Friday, January 03, 2003

Oral history, historical fact, interpretation

Slowly the conservatives are coming foward to elaborate their position on 'we have to defend empirical history at all costs from 'lefty bias', lefty's 'pushing their barrow', the 'black armband view of Australian history', and the 'leftist historical orthodoxy prevailing in academia' as embodied in Henry Reynolds. In this defence, they stand by historical fact and draw a line in the sand between historical fact and the Aboriginal oral tradition or interpretation. See Battle of the black armband

So what do people such as Tony Staley, a former federal Liberal Party President and now board member of the National Musem of Australia, mean by historical fact? What is the historical fact that makes national history authentic and historicallly accurate?

It is a reasonable question since there are no eye witnesses still alive today. Alas, Staley does not say but he does imply that historical fact is what makes history true.

But we know what they are. They are historical sources. What are historical sources? Clearly, it is not local Aboriginal oral history because this history is what is explicitly rejected in the name of historical fact. Windshuttle, for instance, explictly attacked the National Musem of Australia for presenting Aboriginal oral tradition as historical fact. It would appear that police records are historical fact.

But why are police records treated as fact and so deemed to be true? What makes these records true rather false? Has not the police, as an institution, been shown to doctor their documents? Why do we not treat these records as downplaying the killing of Aborigines by white settlers? Do not these records not need to be interpreted in the light of other sources about settler roving parties, their relationships with military parties. Why are police records treated as historical facts and not as written texts that need to be interpreted by historians?

I presume the historian goes to a musem, library or other such institutions pulls out the archives and goes through a bunch of old documents which are treated as primary sources for a local history. The historian is skilled in the 'methodology' of hermeneutics, or the study and practice of the art of interpreting texts ravaged by time and cultural differences to discern their meaning, and uses this methodology---or better still skill--- to help gain an understanding of frontier history. So why should we not be suspicious of the settler ideology buried in these written texts?

What Staley does is to assert that these historical sources are facts and to deny that the police records are written texts that need to be interpreted. He gives us no reason for this assertion nor for his assumption that these police records should be seen as mirroring reality, rather than covering up or distorting what actually happened.

We can think differently about truth. Let me suggest something. If we adopt an interpretive approach to historical texts then gaining an understanding of frontier history would involve truth as describing a condition or process which suddenly or gradually shows itself, and can be concretely appropriated. That which was ignorable, hidden, and avoidable----the massacre of aborigines---now becomes obtrusive, unforgettable, and unavoidable. This process is one where that which “is” ---frontier warfare--- is discovered, uncovered, and recovered. Truth is a process of bringing into light, that which “is “readily graspable---eg., through the work of Henry Reynolds----and thus this readily graspable of frontier warfare becomes a part of the historical time-space of Australia,as disclosed by a process of historical interpretation.

Frontier history is both the record of beings coming into the light--the massacres of Aborigines----and then retreating back into darkness --eg., through the work of Windshuttle. History is a continuous struggle to unconceal truth.

We can do history without assuming the correspondence theory of truth in which historical resources, such as settler police records, are assumed to be historical fact.
Possible Changes

Negotiations are under way to develop philosophy.com in a more collective direction with different people writing on it. This would give the weblog more diversity within the overall field of continental philosophy. It would make the weblog more experimental in terms of exploring the different kinds of writing in a philosophical mode.

Thursday, January 02, 2003

A passage from Heidegger

Some food for thought over the weekend. It is taken from Heidegger's essay, What are Poets For?

"What is deadly is not the much-discussed atomic bomb as this particular death-dealing machine. What has long been threatening man with death, and indeed with the death of his own nature, is the unconditioned character of mere willing in the sense of purposeful self-assertion in everything. What threatens man in his very nature is the willed view that man, by the peaceful release, transformation, storage, and channelling of the energies of physical nature, could render the human condition, man's being, tolerable for everybody and happy in all respects. But the peace of this peacefulness is merely the undisturbed continuing restlessness of the fury of self-assertion which is resolutely self-reliant. What threatens man in his very nature is the view that this imposition of production can be ventured into without any danger, as long as other interests besides----such as, perhaps the interests of faith------ retain their currency.

