A different perspective on Thomas Brodie

That guy with the odd name that cannot be his own has written a post YOU ALL SHOULD READ. He writes, in part

Thomas Brodie gave a great display in intellectual honesty in the publication of his last book and he was crucified (ahem!) for it.

via It’s All Random…Mostly…: Thomas Brodie and Intellectual Honesty in Biblical Studies….

My friend is correct, of course. Brodie has led the way in intertextuality and while I disagree with his conclusions on the Historical Jesus, his work has pushed us in this still unrespected realm to new heights.

In the end, he was honest, finally, and he did pay the price.

I wonder how many positions, especially moral positions, people force themselves to uphold in order to retain an image or a job.

Anyway, give the article a read.

as a side note, I disagree with the blogger. i believe objectivity is achievable. 

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23 Replies to “A different perspective on Thomas Brodie”

  1. I find your suggestion that objectivity– real objectivity, in the sense your link means– is achievable curious. How do you propose to divorce yourself from your context? If there is anything postmodernism gets right it’s the problem of the observer affecting what’s observed.

    1. Rick,

      I think that first realizing we cannot divorce ourselves from our context is the path to objectivity. For instance, if we understand that all history is interpreted, isn’t that an objective stance?

      1. You’re absolutely right about objectivity, Joel. People who constantly point out that objectivity can’t be achieved absolutely seem to think that, by so doing, they are showing that objectivity cannot be *approached* — that every statement is just as unobjective as every other statement. Of course, they have done nothing of the sort. That’s what *method* is all about.

  2. Hi John,

    Certainly the objectivity question is often *misunderstood* as endorsing chaotic relativism, and perhaps that’s what you’re referring to? But I’m unaware of a theorist who actually *says* that. Do you have such a theorist in mind? Or are you referring to the more common misunderstanding?

    The problem of objectivity and history’s relationship to the present is far subtler than a simple question of truth claims. To clarify, that certainly isn’t what I’m saying. If someone claims Augustus never ruled Rome, for example, they aren’t providing a valid subjective appraisal. They’re just an idiot.

    But the narrative of Augustan rule changes with the present, and history lay not in the statement, but in the story.

  3. We can objectively collect facts. This coin looks like this, this statute is the Prima Porta style, the Res Gestae says this.

    But a collection without interpretation isn’t history, historical facts demand meaning, and meaning demands interpretation. Interpretation is, by definition, subjective. History isn’t like physics where we can rerun the experiment until our interpretation is for all intents and purposes factual. Our interpretations always carry an implied asterisk.

    1. Looking at this, it appears inadequate in describing what I’m trying to say. Let me try again. On my blog I’ve recently begun a series of what I expect to be four posts on “historical facts.” I use the bog-standard example when discussing these, and it’s more appropriate here (and hopefully will result in more clarity) than Augustus.

      “Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BCE.”

      This is, according to virtually all parties and for all intents and purposes an historical fact. But what of it? So, presumably, did thousands of other people.

      Let’s try another statement.

      “Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BCE, becoming a traitor and officially beginning the civil war.”

      A little more information here, right? But here’s the interesting part. These two statements are functionally identical. The longer form is implied by the first–the very act of stating the fact of Caesar on the Rubicon implies that it matters, and implies other historical facts.

      How about this?

      “Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BCE, which marked the border between Gaul and Italia proper. He did so with a legion, against Roman law which dictated that he must lay down command before leaving his province.”

      There is still nothing new here. We could write a very, very long statement indeed without leaving what we stated with the simple, 7 word statement we started with. Historical claims always imply other historical claims. Otherwise we wouldn’t be interested enough to claim them in the first place. And these other claims imply still more. And still more. And eventually it’s not a fact anymore, it’s a story. The fact–that Caesar crossed–is about as objective we’re going to get for most claims about the ancient world. But what the fact means, why it matters, isn’t objective, and changes with the speaker. It does not mean the same thing to you or I as it did to Napolean, for a striking contrast. If we could identify everywhere where such biases might affect our history, that would be delightful, but we can’t. They are too numerous, too ubiquitous, and too subtle for us to even hope to accomplish that. We simply do the best we can.

      It is what it means that the historian is concerned with, not simply that it happened. “Caesar crossed the Rubicon” would be make for a very short, very boring book.

      1. Rick,

        Thank you for your comments.

        I was referring to the simple objection, very often heard, that objectivity cannot be obtained. When this is stated (just so), it is almost always aimed against the effort to gain more objectivity. By virtue of being used in that way, it implies (by its application) that the attempt to become more objective is itself illegitimate. *That* implication is what I’m saying is a *non sequitur*. Just because one cannot be 100% objective does not mean that one should not *try* to be so, and that *by* trying (and by using the proper method well) one can move in the direction of greater objectivity. As for Joel’s claim about obtaining objectivity, I would only say that, eventually, one can even get the point where the claim that one is *not* totally objective becomes a pursuit at such a small nuisance of subjectivity as to be hardly worth worrying about.

        Clifford Geertz compared inferring from the impossibility of total objectivity to the illegitimacy of attempted objectivity to inferring that, since a totally aseptic environment is an impossible ideal, one might as well perform surgery in a sewer. I have elsewhere argued along similar lines, by comparing that argument with inferring from the impossibility of a 100% frictionless automobile engine to the suggestion that one should not use motor oil. I think it is helpful to think of the interpretative interference of subjectivity as a type of friction affecting our ability to know.

        As for historians going into the question of what events mean: I understand how that takes one into subjective judgments, but I’m interested first and foremost in the facts as such. I would also say, however, that I don’t buy into the idea that the judgments, no matter how subjective they are, are subjective through and through. I see no reason to believe that they don’t ultimately rest on the hitting or missing of real objective data, even if we have to go back through many, many layers of abstraction to find that data.

        I, for one, have never been very impressed with the thinking that passes by the name of “postmodernism”.

        1. I agree that the suggestion is heard all too often. But mostly by people who don’t understand the nature of the problem and tend to oversimplify it. If post-modernism embraced chaotic relativism, it would be suggesting that holocaust denial is legitimate history, for example. I very much doubt any theorist would take that tack.

          I agree that somewhere, there are objective truths about the past. But it’s important to distinguish things that were in the past, from historical facts, that only exist as affirmations in the present.

          1. Can you clarify the difference between “things that *were* in the past” and “historical facts, that only exist as affirmation in *the present*”? To my mind, the facts that I and others affirm “in the present” are simply retailings of “things that were in the past”. Any accompaying commentary will of course be more or less a mishmash of objective and subjective material, but I don’t see the distinction between the “things in the past” and the “historical facts affirmed in the present”. If the affirmation is strictly that of what really was, then what is the difference, other than that of the relation of the prelinguistical moment (the event in the past) to its linguistical “shadow” (the capturing of the event in historical discourse)?

  4. Hi John,

    I’d recommend the 1926 article linked in one of my blogposts above–Becker’s “What Are Historical Facts,” because he does a better job of this than I’m about to. Assuming you have JSTOR access, you can find it here. If you don’t and would like to read it, let me know, and I’ll presume sharing a hundred year old paper constitutes fair use.

    It could turn out tomorrow that we find evidence that Caesar did not, in fact, cross the Rubicon. Caesar himself did not think the definitive moment of his life was worth mention–the Civil War notoriously omits the Rubicon (how, other than individual bias about what’s important, are we to account for this?! Certainly no modern biographer would omit what the autobiographer did!). All of our sources depend on Asinius Pollio, who presumably was there. This isn’t exactly the gold standard for historical evidence.

    The possibility that it isn’t true does nothing to change the reality that, right now, for all intents and purposes it is an historical fact. But this is in no small part because we treat it as one. Affirming the fact helps make it so.

    Here’s the important bit. Caesar did cross the Rubicon. This is an historical fact. The event existed in the past, the fact exists in the present, hence the present tense. But what exists now isn’t Caesar crossing the Rubicon, it is our affirmation of it. An historical fact isn’t like a scientific fact. You can go out tomorrow and, with the appropriate tools, measure the speed of light and ascertain it for yourself. In history, all we can do is affirm things about the past, and that’s all any of our textual sources have done. But they, as well as I, affirm it in the present.

  5. Thanks for the suggested reading.

    I don’t get the part about saying that the event of Caesar crossing the Rubicon doesn’t exist now, but only “our *affirmation of it*”. So what? Of course, the event doesn’t exist now, but the *truth* of it exists continually, just as the truth of its *going to happen* had always existed before it happened. It’s the durability of that *truth* that underpins our claims to its having happened. What’s the big deal about distinguishing between the event and its affirmation, as if there might be people somewhere who don’t understand that distinction?

    I don’t see how a historical fact isn’t like a scientific fact. Both kinds of fact have the same relation to truth. If something that is claimed to have happened really happened, then the claim is true. That goes for both scientific and historical “facts”. Whether the data are ready to hand, as they might be to the scientist, makes no difference.

    Are you suggesting that a scientific fact is somehow more objective because it’s a description of a physical relation that can be repeatedly tested? To my mind, that amounts to a quantitative distinction between the verificational apparatus that can practically be applied to science, over against what might be available to the historian. It does not amount to any distinction between what a “fact” is, as understood in objective versus subjective terms.

  6. Hi John,

    “I don’t see how a historical fact isn’t like a scientific fact. Both kinds of fact have the same relation to truth. If something that is claimed to have happened really happened, then the claim is true. That goes for both scientific and historical “facts”. Whether the data are ready to hand, as they might be to the scientist, makes no difference.”

    I suspect that this is where we are differing. A scientific fact exists as something more than an affirmation. It exists as something we can, right now, confirm to be true.

    An historical fact isn’t like that. Looking at the Rubicon we see that–it’s possible that Caesar didn’t cross. That’s not the best explanation of our present evidence, certainly the best explanation is that he did. But this isn’t a fact in the sense that the speed of light is. Everyone would agree that it is an historical fact, but most would also agree that it is possible that it’s not even true. The fact exists in the affirmation, not in the unshakable evidence that it happened.

  7. But then the difference resides in the degree to which we can be sure about things, but that’s an epistemological distinction. I’m talking about “facts” as *true* propositions, that is, as *alethiological* relations. To use the term “facts” to refer only to the linguistic shadow cast by events *through their interpretation* is not really useful — to my mind, it only creates an unnecessary realm of theorizing about linguistic shadows (which really doesn’t get us anywhere if our ultimate object is to make sense of the world). Whether we can know the claim to an event is true is a real problem, but it is a secondary problem. With respect to whether claimed facts are true or not, it makes no difference whether they are scientific or historical.

    We were talking about whether one can be objective. I still maintain that one cannot be objective in a 100% total way, but that one *can* approach that in some cases, and that that is all we should hope for.

  8. “We were talking about whether one can be objective. I still maintain that one cannot be objective in a 100% total way, but that one *can* approach that in some cases, and that that is all we should hope for”

    Sorry, I’d meant to discuss this in my last reply, but got distracted, and we’ve gotten sidetracked a little bit on the question of affirmation and event, though that is important, just not directly.

    I agree with your assessment here. I do not support some sort of chaotic relativism (I don’t think any theorists do either, though they are frequently misunderstood as such), and asked you at the start if you were addressing a specific theorist, or the common misrepresentation of them.

    But that’s not the problem of subjectivity with historical facts. Or at least it’s not the big problem.

    We’ll agree that there is a distinction in certainty between “fact” in the strict sense and “fact” in the historical sense. And that’s important, but it also goes without saying. But remember my first post about the Rubicon: Statements of historical fact imply other historical facts, that’s what’s really important.

    For all intents and purposes, Caesar’s crossing is about as objective an historical fact as we’re likely to see in ancient history. But it’s not the fact itself that brings problems of subjectivity, it’s what the fact implies. All historical facts imply other facts, reasons the fact is interesting. I crossed a river yesterday. That’s never going to be stated as an historical fact not because it isn’t true, but because it doesn’t matter. That’s why it’s important to remember that it’s an affirmation, not an event.

    The act of affirming an historical fact is not simply making a truth claim, because of the nature of history. It is implicitly claiming that the truth claim matters, and making claims about why. All historical facts imply narrative, because without the narrative, the fact is irrelevant. That Caesar crossed is, on its own, a worthless bit of information. It only matters with the implied narrative.

    And it’s in the narrative that the problems of subjectivity become most abundant. Not the fact itself, but what the fact implies. And you can see how this is the case by comparing what we think of the Rubicon with what Caesar himself did. We see it as central to a narrative. He didn’t care enough to note it. What implied narrative is correct? That it was the definitive moment of Caesar’s career (the present)? Or that it didn’t matter (the actor)? If everyone shared Caesar’s view, the fact disappears, because nobody cared to affirm it. It becomes one of infinite things that might be true, but are thoroughly irrelevant. Affirming the fact also affirms the narrative, and the two can never be divorced.

  9. Isn’t the narrative background itself an assembly of other facts, and therefore just as capable of being nailed down as the given fact to which it gives a context? If the narrative itself is composed of facts (or purported facts), then I don’t see how the contextualizing narrative should be more or less subjective than the fact itself — *except*, perhaps, insofar as the narrative can contain a great many facts, and is therefore more subject to being twisted.

    This is one aspect of all this talk about “narrative” that I’ve never been able to understand: why is “narrative” treated as something over against “proposition”, when in fact a narrative is simply a chronological sequence of propositional facts? Is it assumed that narrative contains some sort of additive over and above the simple concatenation of these propositional facts? If so, what is that additive, and how is it something that single propositions do not share?

    1. Hi John,

      Oh happy day! You have provided me the second occasion in two weeks–both on this very blog!–to use my very favorite quote in all of the study of history:

      [H]istorical narratives are verbal fictions, the contents of which are as much invented as found and the forms of which have more in common with their counterparts in literature than they have with those in the sciences

      Hayden White, Tropics of Discourse, p.82

      As I mentioned to Joel the last time I cited White, I think the most interesting question in all of academia is the titular query of a recent volume on historiography: Is History Fiction? I don’t know the answer to the question, but I do know what makes it so interesting to me. The problem of narrative.

      I’ll warn you in advance that there is an excellent entry on “Narrative” in the Routledge Companion to Historical Studies that is an order of magnitude better than the hot mess I’m about to come up with. I assure you I am going to butcher the subject, rob it of it’s beauty and nuance, and doubtlessly fail to convey what makes it so interesting. The best choice is to stop reading me now, and go read that instead. Failing that, you should forget everything I say, and read that later.

      The short answer is that a narrative isn’t simply sequentially ordered facts. The long answer is, well, long. Hayden White wrote at least two books on the subject.

      Two provisos: I’m going to deal with actual, rather than implied narrative. Philosophers might be able to conceive of abstractions on top of abstractions, but I can’t. Second, This is hugely overgeneralized and oversimplified. I’m really not doing it justice. But I’ll point to three things that, in general terms, illustrate the problem of objectivity and historical narrative.

      I suggest a narrative requires three things: Internal contingency, structure (or emplotment), and intent. Let’s imagine, for a moment, I decide to write a narrative of history’s greatest man.

      My narrative might start with the Gracchi. It will surely have started by Sulla. The line from Sulla to Caesar–the internal contingency of my story–is long, the connections to numerous to count. I don’t think we need to trace them all down to see a general point. Some of these connections will be provided by my evidence, because so much of my evidence is textual (how my sources made their stories is another issue). But not all of them. Many of these connections are not demanded by my evidence at all. They are, at best, a possible explanation of causality.

      So where do they come from? The simple reality is that, contrary to the popular axiom, the facts do not speak for themselves. The historian makes guesses, makes inferences, offers speculations on causality. Sometimes they’re aware of this, and will note it as such. Most times they aren’t even aware they’ve done it. It happens so naturally that it seems like the evidence is actually speaking.

      Don’t get me wrong, I think we’re in general pretty good at these types of guesses, and making these types of inferences. I do not think that Historical Truth(tm) is knowable, but I do think we can narrow it down to a range of what we might call “potential truths,” and eliminate other tacks as having too little potential to warrant consideration.

      But make no mistake about what has happened between Sulla and the Rubicon. I put those connections there. Those are my choices. And they are choices, not demands. Choice is inherently subjective.

      Secondly, we run into structure. Hayden White would suggest that structure is always determined in advance–that we always know the story we intend to tell from the outset. I don’t know if he’s always right, but I’m sure he’s right here. The centerpiece of my story is the Rubicon. That is the pivotal moment upon which all else hinges. I might intend to avoid that, might assure you that I’m going to do my level best to forget what I know about the Rubicon. I hope you would politely commend me for my ambition, while you wondered (hopefully to yourself!) whether I was deceiving you or myself.

      But this isn’t the only possible structure–not the only potential arrangement of facts. By tweaking the causality only slightly, the Rubicon becomes secondary, a minor formality, because the war starts when Caesar begins to march. Or perhaps we intend to focus on Pompeii? In which case the Rubicon scarcely figures to him–he’s preparing whether Caesar is crossing at the time or not. Or perhaps we focus on the traditionalists, aghast not at the act of civil war, but at the disregard for the law? Perhaps we structure our story to put the meeting of Cleopatra as the pivotal moment in Caesar’s career? Or perhaps I simply list all of these angles, and let the reader decide its import?

      No matter which of these emplotments I take, I have, again, made a choice. My choice. Not the audience’s, not the evidence’s. Mine and mine alone. I might base my choices on choices made by previous historians–in fact I often almost certainly will. But then it is my choice to trust their choice. There is no getting away from the act of selection. From the creation, not discovery, of a story.

      The final point is intention. Historians present all kinds of lofty intentions. They want to communicate the truth. They want to present the facts for others to make decisions about.

      Nonsense. The historian writes to persuade. First, last and always. His tools are the rhetors, his form that of literature. My narrative isn’t writing only to tell you what happened to Caesar. It’s writing to tell you that my account of Caesar is the best “potential truth” we have. That it’s better than the alternatives. This, perhaps above all else, should be a huge red warning sign that I’m not as objective as I might pretend to be.

      None of this is to suggest that factuality doesn’t exist, or that we can’t know anything about the past. We can. But that doesn’t get rid of the objectivity problem.

      To get back to the original post. I took issue with your suggestion that raising issues of objectivity is simply opening a door to relativisim, and denying objective truths are possible. I don’t know of any theorist who suggests that, though you do see it appear as a misstatement of theory a fair bit.

      The real problems of objectivity are far subtler, far more nuanced, and an order of magnitude more interesting.

      1. Rick,

        Thank you for your articulate and well thought comment.

        I read Hayden White’s *Metahistory* years ago, and I couldn’t bring myself to buy White’s wares.

        I understand how a narrative that is presented to lend significance to certain facts competes with other possible narratives, but it doesn’t follow (does it?) that that narrative is a creation rather than a discovery. To my mind, history is about finding the appropriate narrative — that is, in bringing into linguistic expression the proper concatenation of facts to explain history. When we find that narrative, we have done just that: *found* it, rather than created it. To the degree we really might have *created* something, we have screwed up. (There is, of course, creativity in every act of linguistic expression, but the expression itself is *not* the narrative. Rather, it is a *presentation* of the narrative, which might always be improved upon.)

        Think of Columbo. Lieutenant Columbo’s job was basically to arrive at the correct narrative of a crime. It wasn’t to *create* a narrative, but to uncover the facts, and then to *find* the narrative that corresponded to the facts.

  10. I should just point out that in writing the article referred to in Joel’s post I was not saying the trying to attain objectivity was illegitimate. On the contrary, I do believe that objectivity should be sought. My point was that as an Atheist I do not believe myself to have any greater level of objectivity than others. Also, it was an opinion piece, not a scholarly perspective.

    Saying that, this thread has given me a lot to consider in regards to objectivity.

    1. Hello,

      I hope I didn’t create the impression that I was misrepresenting you, Joel’s example of an objective statement led me down a path of historical objectivity.

        1. I have, I just don’t find any that effectively answer the charge when it comes to narrative (given your own focus mimesis, it would appear that you implicitly accept much of what he has to say as well, particularly on narrative and linguistics!).

          Basically, if White’s description of narrative is correct, many of his conclusions follow necessarily. I struggled with him, I truly did. I mean, I’m a New Testament guy–all I have are texts, and White explodes that–post-empiricism in general does, but White and his descendants especially. My acceptance of his ideas is far more an admission of defeat than a willing persuasion. I simply can’t beat them, and haven’t found anyone else who does so effectively. The only reasonable conclusion is that, whether I like it or not, he’s right.

          Do you have any of his critics in mind? Perhaps you’ve read someone I’ve missed? I’ve only seriously looked at theory for three years or so, so there are mountains of people I haven’t gotten to yet.

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