Coda: Postnarrativist Philosophy of Historiography
The perception that it is necessary to choose between a nihilistic 'anything goes' postmodernism and an absolutist objectivism has bewitched much of the contemporary philosophical discussion on historiography and beyond. This book has tried to show the way in which historiography, and specifically its main cognitive products, can be evaluated and ranked rationally, but without a commitment to the correspondence theory of truth. Postnarrativist philosophy of historiography endorses the initial insight of narrativism that the texts and entire books of history are the main knowledge contributions of historiography and must be the subjects of philosophical analysis, but it understands them as exemplifying historiographical reasoning for theses of history.
I have introduced a number of new concepts or novel applications of old concepts in this book. This coda provides a brief code for postnarra- tivist discourse on historiography. The transition from narrativism means regarding historiography as a type of rational practice and not as a kind of narrative storytelling. Historiography attempts to produce synthesizing or colligatory views on the past. These are the most original and expressive contributions of the discipline. Historians attempt to persuade others to accept the views put forward in their books. Persuasion may be manifested in many forms, from explicit reasoning from premises to conclusions to narrative storytelling, to rebuttals of rival positions, to exemplifications, etc. Ultimately, all such forms are subservient to the thesis or theses defended and historians try to credit their theses with as high a level of epistemic authority as possible.
The identification of the historical text as an informal argumentative entity means rejecting holism regarding historiographical theses. The content of a text of history can be seen as divided into the
meaning-constituting elements of a historiographical thesis and the evidence for it, although the distinction is not clear-cut. In other words, the meaning-constituting elements may enable one to understand the evidence better, while more extensive evidence makes the meaning of what is claimed clearer. Nevertheless, this 'molecularist' position entails that there are elements in any historiographical text that are inessential for the understanding of the main historiographical thesis and that serve the evidentiary function. On the other hand, there is always room for an evidential deepening and a multitude of choices as to how to make the case for any thesis.
Historiography identified as a discursive and argumentative practice also explains the abandonment of representationalism in favor of non-representationalism. It is not reasonable to look for abstract entities that are re-presented once the correspondence relation between the historical reality and historiographical thesis is rejected. Historiography is presentational and constructivist, not re-presentational and re-constructivist. The availability of rational standards of evaluation explains why any fears that 'anything goes' are baseless. A historian's construct can be seen as epistemically authoritative if it is seen to be fit with respect to all dimensions of cognitive justification: the rhetorical, the epistemic and the discursive. That is, the text is a persuasive manifestation of reasoning for a thesis; it is an exemplary employment of epistemic values, including references to actual historical objects with regard to non-colligatory expressions; and it is a successful argumentative intervention in the relevant argumentative context. In this kind of case, a historiographical text has a rational warrant that gives it the epistemic authority for what is stated. Further, any text is an argumentative speech act and, in the ideal case, readers feel rationally compelled to accept the reasoning of the historian and the historian's conclusion.
Although higher-order historiographical knowledge, synthesizing and colligatory theses are constructions, they can be seen as real if they have an appropriate justification and rational warrant. Skepticism and doubt regarding their reality emerges not on the level of historical research, but on the meta-level of the philosophy of historiography. Rationally warranted historiographical theses concerning historical phenomena are real with respect to the historical world, although their status as object-sided entities may be questioned in philosophical analysis. The point is that the job of historians, like that of scientists, is to find the best possible characterizations and constructions of their object world and not to ponder primarily what the relation of historiography and its cognitive products is to historical reality in general. That is a job for the philosophy of historiography.
The subject-sidedness of historiography means that its constructions are original and expressive. Objectivity in the ontological sense is possible but not necessarily desirable in historiography. On the other hand, objectivity as intersubjective and inter-communal justification is desirable. The historian wishes that as many people as possible find his or her historiographical thesis to be maximally justified, that is, rationally compelling to accept. On the most fundamental level, this is due to shared human rational features. It is naturally possible to practice historiography irrationally or non-rationally, or perhaps to find a community that does not commit to Western forms of rationality. And yet rationality forms a normative kind of transcendental limit for scholarly historiography. Everyone is free to choose their community and discourse, but scholarly historiography, as any academic practice, requires a commitment to rationality at least on a foundational level.
This is the conceptual code suggested in this book in a nutshell. The postnarrativist approach displayed naturally still leaves many questions unanswered and provides ingredients for further investigations in the philosophy of historiography. A postnarrativist philosophy of historiography provides only a framework, after all. For example, if narrativists studied and analyzed historiography as a kind of literary form, my suggestion is that we need research on historiography as an argumentative practice. What kinds of structures of reasoning or argumentation are displayed in books of history? Is there a field-specific historiographical reasoning? Or, to what degree can one talk about the field-specificity of historiographical rationality? I suggested that most of historiography produces synthesizing and colligatory theses that owe much to subject-sidedness but that relatively object-sided historiography is also possible. It would be interesting to learn more about what kinds of theses historians actually put forward and whether the interpretative subject-sided element is as strong as it seems. How about originality then? Are there any measures for specifying how original a historian's contribution is?
These are only some potential openings for further research. The post- narrativism of this book suggests that we take seriously the narrativist idea of books containing central theses, but it proposes going beyond narrativism with regard to how historiography is characterized and with regard to its evaluative standards. Historiography is a form of societal and academic critical discourse about us and about our past. Potential views and arguments in this discourse are infinite, but fortunately there are ways to differentiate between poorer and better argumentative accounts. I hope that this book in its specific philosophical genre is of the latter kind and that it has given motivation for some readers to develop and improve the discourse on historiography in the framework of postnarrativist philosophy of historiography.