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World Association of International Studies

Post "No Historian Writes Like a Mollusk": Historiography and Ideology
Created by John Eipper on 09/18/19 3:13 AM

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"No Historian Writes Like a Mollusk": Historiography and Ideology (Angel Vinas, Belgium, 09/18/19 3:13 am)

John E asked substantial questions in reply to my post of September 16th.

Personally I think that history writing is influenced by ideology. No historian writes like a mollusk. No historian is a stone. Since the whole of the past is unfathomable, we try to illuminate parcels of it according to a combination of analysis, skills, intuition, and curiosity. Always respecting facts. Facts are not what happened on the surface but also what was below it and which can explain it. Facts are uncovered or discovered. They don't lie around. Any historical construction is temporary, because it can be superseded by new facts or new interpretations. There is no definitive history. Those historians who assert the contrary are prone to a very silly ideology. Little by little, or with big jumps occasionally, generation after generation, a consensus is created about a certain phenomenon.

We're still far away from having reached such a consensus with respect to the Spanish Civil War.

On another topic, I totally and unreservedly agree with Cameron Sawyer (September 15th). I have all the volumes of Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg at home and very frequently consult them. Some aspects may be a bit out of date (unavoidably so) but the effort behind such work was enormous and well-meant.

JE comments:  I'm trying to imagine a mollusk ideology.  For starters, they must be strongly opposed to oyster bars and the pearl industry...

Seriously now, Ángel Viñas has identified the ingredients of the historian's art:  analysis, skills, intuition, and curiosity.  I would add work ethic, which Ángel possesses more than almost anyone I know.  The "ideology" for an honest historian should be limited to the types of questions s/he asks, and not to any a priori conclusions.

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  • Historiography, Ideology, Bias (José Ignacio Soler, Venezuela 09/18/19 10:00 AM)
    I fully agree with Ángel Viñas's statement (September 18th) that "history writing is influenced by ideology," and consequently it is not always possible for historians to analyze and interpret historical facts, documents and testimonies in an objective way. However, it must be added that any historian is influenced and intellectually biased regarding what they want to believe, need or are forced to believe, by their motivations and emotions, subjective perceptions, prejudices, ethical-moral principles, and politically biased ideas. "No historian writes like a mollusk"; I like this metaphor.

    Furthermore, their interpretation is to a great extent supported by speculation, because it is materially impossible to know all the facts, background and witnesses' perceptions around a historical event. This would apply to testimonies, as well as to "official" or personal documents which can be suspected to be biased and incomplete.

    This does not mean that historians' work should be discredited. They do a difficult and many times splendid job. It is hard enough to ask historians for full objectivity. As Ángel says, "Facts are uncovered or discovered. They don't lie around. Any historical construction is temporary, because it can be superseded by new facts or new interpretations. There is no definitive history."

    Historians should always be humble and admit the limitations and incompleteness of their conclusions. Professional arrogance in one's work as the final-only-true, is not a desirable or virtuous feature in historians.

    In principle, this personal burden should not necessarily disqualify a historian's work, and I mean any historian from whatever ideology. As our brilliant editor once said, "The most honest approach is to state explicitly one's (historians) political (ideological) beliefs" when the historical work is presented.

    JE comments:  Nacho, I am humbled by your adjective--and certainly relieved you wrote "our brilliant editor once said," and not "our once-brilliant editor said..."

    A question for the WAISitudes:  have you ever been dazzled, impressed, or even convinced by a historian whose ideology you abhor? I wouldn't say I exactly "abhor" the ideology of A. J. P. Taylor, but he is way too sympathetic towards Hitler.  Still, I will acknowledge his brilliance (Taylor's, not Hitler's).

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