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Elizabeth Clark, History, Theory, Text: Historians and the Linguistic Turn (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2004, $19.95, 336 pages, ISBN 0674015843)—Kristen Chamberland, California State University - Long Beach

Elizabeth Clark’s History, Theory, Text: Historians and the Linguistic Turn is a brave and fascinating undertaking. The first seven chapters of her book are devoted to a concise, yet extremely thorough account of the theoretical tug-of-war between nineteenth and twentieth-century philosophers and historians. In these chapters, Clark aptly traces the sometimes parallel, yet often contradictory development of philosophy and history in the past two centuries, attending equally to both fields. She demonstrates the points at which the two disciplines intersect, and the points at which they seem to be running in completely opposite directions. Then, her concluding chapter outlines her arguments for the value of philosophical theory in history, and the ways in which it is particularly useful for premodern historians. This book enters the discussion of professional historians in an attempt to quell the “death knell” that some of her fellow historical scholars are sounding for their discipline [1]. Rather than taking the attacks upon history by philosophers as fatal assaults, she strives to absorb and consider the critiques and suggestions of other disciplines, in order to strengthen her own field.

In her first chapter, Clark explicates nineteenth-century professional historians’ obsession with objectivity. Taking their cues from the increasingly respected natural sciences and medicine, nineteenth-century historians—Germans especially—strove to write history “as it actually happened” by using documents in a “scientific” manner, thus making history transparent, and eschewing the notion of interpretation (here Clark is referring to Ranke’s 1885 most oft-quoted phrase, “Wie es eigentlich gewesen,” from 1885’s Geschichten der romanishchen und germanischen Volker von 1494 bis 1514). Though these methods were extremely pervasive, Clark does assert that there were critics, even during its heyday, who rejected the positivism of Rankean history, as well as pointing out that even the selection of documents by historians signals their judgment and interpretation.

It is in this chapter that she introduces the epistemological problem that plagues all historians, the problem that she will return to again and again in subsequent chapters:

Since it is the historian who offers explanations for events, posits causes and effects, fills in the gaps of and provides meaning to the historical record, how is the truth of an account to be assessed? Should or should not the historian strive to align “the structure of his interpretation” with “the structure of factuality” [25].

She explains that most historians have not attempted to wrestle with the real implications of this problem, claiming that even the most notable twentieth-century schools of history “retained traditional, and largely unexamined epistemological assumptions” [25]. Clark gives a few reasons for this, citing a lingering appeal to objectivism and a fear of philosophical debate. As a result, since the early 1970s historians have been under siege, claims Clark, the same mêlée that has ravaged all scholars of the humanities, due to that wrecking ball known as Theory. However, Clark, quoting Beverly Southgate, astutely asks, “Why should the call for historians to set forth more explicitly the philosophical underpinnings of their subject constitute a particularly threatening assignment?” [27] With this refusal to declare the death of history, she sets the tone for the account to follow.

In Chapter 3, Clark argues that structuralism has challenged history in useful ways, though it often seemed anti-historical to those scholars defending their field. Their defensiveness is understandable; philosophers such as Dusse declared war on historicism, historical context, and the search for origins. Claude Levi-Strauss, one of the founders of structuralism, “condemned” the entire historical disciple as myth. However, Clark reaches beyond these affronts to show the ways in which the evolution of linguistic analysis launched by structuralism has benefited those historians who took note of it.

Ferdinand Saussure, credited as the pioneer of structuralism, first suggested that “signifiers” (words) are not intrinsically born from “the signified” (concepts), but are in fact arbitrarily assigned by cultures. Clark explains: “as unions of sound image (“signifiers”) and concepts (“the signified”), signs acquire their meaning chiefly through their difference from each other within a language system” [45]. Significant for history, Saussure also stated that when humans use language, they personalize it to express themselves in the speech act. Clark believes that this attention to the relationships between words and concepts opened the door for further inquiry into how other non-linguistic systems of signs (such as rituals, gestures, and signals) could be explored.