...What threatens man in his very nature is the view that technological production puts the world in order, while in fact this ordering is precisely what levels every order, every rank, down the uniformity of production, and thus from the outset destroys the realm from which any rank and recognition could possibly arise.
"

M. Heidgger, Poetry, Language, Thought (p.116-7)

This needs to be mulled or pondered over. Basically, Heidegger is arguing that human willing, in the form of purposeful self-assertion, is what is dangerous. When coupled to the system of technology we are threatened with a single endless winter----darkness----or a destitute time.

"But where there is danger, there grows also what saves us."

These lines, which are from the German poet Holderin, signpost the way from the abyss.Thats what poets are for in a destitute time.

Do we encounter such poets today when the talk of our politicians is about war? Does not the purposeful self-assertion coupled to the war machine threaten us with danger?

Happy weekend everyone.

M. Heidgger, Poetry, Language, Thought (p.116-7)

Wednesday, January 01, 2003

Windshuttle, empirical history, language

Windshuttle's understanding of empirical history implies that the historian can see the evidence of history if they can somehow scrub their minds clean and see it for it is. We need this scrubbing clean to avoid abusing the evidence of history through our politics, prejudices and interests and so obtain objective knowledge of historical reality. This 'scrubbing clean' implies that we can stand outside our situatedness in history and our perspectival understanding within history. It implies a God's-eye standpoint, namely one that has broken free from our cultural beliefs, cultural schemes, traditions, interests and tested them against something known---the evidence of history---without their aid. In this way we can discover the way history really is.

I for one have no idea what it would be like to be at that standpoint. Why not? Because of what is missing in Windshuttle's account---language. We see the empirical evidence from within our language, we interpret the empirical evidence of history from within language, and the evidence of history are historical texts within langauge. What Windshuttle implies is that we can climb outside our minds to see how how things actually are. He ignores/overlooks that what stands between the historians mind and the evidence of history is a public language.

So how do we get outside language to attain God's eye standpoint? Well that question makes no sense to me. It is asking me to step outside human history into a nonhuman reality---to transcend human history through using a skyhook. As far as I can see Windshuttle is chasing an illusion. As far as I can see the conventions and methodologies we devise for evaluating historical claims, arguments, assertions, interpretations in writing our history are internal to our language. Notions like, reference, correpondence, truth, evidence by which we come to an agreement about the truth content of historical claims are internal to language and to our overall view of the world. This rootedness in history, language and meaning cannot be avoided.

Tuesday, December 31, 2002

Windshuttle, History, Mythology

I came across this claim about history in a piece written by Glenn Milne on the National Musem of Australia (NMA) called Museum set for fight over who owns the past. In it Milne quotes Keith Windshuttle as follows:

"In a paper delivered to a conference at the NMA, Windschuttle attacked Derrida's theory at its core. He said: "If you abandon the principles of empirical history – that evidence is independent of the observer and that truth is discovered rather than invented – you consign everyone to their own cultural cocoons, from which all they can do is talk past one another. No debate can ever be resolved."

"The replacement of history by mythology," he calls it.

Milne basically accepts this attack as a king hit. Oz bloggers have shown that Milne has no idea of what Derrida is on about in Keith & Jacques & Glen & Jack and Junk Journalism

So let us address Windshuttle's claims that he made at the National Musem of Australia. Previous postings on this blog have shown that Windschuttle's big claim, that shifting to interpretive mode of history writing involves the replacement of history by mythology, is not the case. We have argued that what it means is a different kind of history writing---one that openly acknowledges the role of interpretation in history. Windshuttle wants to close out this kind of history, and he does so by defending a positivist conception of history as science, whose method is to objectify actions as events to be causally explained. This is the philosophical dimension of the cultural wars.

If we shift from an empiricist kind of history to an interpretative one does that consign everyone to their own cultural cocoons, as Windshuttle claims?

It would initially appear that Windshuttle is right here because everyone is operating within a hermeneutical circle and working from their own cultural traditions. Does that mean that all we can is talk past one another and that no debate can ever be resolved?

The answer to all three questions is no, no, no. A quick sketch of why to show that it is not as open and shut as Windshuttle makes out.

Everyone is not consigned to the cultural cocoons of their own traditions and prejudices because of the overlapping nature of our competing interpretations and the ongoing revision of these interpretations in the light of criticism. This process happens through public dialogue---as we see with the historians.

It is not the case that all we can do is talk past one another with no one listening. A dialogue is akin to an ongoing conversation in which we do listen to what the other person is saying to us. If we don't listen then we have a monologue. What we do in a conversation is revise the prejudices and question the assumptions of cultural traditions which give us our orientation in the world in the light of what others are saying.

