Carl Becker and a little Douglas Adams


Detachment and the Writing of History: Essays and Letters of Carl L. Becker Carl Lotus Becker, 1958

Carl Becker is, along with Charles Beard, the most influential “relativist” in American historiography, according to Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream. So I thought I’d read some of Becker’s essays. They seem pretty even-handed and insightful. Becker isn’t arguing for anything more radical than Hume (who he calls on in one of the pieces), and he's pretty much writing in plain English. I wonder, if we had understood this material deeply enough, if postmodernism would have evolved differently?

Something about Becker's writing seems really comfortable and reasonable. Maybe that's because, like many grad students, I was exposed years ago to the objective/subjective battle in historiography, in the form of Arthur Marwick and Hayden White. I liked White better, but I was disappointed he couldn't render his thoughts in more standard English. I've ground this axe before, but I really think there are few ideas that are really so complex they can't be described in ways that regular people could understand -- and that it's our job to try to do this, if we want to be relevant beyond the walls of the academy. That's probably why I like Becker, because he seems to agree with me.

Things that I thought worth keeping on hand, for occasional inspiration:

the historical fact is a thing wonderfully elusive after all, very difficult to fix, almost impossible to distinguish from ‘theory,’ to which it is supposed to be completely antithetical.” (10)

while we speak of historical facts as it they were pebbles to be gathered in a cup, there is in truth no unit fact in history. The historical reality is continuous, and infinitely complex; and the cold hard facts into which it is said to be analyzed are not concrete portions of the reality, but only aspects of it. The reality of history has forever disappeared, and the ‘facts’ of history, whatever they once were, are only mental images or pictures which the historian makes in order to comprehend it.” (11)

I think it’s interesting how this anticipates postmodernism -- but then so does Plato’s
Allegory of the Cave. The question, I suppose, really is: what do we do with this understanding? Most historians are careful to limit and qualify our claims when we're writing for each other. But if only a small number of elite historians write "magisterial" histories for public audiences, is this humility lost?

It seems, then, that the great point in historical synthesis is selection: which of the numberless particular facts will the historian select?” (18)

Regarding “facts,” “
the historian...cannot deal directly with this event itself, since the event itself has disappeared. What he can deal with directly is a statement about the event. He deals in short not with the event, but with...an affirmation...There is thus a distinction of capital importance to be made: the distinction between the ephemeral event which disappears, and the affirmation about the event which persists...If so the historical fact is not the past event, but a symbol which enables us to recreate it imaginatively...The safest thing to say about a symbol is that it is more or less appropriate.” (47)

The most important question to ask may be, what was the motivation to remember this particular event in this particular way? But I read and wrote novels before I read and wrote history -- I'm always asking myself whether my characters' actions make sense and whether their motivations are plausible.

One historian will therefore necessarily choose certain affirmations about the event, and relate them in a certain way, rejecting other affirmations and other ways of relating them...What is it that leads one historian to make, out of all the possible true affirmations about the given event, certain affirmations and not others? Why, the purpose he has in mind will determine that. And so the purpose he has in mind will determine the precise meaning which he derives from the event.” (55)

I'm okay with admitting this, as long as the historian also tries to judge the "affirmation" for consistency with others. Tries to understand the author’s point of view and motivation for affirming. Tries to integrate this into an overall understanding based on context and agreement of sources, rather than just cherry-picking the ones he thinks are most interesting or agree with his thesis. But again, we probably need a more thorough peer review process for popular history.

On the difference between history and science: “
The historian has to judge the significance of the series of events from the one single performance, never to be repeated, and never, since the records are incomplete and imperfect, capable of being fully known or fully affirmed.” (57) I thought that was interesting, because as the sample size collapses to one, statistical inference goes out the window and we have to rely on other types of pattern recognition. This reminds me of what Douglas Adams says in one of my favorite books, The Long Dark teatime of the Soul:

“What was the Sherlock Holmes principle? ‘Once you have discounted the impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.’ ”
“I reject that entirely,” said Dirk sharply. “The impossible often has a kind of integrity to it which the merely improbably lacks. How often have you been presented with an apparently rational explanation of something that works in all respects other than one, which is that it is hopelessly improbable?...The first idea merely supposes that there is something we don’t know about, and...there are enough of those. The second, however, runs contrary to something fundamental and human which we do know about. We should therefore be very suspicious of it and all its specious rationality.”

But back to Becker: “
the kind of history that has the most influence on the life of the community and the course of events is the history that common men carry around in their heads. It won’t do to say that history has no influence on the course of events because people refuse to read history books. Whether the general run of people read history books or not, they inevitably picture the past in some fashion or other, and this picture, however little it corresponds to the real past, helps to determine their ideas about politics and society. This is especially true in times of excitement, in critical times, in time of war above all.” (61) That's what I'm talking about.

Becker also said it was "
not wholly the historian’s fault that the mass of men will not read good history willingly and with understanding; but I think we should not be too complacent about it.” (64)