Thursday, May 14, 2009

Spiegel, Gabrielle M. "The Task of the Historian." AMERICAN HISTORICAL REVIEW 114.1 (2009): 1-15.

Traditionally, for historians, the ethical core of our professional commitment has been a belief that our arduous, often tedious labor yields some authentic knowledge of the dead “other,” a knowledge admittedly shaped by the historian's own perceptions and biases, but nonetheless retaining a degree of autonomy, in the sense that it cannot be made entirely to bend to the historian's will. This founding belief in the irreducible otherness of the past conferred on history its proper function, which was to recover that past in as close an approximation of “how it actually was” as possible. In the interest of preserving the autonomy of the past, the historian practiced modesty as a supreme ethical virtue, discreetly holding in abeyance his or her own beliefs, prejudices, and presuppositions. Yet this traditional understanding of the nature, epistemological grounding, truth‐value, and goals of historical research faced a significant challenge beginning in the late 1960s and the 1970s with the emergence of what came to be known as the “linguistic turn,” the belief that language is the constitutive agent of human consciousness and the social production of meaning, and that our apprehension of the world, both past and present, arrives only through the lens of language's precoded perceptions. Moreover, language, once understood as a relatively neutral medium of communication, sufficiently transparent to convey a reasonably accurate sense of reality, itself had been reconceptualized with the emergence of structural linguistics or semiotics, a movement that began with the publication in 1916 of Ferdinand de Saussure's Course in General Linguistics. Far from reflecting the social world of which it is a part, language, Saussure argued, precedes the world and makes it intelligible according to its own rules of signification. Since for Saussure such rules are inherently arbitrary, in the sense of being social conventions implicitly understood in different ways by differing linguistic communities, the idea of an objective universe existing independently of speech and universally comprehensible despite one's membership in any particular language system is an illusion. Such was the “semiotic challenge” posed to the practice of historiography by the rise of structural linguistics and continuing with the successive emergence of structuralism, semiotics, and poststructuralism, including the elaboration of deconstruction. The principal impact of these cognate developments was felt most intensely in the period after World War II; after 1965 they assumed the name “linguistic turn,” a term disseminated by the pragmatic philosopher Richard Rorty in his essay “Metaphysical Difficulties of Linguistic Philosophy” and generalized to various disciplines throughout the course of the seventies and after. Whether or not the linguistic turn constituted the kind of epistemological crisis for historiography that several of my predecessors in this office believed, it is clear that it represented a massive change in our understanding of the nature of historical reality, the methods of research we deployed in seeking to recover the past, and the nature of the truth claims that could be asserted about the product of our labors. Never entirely accepted in the full range of its claims, it nonetheless had a significant impact on how historians construed their basic tasks and the procedures and language in which they were conducted. Anyone who has lived through the last four decades of change in historiographical praxis can appreciate the need to investigate how such a profound transformation in the nature and understanding of historical work, both in practice and in theory, could have taken place. . . . Read the rest here:

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