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Meaning and History

31 January 2012

In advance of the (for now) postponed series on early modern theologies of the atonement, which will focus in large part upon the historical contexts of the theologies under examination, I had thought a discussion on the nature of historical meaning appropriate. The series to which this was intended to be attached is still forthcoming but has been pushed back by a heavy class schedule. This discussion will be somewhat preliminary and some of the themes touched upon will be picked up and expanded upon over the course of the coming series as well as in later posts on the topic.

Precedent to any discussion of history is a fundamental and difficult question: how does one find meaning in history? This question encompasses a wide field, from epistemology (how do we know things about history?) to methodology (how do we go about learning things about history?). Here I intend to focus on a far narrower subset of questions relating more particularly to the task of intellectual history, specifically questions of the nature of historical facts and records and the task of reconstructing a narrative of the history of ideas. The task of intellectual history begins with examining the written and oral works which preserve the ideas and knowledge of the past. The work of the intellectual historian is, broadly speaking, to apply his or her expertise in the task of exegesis either to generate particular insights into these ideas or two form a narrative which relates their movement or development. This work raises a number of questions, three of which I wish to reflect upon here.

The first question of the historical records themselves. The nature of historical records and historical facts is a difficult one to say the least. I will carry with me forever the very first lecture of my early church history course by now-deceased Manichaeism scholar John Kevin Coyle and the distinction to which he introduced me between facts and data. A datum, said my professor as he walked quickly back and forth, is the object of study, the historical record itself. A fact is the appropriation of the datum. Every historian, every interpreter, will appropriate his or her own facts from identical data. This makes clear the import of what might be called the ‘hermeneutics of history,’ how we go about reading the traces from which we reconstruct the events and ideas of the past. The hermeneutic lens we bring to historical records influences what records we choose to read, how we will read them, and what we will read out of them (or into them).

Petrarch first proposed the idea of the 'Dark Ages'

This becomes clearer when we examine historical, rather than contemporary, historians and consider their historiographical assumptions. It seems absurd to us today to regard the period between Late Antiquity and the Renaissance as the ‘Dark Ages,’ so aware as we are today of the intellectual and cultural flowers of what we now call the Middle Ages or Medieval period (terms which are in fact synonymous). However to the historians of the early Italian Rinascimento is was perfectly self-evident that greatest blooming of human intellect was to be found in the largely then-recently rediscovered works of Classical Antiquity and, thus, any period lacking those works was necessarily intellectually deficient. Scholasticism was not, to these thinkers, a careful and articulate discourse which sought to codify and systematise human knowledge as it was then understood but a symptom of the loss of the insights of the ancients, and only one amongst many. Because the devaluation of medieval thought was a first-order assumption of these Renaissance thinkers they did not read the likes of Albertus Magnus and Duns Scotus they looked to their immediate past and saw only the darkness of superstition, violence, and social and political hegemony of undeserving minorities. The erroneous classification of ‘Dark Ages’ seems, in this light, somewhat less unfair.

Grotius around the time he wrote his relevant contribution to international law.

Of course intellectual history cannot be conducted solely by examining the written works of thinkers past; it requires an understanding of the contexts in which those thinkers worked, both in terms of their contemporary realities and their influences. This is the necessary context of the study of intellectual history without which the actual object is unintelligible (that it does not always seem so it itself a part of the problem, to which point I will shortly return). A contemporary historiographical problem illustrates this problem well. Hugo Grotius is often called the father of international law because he laid the foundations for laws governing the external relations of countries not holding themselves bound to the same supra-civil (read: natural) laws. When Grotius’s (great and extremely interesting) contribution is viewed in it’s proper context, however, perspective reigns. Grotius (like most figures called the father of something or other, cf. Benedict of Nursia) learned heavily upon the work of another. In this case his debt is to Francisco Suárez, a Spanish Dominican and interpreter of Thomas Aquinas and Luis de Molina. Grotius’ principle contribution to natural law as we understand it today was he famous assertion that the principles of natural law are to be employed even should we assume that there is no God. This was in distinction to the strongly Thomistic strain of Suárez’s thought and sharp contrast to the voluntarism of other natural law thinkers such as William of Ockham, the Protestant Reformers, and Pufendorf. Grotius was also not addressing ‘interntional law’ as we today understand it but rather seeking to find a common ground for states of differing religious affiliations to interact. This required not grounding his work in religion whatsoever and is the reason for his famous removal of God from the issue. Grotius’ de-theologising the question of natural, and thus supra-national, law is the reason he is today remembered as so important but in light of his reliance on Suárez and, indeed, the independent contributions of Suárez’s own predecessor Francisco de Vitoria this reputation is not exactly deserved.

But what about meaning in history? What, ultimately, does it mean to engage in the work of history and derive narratives accounts of the past from scattered historical records? Perhaps I could phrase that question better because it rather answers itself. The work of ‘doing history’ is the very work of deriving narrative from accounts of the past. Through the careful and judicious selection and examination of the sources available to him or her and always employing a knowledge of the broader context, both historical and contemporary, of the topic under examination, which knowledge is gleamed from both primary and secondary (or even tertiary but not  quadruciary) sources, the historian discerns and constructs the narrative of events and/or ideas. I use both of those terms quite intentionally, since while a sequence of events did take place it was not narrated and the historian’s task is to weave a coherent narrative which reflects that sequence, a task equally of construction and discernment. When the subject is intellectual history this often involves the comparison of ideas over time in order to infer the pattern of the development and transmission of ideas. Narratives of intellectual history are rather more tenuous than the history of events what is reconstructed is often along the lines of a ‘snapshot’ of history at a given moment in time.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this reflection on the nature of historical meaning and I invite you to add your thoughts on the matter in the comments section below. I also wish to give you a heads up about an up-coming announcement: The Molinist will be introducing a new feature. This has been in the works, in the background, for a little while and I’m fairly excited about it. It will be an extension of sorts of the book reviews featured occasionally on the blog and will be another way for me to share my love of books with my readers.

Further Reading

For more on the debt of Hugo Grotius to Francisco Suárez and both men’s roles in the development of Western ethical thinking see Schneewind, Jerome B., The Invention of Autonomy: A History of Modern Moral Philosophy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), chapter 4 in particular.


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