This denaturalization of linguistics was furthered by the work of Levi-Strauss’s Structural Anthropology, which was one of the first theoretical models to truly impact the historical discipline, and remains something with which historians grapple. Strauss interpreted all culture as being linguistically structured. His main goal was to teach anthropologists to understand phenomena by seeing them as conflicts born from an underlying system of relations, and to pinpoint these opposing forces. Explicitly arguing against the Hegelian idea that history is progress, and attempting to forge a discipline that does more than simply understand why certain events follow others, Strauss asserted that the humanism and undue focus on the subject in history implies that historical facts are not a given, but constituted by the historian. History, according to Strauss, is never simply an account, but instead a history for a purpose declared (often implicitly) by the historian.

Clark reminds her readers that however popular structuralism became, its critiques were equally notable. Its critics, such as Ricoeur, argued that structuralism left no way for language to take hold of reality. Others such as Derrida attacked Strauss’s tendency to ignore writing in favor of speech; he believed that writing couldn’t be subordinated to speech acts if signs are completely unmotivated. Perry Anderson, on the other hand, focused on the differences between actions and language; he believed that cultural phenomena such as marriage and kinship structures cannot be correlated with language. To this, Strauss replied that he was not theorizing about individual speech acts (parole), but the system of speech (langue). Clark summarizes these debates by stating that the lasting benefits of structuralism for history lie in the denaturalization of culture, the theme of discontinuity (because historians often search for continuity and attribute meaning to it), and the exercise of breaking down and rebuilding the object of study in order to understand the relationships by which it operates.

Shifting back to the historical discipline, Chapter 4 is Clark’s historiography of the annalists, in which she explains the shift away from positivism and historians’ lingering resistance to philosophical theory. In a continuing attempt to liken history to science and write a ‘total history’ annalists abandoned the literary narrative and developed a new style based upon the meticulous utilization of documents with the goal of pure, objective knowledge. Rejecting event history as amateurish, they concentrated less on descriptions of events, and more upon statistics, quantifiable data, and the analysis of problems. Early annalises did not shy away from the fact that the present is the primary motivation for the writing of history, and that historians’ analyses are always organized by their own questions.

Important for her later prescriptions, Clark also discusses the Mentalité historians, who focused on the intellectual mechanisms, sentiments, and behaviors of humans. For Clark, the most important contribution of the Mentalité school was from Lucien Febvre, who sought to conceptualize the “mental tools” available to any given society; that is, what could or couldn’t be thought by individuals. This, according to Clark, initiated a new type of intellectual history, or a history of ideas. Rather than focusing only on elites and “high” literary texts, Mentalité historians studied the thoughts and ideas of non-intellectuals in an attempt to conceptualize collective attitudes and behavior.

This concentration on common people was taken up by Macrohistorians, who re-embraced literary narrative and argued against historical determinism and the histories that emphasized statistics and universality. Alternatively, Macrohistorians sought to reconstruct the daily experiences of common people. Clark cites Giovanni Levi, who claimed that Macrohistory “possesses a superior ability to define and measure public signs and symbols in their social particularity, rather than to homogenize them,” and thus provides a “thicker description” than Geertzian anthropology [76]. However, through all the developments Clark discusses in this chapter, she maintains that

Even the most celebrated historians of the twentieth century display little concern for the epistemological problems attending the writing of history, and sometimes attack those who even raise such issues from discussion. Although analytical philosophy of history tried, and failed, to contribute a satisfactory theoretical assessment of history’s status, and structuralism seemed at best lukewarm (and often hostile) to the claims of history, historians themselves contributed even less to the examination of epistemological issues attending historical work [84-85].