Nor is it the case that debates can never be resolved. Sure, we do not have debates being finished in the sense of a cricket match being finished: someone has won, someone has lost and thats it, game over. Debates are ongoing because we do not have absolute knowledge or truth. But debates can be resolved in terms of people in the conversation reaching some form of overlapping consensus about where things stand on a particular issue; an issue played out in a historical sense; or another issue then arises with its different and conflicting interpretations.

This hermeneutical dimension can also be found in natural science and in economics. What this indicates is that the empiricist/positivist model of knowledge that Windshuttle is using as a weapon in the cultural wars is flawed. Thats why things are not as cut and dried as he makes out.

Monday, December 30, 2002

Interpretation or Fakery

One of the consequences of writing history whilst living it, is that we live within a circle of interpretations that reach way back into our history. The recent discussion of the Windshuttle, Reynolds, Ryan accounts of Tasmanian Aboriginal history in the media indicates that we have conflicting interpretations of what happened and that we are being asked to evaluate and choose between them. We do not stand outside history or the hermenutical circle to do this. We do it from within.

The response by one Padraic P. McGuinness Tackling fakery in the halls of Academe is to sidestep the circle of interpretation to concentrate on the misuse of primary sources and to argue that none of the primary sources supports Ryan's story. McGuinness argues this empiricist case as follows:

"It is true that there is more than one "truth" to be discerned in any historical account, and there are always shades of grey. But there should be no misunderstanding of what Keith Windschuttle in his recent writings has been saying. He is not just contesting interpretations of what happened to Aborigines in the past, but is pointing to something much more serious, the deliberate falsification of our history ... This cannot be dismissed with post-modernist twaddle about differing truths, shades of grey or whatever. The real mystery is what the various writers who have used this kind of methodology have thought they were doing."

Why the falsification? That is the question that is posed nuy McGuiness. The case for falsification is made by selecting a particular incident from Lyndall Ryan's The Aboriginal Australians. McGuinness says:

"This describes a massacre in May 1827, where Aborigines kill a kangaroo hunter in reprisal for shootings of Aborigines, then burn down a house because its owner's stockmen had seized Aboriginal women, kill several other whites, and then in retaliation a white vigilante group is formed and massacres many Aborigines (Windschuttle, p. 139). Ryan gives three sources.
Unfortunately, none of the sources supports her story, and there is simply no evidence of motives or reasons on either side, or even of any massacre."


From this McGuiness infers that:

"This is fiction. Nor is it an isolated instance of this technique of writing "history". This cannot be a matter of occasional slips or errors of haste. It is about the construction of a version of Australian history which is simply not supported by the evidence cited, very often non-existent."

McGuinness then concludes: "There is a serious case to be answered." It is one of fabrication. The issue for him is: Why fabricate the evidence? Why the deliberate falsification of our history? This is the case that has to be answered. The historians are in the dock. The charge is that they are pretending to write history. As they guilty of falsifying history they have written fiction and trampled on truth.

Hang a mo.---historical understanding is not simply about the intention of the historian. Nor are in a courtroom facing judge and jury for a crime. What McGuinness is trying to do here is to escape the hermeneutical cirlce by appealing to psychological data----deliberate falsifcation of data----that is external to the text.

We are in the public sphere and we have an issue of interpretation as well as the use or abuse of primary sources. The primary sources are texts which are interpreted by the historian and they advance interpretations of what happened in history based on their reading of these texts. What McGuinness is eliminating here is interpretation. We have truth and error. Errors in the use of primary textual resources=fiction=fabrication. Nothing more need be said. Goodbye to interpretation. So speaks an empiricist.

We cannot say goodbye to interpretation just like that in the name of an empiricism that dogmatically states, the facts ma'am, just the facts. We need to accept that our historical understanding is prejudiced and historically conditioned, and that we anticipate or project meaning in order to understand a particular text. We do not read a text with a raw, decultured eye. We read it from within a tradition. We may misread, misinterpret, not see the inconsistencies in the text, but we then revise the textual meaning in the light of latter readings by others.

This revising is open to Ryan and Reynolds. As the latter says you can read our early pioneer history with the bias of our prejudices with the Windshuttle, Reynolds and Ryan books side by side. Revising textual textual meaning and dealing with conflicting interpretations of a text is a normal activity.

