The theories of Marc Bloc and historical writing

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Last updated: April 2, 2019

Marc Bloch was part of a new wave of historians who, unhappy with the traditionalist historiography of simply narrating events and concentrating on political history, attempted to modernise the way in which history was studied and written. Not content with simply relating the past wie es eigentlich gewesen, he sought to look more deeply into history, explaining and understanding past societies as a whole, and in so doing to develop a critical method which yielded far more information and was based on a much wider variety of sources.However, by transforming history from an exercise in the organisation and simple relation of documentary evidence, into a discipline requiring the personal analytical skills and even imagination of a historian, he surely allowed room for subjectivity to enter historical writing. The shallow, but uncontroversial, histories of previous years were rejected in favour of a more thorough mode of study at the cost of potentially colouring the result with the historian’s conscious or unconscious bias.Central to Bloch’s approach to historical study, and indeed to any sensible historian’s approach, was the need for abstraction from ‘raw’ evidence, and the classification and organisation of historical facts. It may seem obvious, but, “How, without preliminary distillation, can one make of phenomena, having no other common character than that of being not contemporary with us, the matter of rational knowledge? Without categorisation, synthesis and simplification, it is extremely doubtful whether any scholar could make much sense out of the sea of evidence available, and even if by some effort of mind he could, the resultant writings, lacking any sort of organisation, would be totally unreadable. However, since there is no absolute and objective set of categories with which one can compartmentalise historical facts, the criteria by which evidence is judged and organised, used and rejected, have to be invented by the historian.

This is not to say that this historical judgement necessarily differs widely from historian to historian, but there is nothing more than convention preventing somebody from making use of an entirely new division of evidence to throw light on the past. Furthermore, as Georg Iggers has pointed out (though defending abstractions), criteria of selection necessarily presuppose certain regularities within history which allow generalisations to be made.If the past is, in fact, chaotic, any attempt at organisation would distort history, imposing a false regularity simply to appease the need for order in the mind of the historian. In part, Bloch accepts this weakness, but the organisation of facts is indispensable for meaningful study. The best one can hope for is to select criteria which can stand up to criticism. “No science could dispense with ‘abstractions’ any more than it could dispense with imagination…

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.Only those classifications which depend on false resemblances would be disastrous. It is the business of the historian to be always testing his classifications in order to justify their existence and, if it seems advisable, to revise them. ” This does mean that criteria are selected through present-minded standards, resulting in a history geared towards present-minded concerns. However, organisation is necessary, and even subjectively-influenced organisation does not make history actually lie.The past has happened, and any questions asked will be answered by an objective reality. History always has been written to answer the questions which the present asks of it, and, if done properly, it at worst fails to tell the whole truth. Every science can only give answers to the concerns voiced by the investigator.

Provided the questions are asked of a truthful database, history is, with respect to abstraction, no more subjective than any of the natural sciences.One historical method which Bloch advocates, and which shows signs of objectively yielding the categories and questions by which historical facts might be organised is comparative history. Measuring one society against another, “He used the comparative approach as a way to seek hypotheses and to look for ‘characteristics held in common, which will make whatever is original stand out by contrast. ‘” Finding a characteristic unique to French society, for example, would inspire a search for its causes, a search inspired by the objective fact of its uniqueness.The problem with this method lies in its circular nature.

In order to find the similarities and contrasts, the historian must conduct an initial study which is not based on the issues raised by objective comparison. Thus, even if he continues the cycle (forming a general picture from which to raise specific questions with which to refine the general view, and so on), the whole study would be based originally upon potentially subjective criteria. Chapter 3 of The Historian’s Craft deals with the use and criticism of evidence.

One of the approaches to historical evidence which distinguished Bloch was his willingness to consider not only the written documents which had been the mainstay of ‘traditional’ historical writing, but also the profusion of less obvious traces which history has left behind. Archaeological findings, architecture, land boundaries, laws, customs and languages can all carry information relating to the past, and they have the advantage over written evidence of being more directly linked with the past, without the interpretive (and possibly erroneous) element added by the writer of the source.When analysing the past through these more ‘solid’ sources, “.

.. it is undeniable that it is an induction of the most classic type; it is founded upon the observation of a fact and the word of another person has absolutely nothing to do with it.

” This is not to say that written evidence is always wrong, but when the historian is confronted with the possible distorting influence of an intermediate observer, he must decide how far the document can be trusted, and with every decision of this sort comes the possibility of subjectivity.Although evidence of this sort is probably more reliably ‘truthful’ than written evidence, historical study could not survive without documents. What could be more subjective than a historian, conditioned by today’s society, attempting to make inferences as to the nature of the society of past years from architecture and institutional relics, without listening to the voices of the past which make themselves heard in documents? Written sources give insight into the attitudes of the very subject of history, man, insight which physical evidence could never bring.However, written evidence, unlike the relics which unwittingly shed light on the past, can ‘lie’: “With ink, anyone can write anything.

