Further on “On Revisionism”

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 11:41 am, 7 April 2008]

More thoughts relating to my last post on Glenn Burgess on revisionism. I was making what might look like esoteric theoretical points there, and it might not always be immediately obvious how that applies to the existing historiography in practice. Anti-theory polemic often constructs a false dichotomy between all points of view being equally valid on the one hand and only one objective truth being valid on the other. I think things are more complicated than that. Although I reject objectivity I do think that there are many interpretations of history which are invalid for various reasons, including being internally inconsistent, not being very well supported by their own evidence, or even contradicting the laws of physics. But once we’ve dismissed all these interpretations as being impossible, we could potentially be left with many interpretations which are possible. This is where we get the theoretical issues that I wrote about before. It might not be possible, or even necessary, to choose between all these possible interpretations and choose a single correct one.

Applying this to English/British Civil War/Revolution historiography can illustrate the point, but it’s not necessarily obvious because other, more obvious, factors get in the way. For a start, many histories of this period (particularly, but not only, from Whigs and Marxists) have fallen at the first fence because they are internally inconsistent and/or not well supported by their own evidence (these are arguably the same thing, because poor evidence is an inconsistency for any empirical work but possibly irrelevant to non-empirical work). More have fallen at the second fence because other historians have produced evidence which contradicts them. Most, if not all, of the histories written from Gardiner onwards have shared certain basic empirical assumptions, so it’s perhaps surprising that these works have often not lived up to empirical standards of proof. Pointing that out should be alarming, but it might also be misleadingly comforting. Surely if everyone genuinely adhered to proper empirical standards we’d be able to find the one true story, wouldn’t we? I don’t think so. The fact that in practice so many historians have tried to argue for interpretations which are impossible doesn’t do anything to diminish the theoretical possibilities for an abundance of interpretations which can’t be dismissed as wrong but which can’t be chosen between. In practice we’re only just starting to see this.

Following Glenn Burgess’s example, I’ll take two different works and compare them: John Adamson’s The Noble Revolt and John Walter’s Understanding Popular Violence. Both books are meticulously researched to the highest standards (or at least higher than most other books I’ve seen). Their descriptions of what happened would be difficult to challenge on empirical grounds. Both relate to the causes and outbreak of the First Civil War but each has a very narrow focus rather than offering an overarching model which claims to explain everything. It is perhaps this focus that allows the authors to be so meticulous, and therefore avoid falling at the early empirical fences. This is not to say that they are less ambitious than Lawrence Stone or David Underdown (examples of historians who did attempt overarching explanatory models), just that their ambitions might be pointing in a different direction. Neither Adamson nor Walter explicitly claims to be telling the whole story. They have omitted many things and made arbitrary decisions about what to include, as any historian must when writing any history, but they have not attempted to close down other possibilities outside their chosen scope. This is not to say that they think anything goes. Within their chosen scope, both have demolished previous interpretations which now look impossible or at least highly improbable. The most important thing is that these books do not contradict each other much, if at all. It would be quite easy to see them as dealing with different parts of the same thing. Therefore we have two interpretations which differ because their focus and end points differ, but which are not mutually exclusive. However, I suspect that it would be difficult to synthesize both works into a single overarching thesis in the style of Lawrence Stone. They’re just different. Taken together they suggest that the civil war might be too big and complicated to ever be distilled into a single work. I think that this will become increasingly obvious in the future as we see more books like these.

  1. John Adamson, The Noble Revolt (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007).
  2. Glenn Burgess, ‘On revisionism: an analysis of early Stuart historiography in the 1970s and 1980s’, Historical Journal, 33 (1990), pp. 609-27.
  3. John Walter, Understanding Popular Violence in the English Revolution: The Colchester Plunderers (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1999).

Glenn Burgess On Revisionism

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 10:59 am, 4 April 2008]

‘On Revisionism’ is an important article from 1990 (you can download it free from Historical Journal) in which Glenn Burgess sets out a fair appraisal of what revisionism is (or was) and defends it from some unfair criticisms, then makes some more sophisticated criticisms. It’s possibly unfair to beat Burgess with a stick that hadn’t been published at the time he was writing and which was (and perhaps still is) considered extremely radical, but I’d like to compare this article with the work of Keith Jenkins, and some of the theorists who inform his work, because there are some surprising similarities. Ultimately Burgess and Jenkins draw different conclusions, but they are tackling some of the same problems and at times use similar arguments. For the purposes of this post I’m not going to question empirical epistemological foundations at all, but if we accept that the past really happened, and that we can know facts about what really happened, there are still many practical and theoretical problems concerning what to do with those facts.



[posted by Gavin Robinson, 6:50 pm, 19 March 2008]

[Edit May 2016: a pretty good bit of theorizing, probably because it was based on things I’d actually read and understood. I doubt that any posts from here on will be occupying a woolly moderate false centre. Since then I’ve kept changing my mind about whether causal explanations of historical events are possible. The biggest problem with my book was that it was implicitly against the idea that the causes of the English Civil War could be explained and yet was hopeful that the causes of Parliament’s victory could be explained. That’s the main reason why it should really have been two separate books.]

