MAN AND HIS PAST: THE NATURE AND ROLE OF HISTORIOGRAPHY
Volume 11 Number 5.
In this slight but well written essay, Serge Gagnon, a professor of history at the Université du Québec a Trois-Rivières, provides a defence of the relativist interpretation of the history of historical writing. Against what he calls "objectivist historians," Gagnon insists that historical knowledge is not cumulative, much less definitive, but a mere product of the historian's age, nation, class, or other social grouping. He reviews the history of this debate during the twentieth century and introduces the reader to the ideas of the major proponents of the relativist thesis, Benedetto Croce, R.G. Collingwood, E.H. Carr, Charles Beard, and Lucien Febvre.
Drawing upon the critiques of traditional historiography by psychologists, analytical philosophers, and Marxist scholars, Gagnon points out the subjectivity of the documentary evidence upon which historians depend. Furthermore, historians themselves select, arrange, and emphasize their evidence in part on the basis of ideological considerations or the values of the time and place in which they live. Even if historians do manage to navigate the shoals of bias, observing all canons of objectivity, their work is read, analysed, and made use of in a society that is influenced by ideological factors. The author's answer is to transform historiography from a form of progressive narrative to a branch of the sociology of knowledge. In this way, the historiographer would not presume to judge historical writing on an absolute scale but will rather attempt to explain its relationship to the time and place of its origin.
The book will not convince anyone not already committed to its thesis. Not only are most of the arguments familiar ones, but the author does not seem to have even considered the excellent corrective to much relativist thinking delivered by J.H. Hexter in The History Primer (1971) and Reappraisals in History (1961). The major value of Man and his Past lies in Gagnon's interesting references to changing trends in the historiography of Quebec, and it could serve as a challenging and readable source work for undergraduate courses in historiography.
Robert Nicholas Bérard, Dept. of Education, Dalhousie University, Halifax NS.
1971-1979 | 1980-1985 | 1986-1990 | 1991-1995
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