” Documents could be forgeries, distorted by the writer’s subjectivity, subject to the mistaken interpretation of witnesses, or more abundant in certain areas of history than others. In order to overcome such limitations, the historian, according to Bloch, must indulge in analysis and interpretation in order to find the various thruths behind the sources.In an attempt to overcome subjective error in this analysis, he outlined a ‘logic of the critical method’ by which the historian might attempt to analyse in a ‘common sense’ way. He did not believe criticism could ever be ‘scientific’, but there were certain basic functions which every historian should endeavour to employ. “Criticism of testimony, since it deals with psychic realities, will always remain a subtle art. There is no recipe for it.

However, it is also a rational art, which depends on methodical use of certain basic mental processes. “Bloch’s approach to determining the truth or otherwise of documents is mainly centred on a decision as to whether what a piece of evidence discloses is possible. He cites the example of the Memoirs written by Marbot, a soldier who claimed to have rescued some French prisoners from the Austrians by crossing the Danube in full flood. Other evidence, on the other hand, shows that the Austrian corps was on the wrong side of the river, the river was not in flood on the day claimed, and Marbot failed to mention his feat in applying for promotion only a month later. Which alternative will be judged the most likely: that the general staff and the Emperor himself were simultaneously mistaken [as to the location of the Austrians and the state of the river] (unless, God only knows why, they had knowingly falsified reality) and that the Marbot of 1809, desperately eager for advancement, had erred through false modesty, or that, much later, the old warrior, whose boasts are notorious in other connections, had won another bout with the truth? Surely no one will hesitate.The Memoirs have lied again. A thorough aquaintance with the past and research around a particular issue should lead one to recognise the probability that a piece of evidence is true, and enable a fuller understanding of the past.

There are, of course, problems with this. Firstly, as with generating historical issues through the comparing of a number of histories, there is the problem of where to start from. The historian who wishes to religiously follow Bloch’s advice is told to weigh up a source against other sources, which presumably have to have been judged themselves.

Taking this process back to its theoretical origins, the historian approaching a subject for the first time with an objective open mind (if such a state of mind can be attained) must somehow judge whether the first piece of evidence he sees is trustworthy with nothing to compare it against. The process, then, can never entirely follow the guidelines set out by Bloch. Furthermore, what of new, truthful evidence, which is not backed up by other sources? Simply because a document has no precedent does not necessarily mean it should be dismissed as a fraud.Lastly, because the weighing up of evidence relies on probability of truth rather than on certainties, there is always room for diverging opinions according to the subjective outlook of the historian. These problems are not unanswerable. The first has much to do with definitions of ‘objectivity’. A 100% watertight objectivity would tend to imply a mechanistic approach to documentary criticism, where no variation from the method is permitted, and Bloch opposed this type of subordination of everything to the technical approach.

Objectivity, for Bloch, came not from the critical method (although a rational approach could keep one on the path of ‘reasonable’ history), but from the facts of the past themselves. All traces of the past point towards a reality which cannot be changed by the subjectivity of present-day historians, and provided a common-sense approach is maintained, the past should make itself heard. In-depth study sees the covergence of the huge diversity of evidence towards this objective truth of the past events.

Bloch took the example of agreement between various price lists at a particular market, despite the diverse nature of the figures involved: “The irreducible diversity in the evidence leads us to conclude that what there is of final agreement must derive from a reality whose fundamental unity, in this case, was beyond a doubt. ” It is unnecessary and impractical to divine historical knowledge from ‘first principles’, since a general reading of literature and sources about a particular historical moment is enough to point the historian in the right direction.On this basis he can then go on to use Bloch’s method of documentary criticism and refine his view of his chosen area of study towards the truth of the past as it actually happened. As regards the problem of new evidence, it is not necessary either to have supplementary evidence which plainly states its truthfulness, nor for the historian to conclude that the evidence is possibly true and then make a subjective guess as to whether it is actually true. A closer examination of the evidence surrounding the possible event in question should bring to light both causes and effects: historical facts do not happen in isolation. A human phenomenon is always linked to a chain which spans the ages.

” A document which claimed that the aeroplane was invented by monks in the twelfth century would be belied not by the historian’s prejudice that aircraft are a modern invention, nor as a result of his childhood learning about the Wright brothers, but more objectively because the actual events of the twelfth century left behind absolutely no evidence of the required knowledge of aerodynamics prior to the supposed invention, nor of the impact of air travel on the mediaeval world afterwards.Again, if the historian allows the objective truth to speak, it will guide him in his formulation of historical writing. The problem of the existence of probability rather than actual certainty ragarding knowledge of the past is in part explained by similar factors. Once more, the room for subjective speculation is narrowed because the tracks of the past only give truthful evidence (even documentary lies shed light on the past, revealing things such as the motives behind the lie). “Only the future has contingency. The past is something already given which leaves no room for possibility.

