By Abbey Mikha
Jordanova Ludmilla, History in Practice second edition, New York: Oxford
University Press Inc, 2006.
What is truth? Can truth truly set a historian and a human free? Historical writing is always an unfinished work in progress but if the ideal of truth is always in the mind of the writer, then his or her work is a stepping stone towards truth. If a just God were writing the history of the world what would that history be? Would a just God have written "History in Practice" the way Ludmilla Jordanova did? Even when the facts are reasonably well established historians may differ radically in their interpretations of those same facts.
To truly be a historian one must seek truth above and beyond anything else. The biggest lie man has ever told in history is the denial of the genocide of the American and Canadian Native Indians. When most people think of genocide, the atrocities of Hitler immediately spring to mind. If a historian were to write that the United States and Canadian governments and its founding fathers also participated in mass genocide and assaults equal to those perpetuated against the Hebrew people in Germany, most scholars would call this truth unreliable. Ludmilla Jordanova mentions the Holocaust on fifteen pages in her book “History in Practice,” and rightfully so, but not once does she mention the struggle of the Native peoples of North America or any of the other forsaken people in history such as the Armenians, Pontic Greeks, and Assyrians who were also annihilated in 1915 by the Kurds and the Turks.
Jordanova herself is a highly distinguished historian of science. She is interested in the cultural history in early modern and modern Europe and the portraiture and identity in Britain from the seventeenth century to the present day. The worth of a historian and a human being is not in the sophisticated language one uses, but rather in taking the side of the poor and the meek and the forgotten. Jordanova considers the concept of truth, objectivity, knowledge and evidence. She writes about standards of reliability and truth, but she shifts to the grounds of the argument somewhat from an emphasis on truth to one on reliability. I disagree with her on this matter because there have been thousands of times throughout history when historians have emphasised reliability and yet were dishonest and truly selfish in trying to project their truth instead of the real truth of the world and history.
To Ludmilla Jordanova the writing of history is more important than the research but when one is seeking the truth both are equally important. The writing of history is influenced by our political prejudices and our subconscious but as human beings we are not all influenced negatively by our opinions because there are truly some more evolved types of human beings, and these people are able to be fair and just and for them objectivity and truth is more possible.
When the historian is searching for truth, the real truth and not just his or her own truth, but of truth itself, and he finds it then true history is written. Any other kind of history is just legend or a certain point of view. Jordanova is very broad and never concise in her book because she is looking at the practice of history from a very macro perspective. She believes that documents however reliable, can never tell us exactly what happened, even in the hands of the most impartial historians, yet she also realizes that without the documents we are that much worse off. According to Jordanova, with the documents we can at least write approximate accounts of what went on in the past which would mean that truth can never be reached by modern human beings and we should accept whatever historians write as long as it is backed up by sources.
I believe historical truth is accessible for anyone who is fair and honest and willing to put the time and effort to discover it. This requires a certain type of spirit and level of human being. Jordanova does not consider that the product of honest research and honest writing is truth. It seems that in Jordanova’s idea of history many more accounts can be written by historians than if the ideal was truth. Jordanova favours reliability and hence a historical procrastination of truth occurs.
Jordanova is a feminist whose primary area of expertise is the philosophy and history of science. Her book should be studied by advanced graduate history students because it is very complex. Jordanova seems to be suggesting that she is not writing the book for peers but it seems that she is trying to impress people in her field with her complicated opinions. The book satisfies our need for both theoretical understanding and practical advice. Her main goals are to provide an up-to date overview of important issues in the discipline, to locate history in the context of other related disciplines and to sketch in what historians actually do and how and why they do it. She examines history’s relationship with other disciplines especially anthropology, sociology, philosophy and literature.
She is ardent about the defence of the genuine significance of history and its capacity to speak meaningfully about past times, but she devalues history when she argues against the ideal of historical truth. Jordanova should have strived to be clearer in her explanations and she should not have used jargon when common language would have been more appropriate. She also should not have used abstract foreign terms when English was more comprehensible.
In chapter four of her book called “Status of Historical Knowledge” Jordanova tells the reader that history has been energetically challenged and has been subject to critical scrutiny, but of course every subject matter and especially history has been scrutinized in such a way because no other discipline is as untruthful. For example science and biology all speak of natural truth but history on the other hand has so many times proven to be false. She then considers that taking away the certainties which is in other words to say the truth promised by history has broad ramifications She is confused about truth. She wants to know the truth but she doesn’t want to be held accountable for it and she does not want to be the one to hold people completely accountable for it. Of course nothing in life may be certain unless it is absolutely true. She thinks that unsubstantiated claims, which need to be distinguished from ‘historical knowledge,’ are widely exchanged. She also considers the concepts of truth, objectivity, knowledge and evidence.