Causation has always been a problem for me. I remember as an undergraduate struggling to write a 2,000 word essay explaining the French Revolution, and ending up thinking “what’s the point?”. My PhD thesis was mostly about describing rather than explaining, and where the conclusion touched on the reasons for the outcome of the English Civil War it was particularly weak. My first article mostly revolves around the question “continuity or change?” rather than “why?”, and I only ended up making strong claims about the causes of price changes in order to win an argument with the reviewer. But now I’m working on the Difficult Second Article, where I decided I could make the empirical data sexier by linking it to the debate on the causes of the English Civil War. That was probably a bad idea as it’s taking much longer than I expected, but I’ve put too much time and effort into it to abandon it now, and I need another publication on my CV as soon as possible to help with funding applications. So as well as digging into the mountain of historiography on the civil wars/revolution/whatever I’ve been looking into theories of causation.

There now follow some esoteric theoretical thoughts on an article by S. H. Rigby (from 1996, so not necessarily the latest thing, but it’s a useful starting point even if the author might have moved on since then) on causal hierarchies, taking in Keith Jenkins along the way. Don’t be surprised if I’ve misunderstood some of it – this blog was always meant to be about thinking in public. (more…)

That would be an ecumenical matter

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 1:48 pm, 12 June 2007]

[Edit May 2016: I really wish my former self would shut up about this sort of thing. It’s boring and pointless and I wasn’t qualified to have an opinion about it. ‘There’s a serious danger of creating the appearance of being theoretically aware by lazily dropping the right buzzwords but not really understanding the ideas behind them.’ Yes, there is, isn’t there? (Withering stare at former self.) ‘And so I’ve written nearly 1,500 words without really saying anything.’ Too right. So why did I decide to post it?]

Last week I posted some thoughts in response to the discussions at A Historian’s Craft and Civil War Memory about history and philosophy. In that post I took some of the philosophical problems that affect history and tried to restate them in scientific terms. As Brett pointed out, this really amounted to stating the obvious in fairly uncontroversial terms, but I think that was worth doing in order to bypass the unproductive hostility between both extremes in the postmodernism wars (although the extent to which those extremes even exist is debatable). Whether the major problems we face as historians are philosophical, scientific, or a bit of both, the question remains: how much time should we spend thinking about these problems? In this post I’ll be discussing that question, but I have to warn you in advance that I can’t answer it. So there might not be much point reading any further…


Gentleman Amateurs

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 6:39 pm, 29 January 2007]

[Edit May 2016: I really need to rewrite this, especially as Ben Brumfield sometimes links to it, although it now seems a lot better than I sometimes thought. I now think it would be better to use two axes: academic versus non-academic and paid versus unpaid. There’s also the new identity of ‘citizen historian’ to think about, and 10 years of progress in crowdsourcing. On the WW1 stuff I was speculating about, we now have Lives of the First World War, Operation War Diary and Linking Experiences of World War One.]

[ETA 18/1/2012: This post is nearly 5 years old. My situation has changed a lot since then so whatever is written below might not be true any more.]

[Looks like I won’t be using WordPress 2.1 as my host doesn’t have the right version of MySQL. I should’ve checked that before starting to the upgrade, but everything’s back to normal now.]

A lot of military history bloggers have been debating the distinctions between different types of historian: professional versus amateur, and academic versus non-academic. Mark Grimsley at Cliopatria has summed up and linked to various contributions. Having read all of these, I’ve been trying to work out where I stand, which necessarily involves working out how my own “career” and experiences fit in with what has already been said. Unsurprisingly, I think that binary oppositions are an oversimplification. Mark identifies the two oppositions (professional versus amateur, and academic versus non-academic) as meaning essentially the same thing. In the terms of the debate that he’s describing this is probably more or less true, but I’d like to make things more complicated.


No Big Ideas!

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 9:32 pm, 30 November 2006]

[Edit May 2016: Not sure what to make of this now. I was obviously going through a strange phase when I wrote my PhD thesis and the introduction still looks horrible, although the chapter on Essex’s army has been very valuable to subsequent researchers. I was probably going through an equally strange phase when I wrote this post, and it seems like 2006 me is offering an exaggerated caricature of 2001 me (suspiciously like a conversion narrative). My book was full of big ideas and very opinionated, and I don’t regret that at all, but I’m a bit wary of assuming the conclusion in my next project. Now that I have lots of experience of wiki editing I think it’s very important to have a neutrality policy but also difficult to get it right.]

Objectivity and neutrality are very controversial topics in historiography. There has been lot of acrimonious debate about how the preconceptions we bring to history affect what we write, and whether it’s possible or desirable to leave those preconceptions behind. This is what I had to say on the issue when I wrote the introduction to my PhD thesis in 2001: