinople; each one of the weapons used for the attack and for the defense, as well as to a great multiplicity of events which took place at the time of Constantinople's fall (although there is, or was, no particular moment when this city actually "fell"). Historical examples in Language I may refer to some collection of facts, which we simplify, and abbreviate by means of one, and only one, statement.
Examples of Language II:
Bismarck's policy caused (at least "indirectly") the 1870 Franco-Prussian War.
(a) Straightforward verification, or falsification, of these, and similar statements, is not possible. If we must speak of verification, or falsification, it is always as an indirect procedure. Events may be related in such ways that the statement "Bismarck's policy caused the 1870 Franco-Prussian War" then becomes true, or at least highly probable. Written documents, as well as accounts of decisions and actions undertaken by Philip II, contribute to certify that this King defended the Catholic Church, or faith, against Great Britain. If anyone asserts that he did not, he will be in deep trouble from a historian's point of view. Yet, intentions also have to be taken into account here, and often these intentions are merely the subject of more or less clever guesses. That the fall of Constantinople marked the end of the Byzantine Empire is a "fact"consisting of a great number of factswhich is ascertained whenever we look at what remained of the Byzantine Empire after Constantinople's fall (more remained than what has been generally assumed). If we still wish to use the "verificationist" language, we can say that we have in these examples not simple, or one-to-one, but multiple, that is to say, one-to-many, many-to-one, and many-to-many verifications. The data used in these verifications are more complex than the ones used in the verification of statements in Language I. Indeed, not only do we have to cope with "facts," but also, and above all, with intentions, demographic data, ideological struggles, economic conditions and relations, etc.
(b) As suggested by the examples, the statements in Language II can be of various kinds. Language II does not stand to Language I as an "explanatory language" stands to a "descriptive language." On the other hand, all statements in Language II have something in common: they exhibit varying degrees of "generality" in contrast with the particular, seemingly irreducible, character of statements in Language I. Statements in Language II do not emerge as a consequence of inductive generalizations of statements in Language I. Actual historical writing, at any rate, does not consist in stating facts in succession (mainly, chronological) simply in order to reach at the end some "general conclusion." Thus, we may describe the royal decrees of Philip II, Antonio Pérez's confrontation with the King, the construction of the Armada, etc., and still not be able to conclude that Philip II defended the Catholic Church, or faith. To defend a Church, or a faith, is neither a singular fact nor is it a generalization of singular facts. It is rather a state of affairs which, of course, singular facts may prove or disprove. Similarly, "causes" are not facts, but ways of relating facts.
(c) Whereas a statement in Language I is not equivalent to any other statement in the same language, there may be some degree of equivalence among a number of statements in Language II. I am not talking about "logical equivalence," but rather about some degree of ''alternatively" which makes some statements mutually "comparable." Thus, the statement "Bismarck's policy caused the 1870 Franco-Prussian War," is in this sense equivalentor "comparable"to the statement "Bismarck's policy disrupted the political balance of power prevailing in Western Europe around 1870," for although the balance of power could have been disrupted by means other than the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, this war must be understood in very intimate relation with the aforementioned "disruption of the political balance of power." Indeed, some statements in Language II function as different ways of speaking about the same historical process. Hence, statements in Language II are subject to constant dispute and revision, but it is doubtful that historical writing would be possible, or at any rate interesting, without them.
Examples of Language III:
The 1870 Franco-Prussian War revealed the unity of Europe paradoxically manifested by means of a series of internal economic conflicts and ideological tensions.
(a) Some very controversial terms'unity, ' 'internal conflict,' 'ideological tension,' 'decadence,' 'bastion of Ancient Culture,' are introduced here and some others, like 'lack of unity,' 'disintegration,' 'progress,' etc., are implied. It may be contended that these terms should be banned from historiography, but it may be also argued that the absence of these, and similar terms, would leave deplorable gaps in the description of the history of any human community. Since I have taken as a point of departure the normal procedures of historians, I consider that these terms are acceptable, even if I am inclined to believe that they should be used parsimoniously.
(b) These statements can never be verified by means of documents, or even by means of declarations of intentions expressed in documents because in the latter case such declarations of intentions are already interpretations of a historical event or process. Indeed, these statements may not be verifiable, or falsifiable, at all.
(c) Most of the terms introduced in Language III are "value terms." This does not mean that they are necessarily arbitrary; it only means that they should be approached the way we approach a blinking red light at a dangerous crossroad: with extreme caution. No doubt, these terms, and the pertinent statements, are interpretive, although not more than words such as 'vocation,' 'abulia,' or 'enthusiasm,' in a biography of a human individual. 'Interpretation,' on the other hand, should not be an object of fear, at least in historical writing. In point of fact, there is already interpretation, albeit of a more subdued kind, from the very beginning of any historiographic enterprise. As E. H. Carr has pointed out:
Assuming that there can be several "languages of history"the ones I proposed or someone else's choicethe question is how can they be related. We may, of course, claim they cannot be related at all, so we will end by solving the problem of their assumed relation via the time-honored trick of declaring that it is a pseudo-problembut then we are left with a distinction which is totally inoperative and which may be a pseudo-distinction. Obviously, since I proposed a distinction between "three languages," I am presupposing that they can be mutually related. Now, there are at least three ways in which a relation can be established. I will call these ways "the positivist," "the hermeneutical," and for lack of a better word, "the recursive." Each has two versions: a strong one and a weak one.
The positivist way in its strong version consists in denying that there can be a relation since there is, in fact, nothing to relate. The only acceptable historical language is Language I, which is entirely descriptive and tells, in Ranke's term, wie es Wirklich gewesen ist, or in Walter Cronkite's lingo, "That's the way it is (or was)" (neither Ranke nor Cronkite, for different reasons, are faithful to their respective slogans).
The weak version of the positivist way asserts that if the three languages of which I spoke are accepted at all, the second must be founded upon the first, and the third must be founded upon the second, while the first has no foundation whatsoever except "hard facts." Most positivists would accept only Language I (to describe initial conditions) and one form of Language II (to formulate laws, mostly from probabilistic laws). Some positivists, already on the verge of collapsing from their original stance, would allow Language III as well, but only as a kind of "regulatory language," pragmatically justifiable in so far as it may permit us to "get some sense" out of some facts.
The hermeneutic way admits all the three languagesindeed, it may admit many more, perhaps the more the better. In its strong version, hermeneutics is the exact opposite of positivism. Hence, it expresses an undeniable preference for Language III. After all, hermeneutics is the most sophisticated form of any interpretive method. Hence, from the point of view of the hermeneutic way, in its strong version, interpretation rules explanation and description. Strong versions of hermeneutics are like strong versions of "holism": in them "the true is," as Hegel put it, "the whole."
Weak versions of hermeneutics are twofold. On the one hand, a practitioner of hermeneutics may confine himself to maintain that wholes and parts do not exhibit a one-to-one, but rather a one-to-many relation; the same historical wholes may persist throughout a variety of facts, or descriptions. On the other hand, a practitioner of hermeneutics may strongly emphasize what has been called, since Heidegger, "the hermeneutic circle"; an understanding of the whole presupposes an understanding of the parts, whereas an understanding of the parts presupposes an understanding of the whole. In our vocabulary, statements in Language I presuppose statements in Language III, while the latter cannot be formulated without the formerwith Language II serving perhaps as a go-between.
In the case of the recursive way, the strong version should be construed as a "strict version," and the weak version should be considered as a "loose" or "informal" version. The strict meaning, or meanings, of 'recursive' has little, if any, application to our problem. I am not concerned here with recursive definitions, recursive functions, or recursive number theory. On the other hand, a "loose," "informal," or less strictly defined meaning of 'recursive' may be of some help. 'Recursive' is then the name of a procedure which, as Douglas R. Hofstadter indicates, has its analogue in the "push, pop, and stack," or "push-down stack" operations. Roughly, it consists in the possibility of suspending or postponing, a task in favor of another. In a sense close to the strict definition of 'recursive,' the second task is often, as Hofstadter points out, "a simpler task, often of the same type." But we may enlarge this conception of "suspending, or postponing, a task" by assuming that the task undertaken in lieu of the original one may be simpler or more complex and may be of the same type or of a different type. Thus, in a historical investigation, and even in its subsequent presentation of its results, the recursive way consists in suspending or postponing those tasks performed in any one of our three languages in order to perform some task in any other, provided that the original task is resumed whenever needed. This means that we can start with any of the three languagesand even equate them with three "levels of historical understanding"and, after a while, stack it temporarily in order to busy ourselves with another language. What has been explored in one language is not forgotten, but is eventually "reused." Thus we go constantly from one language to the other until we can piece together a coherent historical picture. Such a historical picture becomes, then, a kind of "network."
What I have been saying all along leads me to propose a "weak," or "informal" recursive procedure in historiography. This procedure has a number of advantages, among them the following: (1) it is a truly orderly, or systematizable, procedure; (2) it echoes the hermeneutician's intuition that parts and wholes are inextricably intertwined without necessarily falling into circularity; (3) it also echoes the holistic view that parts of one language, and in particular, statements in Language I can be related to segments of other languages, especially to statements in Language III, in a great variety of ways, while emphasizing at the same time the proper function of each "language," namely, of each "level." All this should, for the time being, suffice.
These will shortly be published under the title The Making of Victorian England [E. H. Carr's footnote]
Edward Hallett Carr, What Is History? (New York: Knopf, 1962), pp. 10-11.
Douglas R. Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid (New York: Basic Books, 1979), pp. 127 ff.
Ferrater Mora, José. “The Languages of History.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 43 (December 1982): 137-150.