Jordanova writes about standards of reliability and truth but she shifts to the grounds of the argument somewhat from an emphasis on truth to one on reliability. I disagree with her on this matter as previously mentioned because there have been thousands of times throughout history when historians have emphasised reliability and yet were dishonest and truly selfish in trying to project their truth instead of the real truth. Jordanova believes that the quality of historical knowledge is important but the concept ‘truth’ does not seem productive, yet it seems when anyone is writing history without the principle of truth in mind they steer in wrong and deceitful directions.
The following is one of many examples where historians were dishonest in history because they did not follow the ideal of truth rather they had their own agenda in mind. In their book called “Time on the Cross” Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman used some of the quantification techniques to confuse traditional historians to produce a fairly comprehensive reinterpretation of the nature of the slave economy which was false. They used cleometrics to deceive people about slavery. The documents they used and the conclusions they came to seemed reliable according to the information they provided but in reality they were not being accurate and telling the truth about the struggle Africans suffered under slavery. It is the oppressed who suffer when truth is not made an ideal in historical writing, because it is they who are constantly being attacked by historians, because their struggle was so great and so unfair that some people want to deny them their right to feel the pride of having survived such acts of cruelty. Jordanova does not even mention one example where history was falsified.
Jordanova’s stress on reliable rather than on objective truthful knowledge she says is intended to be realistic and honest but it rather seems that she is taking the easy way out. She believes that historians should not promise what they cannot deliver and therefore need to be clear about what they can deliver. Hence she is underestimating historians and people who want to tell the story of history and of the world as it actually happened.
Jordanova also has a major issue with emotional writing. She believes that “strong identification with people in the past is regarded by some as suspect, because it implies an emotional commitment that clouds the ability to make judgments.”[i] Without emotions a historian cannot find truth because it is these emotions which lead to compassion for those who have been persecuted throughout history. Numbing the psyche by depriving it of our human emotions is counterproductive and what is truly lacking in Jordanova’s writing is that emotional humanitarian quality.
Jordanova also writes about how one would decide whether someone or something is reliable and she makes the point that consistency is important because if a person makes many claims which turn out to be true and which turn out to be corroborated by other evidence then this is a high level of consistency and reliability. She continues that authenticity is a highly problematic category in historical practice and how even in politically sophisticated work, it is not only present but traded upon, sometimes in quite emotionally manipulative ways.
I must stress that Jordanova has a major issue with emotions. She mentions the Holocaust and how she shares those emotional responses but that she is aware of the need to subject them to scrutiny. People suffered during the Holocaust and she emphasises with them, she should not feel guilty about it. She mentions emotions again as she says, “Claims to authenticity are problematic because they grant privileges on emotional grounds.”[ii] She is wrong and a historian can be objective even when feeling and being sensitive.
Jordanova believes that the goal of completeness is simply impractical especially since as the world of scholarship expands, there is more and more to read, but she does not consider that if the historian tries to be as truthful as possible, then another historian can take the information the first one has researched, and continue the research from there with the goal of completeness and truth in mind. It is said that a good historian tries to analyse history from all perspectives, so that he or she can eliminate bias, and Jordanova has tried to do that but she left out many subjects from her analysis.
“History from Below” is a chapter in the book “New Perspectives on Historical Writing,” and it is a concept which focuses on the perspectives of ordinary people, rather than political and other leaders. The term was popularised by British Marxist Historians during the 1960s. This school of history was among the first to use emotions and have a sympathetic approach to the lives of the poor and seek the truth of the life and history of the ordinary person. Jordanova does not seem interested in such kind of history. She mentions the term once in the text but she does not elaborate on it. She also has listed the term in the notes section and in the glossary. It is as if the concept was in the back of her mind, she may have wanted to mention it but it may have defeated her arguments. Since Jordanova was considering the issue of truth versus reliability she should have mentioned the concept of ‘history from below’ in one of her chapters.
History from below seeks to take as its subjects ordinary people, and concentrate on their experiences and perspectives, contrasting itself with the stereotype of traditional political history and its focus on the actions of “great men.” The term `history from below’ denotes a shift in viewpoint, from writing history from the perspective of political elites, using the documentary record that they left behind, to writing history from the perspective of social groups who had previously been largely ignored by history, including industrial workers, peasants, racial and ethnic minorities and the poor.
