Historical Knowledge, Historical Error: A Contemporary Guide to Practice

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University of Chicago Press, 2007 - History - 288 pages
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In the past thirty years, historians have broadened the scope of their discipline to include many previously neglected topics and perspectives. They have chronicled language, madness, gender, and sexuality and have experimented with new forms of presentation. They have turned to the histories of non-Western peoples and to the troubled relations between “the West” and the rest. Allan Megill welcomes these developments, but he also suggests that there is now confusion among historians about what counts as a justified account of the past.

In Historical Knowledge, Historical Error, Megill dispels some of the confusion. Here, he discusses issues of narrative, objectivity, and memory. He attacks what he sees as irresponsible uses of evidence while accepting the art of speculation, which incomplete evidence forces upon historians. Along the way, he offers succinct accounts of the epistemological road historians have traveled from Herodotus and Thucydides through Leopold von Ranke and Alexis de Tocqueville, and on to Hayden White, Natalie Zemon Davis, and Lynn Hunt.


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User Review  - brleach - LibraryThing

I agree with the other reviewer, who said: "Yeah, it's a little reactionary. So why can't I help liking it?" This book is incredibly clearly reasoned and well-written. Megill is very smart and has ... Read full review

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Allan Megill’s Historical Knowledge, Historical Error should be required reading for
historians. This collection of essays grapples with many of the profession’s current obsessions – memory, identity, narrative, objectivity, grand narrative, cultural history, counterfactuals, epistemology – in an open-hearted yet skeptical, rigorous yet forgiving way. As Megill admits, he is writing “high intellectual history,” intended to shape the thinking of history’s practitioners. He has definitely shaped my thinking. It deserves a hearty endorsement as the First Book of Graduate School.
We should not valorize synthesis nor deplore fragmentation, Megill says; they should be neutral terms, each possible choices in the writing of history.
In the face of fragmentation, Megill argues that the true measure of history is the rigor of its analysis, which he divides and defines as a process of description, explanation, justification, and interpretation. Well and good; the merits and details of that plan have come earlier in his book. (Some shorthand definitions, somewhat doing justice to Megill’s formulations, are: Description is defined by Megill as the “what” of history; explanation defined as the “what caused” the described event or created the described evidence; justification defined as “how do we know/why do we believe,” defending this explanation against others; and then interpretation is defined as the significance, “why this matters” to readers today.)
This framework is flexible enough to respond to fragmentation while still maintaining a core definition of history. In this age of fragmentation, history has a broadened range of subjects to be described; what was once seen as marginal or inconsequential is now brought to the center of new studies. Empowered by political convictions or theoretical challenges, new interpretations revise the understanding of even well known events. Explanations have been opened up by narrative and literary approaches, providing new ways for the evidence to be evocative as well as convincing. And then there is justification, which has the most fascinating reaction to the age of fragmentation in history. As I read Megill, the nature of justification does not change at all.
As historians choose new evidence, apply new interpretations and present and explain their histories in new ways, Megill’s analysis suggests it is historian’s justifications—our rules of evaluating and defending evidence—that have not changed, and hence are the central identifying method of historians. Whatever you have chosen to say, it becomes compelling when you convince the reader that this is truth, not fiction; and that this is the best possible explanation of the facts.
The central task of history, then, is the making and defending assertions about the past. Is this recognizable to you as a definition of what history is?
Read more and comment at: http://en.wordpress.com/tag/teaching-writing-history/


Narrative Knowledge
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About the author (2007)

Allan Megill is professor of history at the University of Virginia. He is the author of Prophets of Extremity: Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida and Karl Marx: The Burden of Reason (Why Marx Rejected Politics and the Market), and editor of Rethinking Objectivity.

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