In Chapter 5, Clark elaborates further upon the discussion on historians’ employment of narrative, further demonstrating the debates between the two main schools of historians—those who utilize a literary-oriented history-as-narrative, and those who aim for an objective history-as-science. Clark points out, “It is significant that in the Anglophone world, it was analytical philosophers who encouraged the discussion of narrative among historians, while […] in France, interest in narrative in relation to historiography developed under […] that of literary criticisms and discourse analysis.” [xx] Historians in favor of narrative, such as W.B. Gallie, argued: “historical explanation lies in the ability to follow a narrative” [87]. Historians of this camp argue that history should tell stories, and that the significance of the past can be found only in the context of a story. Philosopher Louis Mink argues that narrative is a “primary and irreducible human capacity” [88]. But the critics of narrative have been unsympathetic to these claims, accusing narrative history of being amateurish, fictitious, and existing without the capacity for falsifiability. After a thorough summary of the strongest points of contention within the debate, Clark concludes, “the ways in which theorists called attention to the ideological dimensions of literature are provocative for those who work on premodern texts, the primary aims of which are variously to persuade, exalt, denigrate, and denounce” [105].

In Chapter 6, Clark evaluates what she calls the “new intellectual history,” credited to Arthur O. Lovejoy and R.G. Collingwood. She argues that their work, despite the criticism it endured, is particularly instructive to premodern historians. Lovejoy, for his part, distanced the history of ideas from the history of philosophy, arguing that intellectual historians “dismantle systems of thought into ‘unit-ideas,’ which are then traced through various eras and disciplines.” He suggested that historians, taking multiple disciplines into account, evaluate the ways in which words and concepts fall in and out of favor with writers of a particular period, or even across eras. He asked historians to consider how “new beliefs and intellectual fashions” were established and employed, and how and why they were eventually replaced by other beliefs.

Collingwood, whom Clark claims was a forerunner in the intellectual history that would develop in the late twentieth century, argued that history should be organized by problems and questions. Historian should evaluate the questions that the author of any given text was trying to answer. While attacking positivist history, Collingwood did not shy away from the idea that historians are informed by the present, and argued that they should frame a problem to be solved, and then evaluate the sources accordingly, rather than simply reporting on whatever information they find. He argued that causation lies in the mind of the agent, and that historians can attempt to reconstruct this causation by understanding the relationship between the motivation of a text’s author and the cultural forces acting upon him. Clark calls for a more sympathetic reevaluation of both of these historians’ heavily-criticized theories.

In Chapter 7 Clark further evaluates the relationship between text and context for the historical discipline. Recent theory has called into question the assumptions by traditional historians, who argued that the primary role of the historian lies in differentiating texts from contexts, and texts from documents, rather than the task of forging new theory concerning the nature of texts. She cites scholars such as Geertz, the anthropologist who suggested that cultural rituals and norms can be evaluated as texts, and historian Hayden White, who discounted the idea that texts and contexts were always separate entities. She suggests that the notions of text as informed by literary theory, contextualism, and political theory can be helpful to historians.

Post-structuralists, whom Clark points out were active even during the advent of structuralism, were open to seeing texts as dialogues, theorizing that there is no text that is not affected by another text. They concentrated on the inherent contradictions within and between texts in order to forge a more complex notion of interpretation. Others, such as Barthes, focused on the difference between a “work” and a “text.” He claimed that the work is the material object, but the “text” is held in language, and that readers create and assign meaning, rather than consuming it. Clark further addresses this topic of meaning as assigned by the author and the reader. Post-structuralist theory has called into question the authority of the author, and the discernability of his intention. Foucault, for instance, dismisses authorial intention, and inquires instead about the modes of the existence of his discourse and how it is circulated and appropriated by readers.

Contextualists such as Quentin Skinner assess context as a method of unlocking meaning in a text and expands the notion of context from social and economic to also consider “linguistic, generic, and ideological contexts” [138] to determine meaning as it was assigned through language by the particular society in which the text was produced. Rather than dismissing the discernabilty of authorial intention completely, he argues that while the meaning of a text may not be discernable (due to the gap between authors and readers), the intention of the author is unproblematic to find.

J.G.A. Pocock, the other contextualist that Clark cites, agrees with Skinner that language is a context in itself, but disagrees that authorial intention is always possible to understand. He argues that this task is possible, but quite complex. According to Skinner, scholars must assess the actions and intentions that were both conscious and unconscious to the author. He also stresses the importance of the unsaid, and promotes the notion that scholars must likewise assess the intentions and actions that the author might have performed, as well as those he could not have.