Jordanova has not made this kind of shift yet so it can be questioned whether she is an elitist. Until recently, history was often regarded as solely a matter of what the powerful, the famous, and the wealthy thought and did. What ordinary people felt and what they tried to accomplish was regarded as insignificant, not even worth regarding as part of history, but the truth is that real history is history from below because it is the untold story of humanity.
Jim Sharpe mentions in the chapter that “regretfully, that although the concept has been with us for over three decades, history from below has so far had comparatively little impact on mainstream history or on altering the perspectives of mainstream history.”[iii] History from below is the history of the future and historians like Jordanova who are traditionalists will not easily adapt to this kind of thinking.
Historians interested in the concept of ‘history from below’ could write about what has been called the “Armenian Genocide” which occurred during World War I in 1915 where one million Armenians, seven hundred and fifty thousand Assyrians and hundreds of thousands of Pontic Greeks perished at the hands of the Islamic Turks and Kurds. There is much awareness about this genocide among historians today but it is still not included in the history texts of university level students in Canada and the world because the millions of people that died are sadly considered insignificant. Jordanova certainly does not mention it.
Many Turkish historians claim that this was not genocide and that it was a time when Turkey was under attack by other countries and had to defend itself. Some other historians have called these claims reliable but the three nations who were subjected to these atrocities continue on their plight in the memory of their martyrs and in their hope that their voices will be heard.
Jordanova does not touch on such controversial issues and she does not defend anyone that history has not already shielded.
History from below emphasizes that not only professional historians but also ordinary people who are interested in the past of their families, communities, and organizations can contribute to the understanding of history. Through the concept of ‘history from below’ the truth of what occurred to many peoples of the world since the beginning of civilization can be discovered.
In the last chapter called “Trends” Jordanova writes in one section on the “Writing of World Histories.” The study of world history is in some ways a product of the current period of accelerated globalization and should be important to all historians especially because the world has become such a smaller place or as called a “small global village.” Jordanova gives this controversial and important subject one page and a half and she doesn’t really address any major issues. This type of history tends both to integrate various cultures and highlight their differences, but she does neither. Her idea of world history is the writings of Reynolds and Bayly, and John Robert’s. She does not mention any foreign historians. She states the fact that world history has become more popular in the last five year but she ignores most of the world’s history in her book.
Jordanova is a modernist and she never mentions any of the history from thousands of years ago which is so important for anyone studying history. She also does not mention her argument of reliability versus truth where it concerns world history. Jordanova is a Eurocentric historian and she writes from this point of view. She is not much concerned with discovering the true history of the world whether ancient or modern.
The study of the past or 'historical knowledge' is the process of researching the past using the available evidence. Historians argue about whose interpretation is most valid. These debates often last decades and are only resolved when either one side's research is shown to be of poor quality, or when new evidence comes to light proving one interpretation more true. Seeking the truth in history is one of the most admirable things a historian can do, and this is the only way that the true history of the world will be written.
Jordanova is inconsistent with the flow of her ideas and she debunked many concepts. She also does not define many of the terms she uses. Her strength is in the detailed detached style in which she writes, and her weakness is in the obvious lack of emotion involved in her book.
Jordanova is writing to be recognized and not necessarily to fight for some kind of high ideal which she truly believes in as a human being. If historians dedicated themselves to writing the real truth they would take responsibility for every word they write. I disagree with her on the matter of reliability versus truth because there have been thousands of times throughout history when historians have emphasised reliability and yet were dishonest and truly selfish in trying to project their truth instead of the real truth. The problem is not in her emphasis on reliability; the problem with Jordanova’s argument is that she discards truth as if to unreachable heights and hence makes peoples ideas unaccountable. Where is her faith in the ability of historians and where is her faith in humanity? Nonetheless, I am certain that it may take a lot of time before the sun will set on Jordanova’s writing but it will require sensitive truth seekers to call her and others out on her unemotional and rigid opinions on historical writing.
Works Cited and End Notes
Burke Peter, New Perspectives on Historical Writing second edition, Pennsylvania:
Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004.
Engerman L. Stanley, Fogell William Robert, Time on the Cross: Evidence and
Methods-A Supplement, Boston-Toronto: Little, Brown and Company, 1974.
Jordanova Ludmilla, History in Practice second edition, New York: Oxford University
Press Inc, 2006.
[i] Ludmilla Jordanova, History in Practice second edition, New York: Oxford University Press Inc, 2006. Pg 90
[ii] Jordanova, History in Practice, Pg 93.
[iii] Peter Burke, Jim Sharpe, New Perspectives on Historical Writing second edition, Pennsylvania:
Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004. Pg 38.
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