As historical knowledge edges towards the impossible goal of perfection, the various interpretations of history will come into question, until they converge, with the various sources, on an approximation of the objective truth of what actually happened. “Even if the dice have been loaded, an isolated throw will always be more difficult to forsee than the outcome of the game; consequently, once played, it will be subject to a much greater variety of explanations. That is why the further criticism delves into detail the more its probabilities tend to be blurred…There is more certainty in the whole than in its parts.

” In fact, ‘metaphysical’ certainty is an impossible dream shared by the natural sciences and history alike. The student of physics cannot be sure that all apples fall out of trees downwards, nor that is is caused by a newtonian principle expressed by a mathematical function as opposed to simply being the will of God or the will of the apple. Strictly speaking, absolute objectivity cannot ever apply to either physics or history in this sense, because the lack of certainty allows scope for interpretation of the facts.Both, however, can eliminate reasonable doubt, and approach a perfection which leaves little room for controversy. Of course, this perfection of knowledge is itself metaphysical, and one of the reasons for this is the problem of language. For one thing, the historian, when he looks at the records of the past, is reading a language which may not be his mother-tongue, and even if it is, due to the evolution of languages, words can mean something entirely different to the historian used to modern nomenclature, than to the person who originally wrote them.The historian thinks, “.

.. according to the categories of his own time, consequently with its words… If my neighbour tells me that he is going out in his coupi?? , or his limousine, am I to understand that he is referring to a horse-drawn carriage, or to an automobile? ” Bloch also warns against the careless application of words when writing history. Historical events can rarely be defined by centuries or other ‘easy’ terms.The ‘Renaissance of the twelfth century’ actually began not in 1100, but from about 1060, while British society was not revolutionised by the death of Queen Victoria and the consequent ending of the ‘Victorian Age’.

Using these rather subjective terms can encourage false assumptions as to the nature of the past. Furthermore, because history relies on everyday language to express itself, the ambiguity of which leaves historical writing, no matter how objective, at the mercy of the reader’s interpretation.However, the problems of the use of everyday language are shared with the ‘objective’ natural sciences. “If ‘capitalism,’ even in its broadest application, is far from embracing all those economic systems in which the capital of moneylenders has played a role; if ‘feudal’ currently serves to characterize societies in which the fief was certainly not the most significant feature, that in no way contradicts the universal practice of all sciences, which as soon as they are no longer content with pure algebraic symbols are obliged to draw upon the confused vocabulary of daily life.Are we scandalized that the physicist persists in using the term ‘atom,’ meaning indivisible, for what is actually the object of his most daring dissections? ” If language can really be seen as a serious source of subjectivity, the only advice Bloch can really offer is to be careful with words, to use unambiguaous terms as far as possible, and to avoid imposing terms on history which are not justified by the evidence of the past.

Two obvious sources of subjectivity in history are dealt with with disdain by Bloch: the subordination of history to justify a present-day opinion, and modern-day value judgements about past events and people. Bloch gives an example of how history can be distorted in order to serve present-day aims: “What else did Taine intend, in tracing the ‘origins’ of the France of his day, but a denunciation of the political ill consequences of what he considered a false philosophy of man?And whether the subject was the Germanic invasions or the Norman conquest of England, the past was so assiduously used as an explanation of the present only in order that the present might be the better justified or condemned. ” This Bloch termed ‘the demon of origins’. Bloch also criticised the tendency of historians to sit in judgement of the past.

The relevance of a twentieth century historian’s opinion to the past is minimal, because it is inevitably formed by different values to those which motivated actions in past years, and it runs the risk of colouring the historian’s writing.The object of the historian is not to judge the past, but to understand it. The Historian’s Craft does not fully overcome the dangers of subjectivity, but absolute objectivity is in fact an impossible goal, as absent from the natural sciences as from history. Abstraction, categorisation, language and interpretation all give scope for subjective colouring of historical writing, but all are essential for meaningful study, and no academic pursuit could do without them.

It is realistically impossible to erradicate all subjectivity.Bloch advocates a common sense approach to history by which it might approach the status of a science, allowing the objective reality of ‘what actually happened’ to speak through the evidence left by the past, in the same way that the scientist observes laboratory evidence and then draws conclusions. The subordination of all conclusions to the available evidence (which converges on the truth of the past) removes subjectivity as far as possible, and guides historical study towards the attainment of an approximate understanding of past events. In this way, history becomes (relatively, at least), an objective science.

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