Critics of contextualism, as cited by Clark, have noted that the theories of both Skinner and Pocock have not accounted for linguistic changes or unconventional uses of language. Thus, they argue, questions of meaning are individual rather than conventional or collective. Other critics question the ways in which historians chose the contexts, and whether the existence of a single context that unlocks the entire meaning of a text. Derrida, whom Clark identifies as the most influential critic of contextualism, argued that the “arbitrariness of the sign” disrupts the certainty of contexts in relation to text. Determining the context, he argues, is never purely theoretical, and never unmotivated or disinterested. Furthermore, he addresses the relationship of speech and writing, arguing that the two cannot be assimilated, because of the absolute distance between author and reader, which is dissimilar to a speech-act. Writing, according to Derrida, continues to act long after the author is absent, which negates the importance of authorial intent. Concluding this discussion, Clark argues that contextualism is inadequate due to its appeal to context (which is problematically discerned) as an explanatory model. Championing instead the questions raised by literary theorists, Clark argues that these methods are more useful to premodern historians, because of their ability to assess texts of the distant past with a readership that spans centuries, rather than attempting to assimilate such texts into a model of speech acts, as advocated by contextualists and interpretive anthropologists.

In her final chapter, Clark specifically addresses the concerns of premodern scholars, and how they might selectively utilize the theories explicated in the preceding chapters. Such historians, Clark asserts, accept that historical questions are marked by issues of the present. They understand, for the most part, that the grand narrative often cloaks ideological intentions and provides a false sense of continuity. Premodern historians also must understand the problematic issues of authorial intention and the proliferation of meaning across centuries and cultures. The difficulty for classicists and premodern historians, Clark argues, has been that they could not easily adopt post-structuralist theory as it was advocated by social historians. The texts of premodern historians are dissimilar to the documents of data used by social historians, and require literary interpretation.

Clark praises the work of historian Gabrielle Spiegel, who focused on “the social logic of the text,” which Clark explicates as a double focus: first to conceptualize the mode of production (not authorial intention) and second, the “surplus of signification” that readers have found and will find within it [163].

Clark also argues that the texts of early Christianity are ripe for the focus on the “political unconscious” rather than just the affective, aesthetic, and ethical dimensions. She also advocates the use of deconstruction to explore the silences, gaps, and omissions underlying a text. To conclude, Clark borrows the idea of Febvre’s “mental tools” to advocate that historians use all of the mental tools available to them, suggesting that they utilize recent philosophical developments to contribute to the formation of a new intellectual history.

The bulk of History, Theory, Text is devoted to the debates between historians and philosophers, thus, for those unfamiliar with the historiography of these debates, the density of the book requires careful reading in order to tease out the implications for each field, some of which Clark does not make explicit. Due to the relatively short length of the book, considering the depth and range of topics, it is an extremely condensed work often requiring the re-reading of certain passages. However, absorption of the material is made easier by Clark’s skillful use of notes—only the most relevant information is included in the text; all references and commentary are included in the copious and carefully organized endnotes. Because of this, readers who are interested in further reading on a specific topic are directed to the best sources, without having to search through a large volume. Clark’s own arguments are balanced, clear, and are always consistent with her thesis. However, they are minimal, which leaves the reader desiring more of her unmistakably expert opinions.

While Clark suggestions of the application of linguistic theory are aimed at her own field, premodern history, the book can be useful to any historian looking to develop new and innovative methodologies. Newer fields of history, such as the histories of gender and sexuality, which require new methods and theories in order to discover fresh sources as well as understand traditional sources in a new context, are ripe for the employment of philosophical concepts. Hopefully, because such fields are often interdisciplinary in nature, those scholars will be less resistant to reading and using philosophy in their work than historians have been in the past.

Overall, History, Theory, Text is a valuable contribution to both historians and philosophers alike—historians looking to understand how history can benefit from the work of philosophers, and philosophers who wish to understand the ways in which their theories can be applied to other disciplines. Likewise, as a fair and balanced lesson in historiography, this book is an excellent source for students learning the role of professional historians and the ways in which the academic disciplines have interacted in the last century.

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