Sunday, December 29, 2002

Interpretation and historical fact

One issue that has arisen recently in our public culture is concerned with the roles of fact and interpretation in history. This has come up with respect to both the writing of Aboriginal history--were there massacres, frontier warfare and the destruction of a people (the Tasmanian Aborigines)?; and the Tampa Affair---were the children really thrown overboard by their parents as claimed by the Howard Government during the 2001 federal election?

Views on the relationship between fact and interpretation can be, and often are, quite stark. They can be found for instance in Bernard Slattery's post at Brain Gaze, called DIFFERENT DRUMS. He says:

"I don't know how anyone who values logic can tolerate any left movement that has been polluted by moral equivalence. To speak of ''different truths'', as that stupid, disgraced historian Ryan did, is bunkum. There are facts and lies. In ignoring facts, Ryan and her apologists from the academic left are prepared to accept lies as truth."

There is no role for interpretation here in historical knowledge ---just truth and lies. This implies a belief in science and truth based on a positivist philosophy of science that says historical explanation must conform to a natural scientific model. Slattery's politics sit on top of that positivist foundation. Though Bernard has changed his politics from the 1970s --eg., he has shifted from leftwing to rightwing---he leaves the positivist foundation untouched. As a conservative now Bernard sees things in very black and white terms. Truth =correspondence to fact, there is only one truth (Absolute Truth) and anything else is lies ie., not true. The left has gone postmodernist and so given up on positivism, history as a positivist science and Absolute Truth. This is a disgrace according to Slattery, since it leads to different truths.

Well the academic left has gone postmodernist. The question to ask here is why? Maybe they had good reasons to do so? These have to do with the role of interpretation in historical understanding and the way this undermines what Bernard has cast in eternal bedrock.

One way to come at this is through a comment Allan McCallum made in response to the posting on public opinion. He asks how would we interpret the Tampa affair if we had all the facts from the start. This acknowledges our historical situatedness in these events and our retrospective understanding. Well let us assume that the Senate Inquiry was able to discover all the facts---it didn't due to the Howard Govt preventing the appearance of Ministerial advisors before the Senate Committee----but let us assume that it did. Let us assume the fiction of an Ideal Historian. This then eliminates any falsity or lies.

Would having all the facts resolve the issue? The question does implies a complete knowledge of these events. The answer is no. Why not?

Well, we would be still arguing about the meaning or significance of what happened in the Tampa incident. So we would begin to ask: What is the proper relationship between Ministers and Departments? Should the upper levels of the bureaucracy be politicized? Should Ministerial advisors be accountable to Parliament? Should we close our borders to refugees? What is the appropriate role for the Defences Forces to play. And so on and so on.

Values and politics are embodied in these questions and so the historical meaning of these events depends on our historical horizon or perspective. And the meaning of particular events is a function of their relationship to other events that come after them and indicate their significance.

So rather than being one God-like perspective we have a multitude of perspectives. This means that our historical understanding is partial and perspectival. We could have a complete knowledge only if we could know all the possible stories of the Tampa incident and all the points of view from which it could be discussed. But this is not possible. Though we understand historical events from a wider perspective than our predecessors---eg. Anzac-----we also understand the Anzac tradition from a narrower one than the one our heirs will acquire. So we cannot assume knowledge of the end-point of history and attain a historical understanding that is not dependent on our place in history. We are too situated and immersed in the flow of history.

Historical understanding is incomplete, and is always being revised and reworked by challenging previous interpretations. That is what is happening with Windschuttle's response to Reynolds and Ryan's and the leftie conception of Aborigines as resourceful guerilla fighters against the British invaders. This contested the white pioneer conception of aborigines murdering white settlers and plundering their property.

So there are good reasons to shift away from positivism. Those foundations are historical not eternal and they can be changed. The academic left has shifted away from positivism to interpertation. If you want to be a positivist these days you are required to argue your case.

If we come back to present history wars we find that Windschuttle has been reworking the archives/primary sources and digging more facts from old texts and saying that he is doing a better job than earlier leftie historians. But his historical understanding also involves him running an interpretation of the destruction of Tasmanian Aborigines as he contests the orthodox view of Reynolds and Ryan.

So we are left with different and competing historical interpretations. We live within a circle or web of interpretations of different and interrelated texts.