Sunday, May 07, 2006

Lecture 1: Introduction - Jewish & Roman Context

Well, I've read the first lecture and watched the DVD. Surprise! The written lecture is nearly verbatim! So now I'm thinking I could've saved the price of the DVDs. Oh well. Processing the same information through multiple channels is often one of the best ways for me to really solidify my grasp of it.

Explain the definition of history in the lecture.

"History is the reconstruction of the past by the mind from sources."

Fr. O'Connell highlights that the definition is a declarative statement followed by three prepositional phrases. If we want to be really pedantic, we could go a little further and say that it is a noun phrase followed predicate nominative modified by three prepositional phrases (and since I also tend toward pedantry, I will go further and say that ;-).

History is a reconstruction. It doesn't come to use whole cloth but requires us to assemble it from pieces. Those pieces are persons, settings, and events in the past. We take those pieces, attempt to determine how they fit together, and try to create a picture—our reconstruction.

I consider the inclusion of "persons" here critical. Without people, there is really no history but simply paleontology or science. The study of past events becomes history when it involves people as beings with will. When a science involves geophysical elements from the past, we call it geology. When science involves plants and animals (even human animals) from the past, we call it evolutionary biology. The difference between these elements and the subject matter of history is that history studies a subject with volition or will. As much as modern scientists and philosophers might look contemptuously on eschatology or directed purpose in the world, the very subject matter of history presumes it to a degree.

Enough of my bloviating...

A reconstruction of the past...
We take pieces from the past and reassemble them. As Fr. O'Connell said, "What you see is what you get" (or WYSIWYG as they call it in my profession).

in the mind...

There are two aspects of this. First we assemble these pieces from the past and evaluate them from a subjective viewpoint. We cannot help but to insert our own biases, our own experiences, or our own belief systems into the process of making sense of the events of the past.

This reminds me of a satire I read in Reader's Digest of all places about twenty years ago. The piece was supposedly a paper written after the discovery of an ancient burial tomb. The actuality was that this "ancient tomb" was a room at a Holiday Inn. The archeologists went to painstaking detail to describe the burial vestments used by these ancient peoples, including an ephod-like item with a headband that had the words (spelled phonetically) "sah-ni-taiz'd for yor pro-tek-shun."

There was a similar essay concerning the Body Rituals of the Nacirema that I read during my undergrad studies.

Did I mention that sometimes digress?

The second aspect of the phrase "in the mind" is that we are constrained by concepts our mind imposes on the material by necessity. We can't possibly wrap our heads around the totality of human history, so we naturally try to compartmentalize it. We have to be cognizant of the fact that the distinctions we draw to enable ourselves to understand history are conceptual—they're mental fabrications that don't really exist in the real world. For example, if we talk about the economic history of Antioch, we're bleeding over into the religious history of Antioch as well. There's no real line between these to topics, except the one we impose upon it.

In any case, we have to be cognizant of these impositions on the material of our own mental categories (hat tip to I. Kant) and understand that these mental categories are not inherent in the material itself but are imposed by us. What happens when we forget this and begin imposing our concepts or our contemporary mindset willy-nilly on the events in the past is a construction as opposed to a reconstruction. Some of the abuses of the feminist, Marxist, and the ironically named deconstructionist historical perspectives strike me as excellent examples of subjectivism run amok in the historical playground.

I guess I'm rambling...

from sources.

This phrase is what makes history objective. I hesitate to say scientific because the sources include human witnesses who often have preconceived notions of how the world works, and there is no attempt to isolate conditions in such a way as to eliminate irrelevant data. However, what historians do is piece together the data of what witnesses profess, in addition to whatever data is available. Unlike fiction or poetry, the starting point for history is not the imagination but the details related by the source. The historian's job is to piece together the facts presented by the sources to present a picture of the totality, creatively but constrained by the sources.

What is the difference between history and tradition?

Tradition is an accumulation. If we say tradition with a lowercase t, we're talking about a vast body of thought, stories, memories, individuals, and practices that makes up the cultural framework around our faith. If we say Tradition with a capital T, we're talking about certain practices or beliefs that have been handed down consistently without contradiction by through the guidance of the Church, hence, the Holy Spirit. Lowercase tradition contains uppercase Tradition, but some things in lowercase tradition don't have the same weight of truth. They don't necessarily rise to the level of revealed Truth.

History, on the other hand, is focused on material, temporal events and personages, that have been recorded. Like science, it does not attempt to reach beyond material experience. However, history allows us to reach back to confirm whether something is tradition with a lowercase t or with an uppercase T.

What does he mean by not fleeing history?

We cannot and should not try to ignore the history of the Church, even though some aspects of our history are less than flattering. Our history is what makes the Church what it is today—and institution of fallible human beings handing on infallible Truth. Our history demonstrates better than anything else that even the sinful nature of man cannot overcome the Truth. If we haven't destroyed the Church with all of our frailties and failings, what could prevail against it? Only a Divinely supported institution could last through such events.

UPDATE: I just read this article on Cardinal Newman by Carl Olsen over at Catholic Exchange. Mr. Olsen's final paragraph sums up the case for history well. History our friend because it bears out the claims of Apostolic Succession and the roots of the early Church.

In what way is history a science? In what way an art?

History is scientific in that it relies on data for its material. It is constrained by the data available to it. History is an art in that the data cannot interpret itself. The data must be assembled and synthesized to make any sense. Like art, the material is filtered through the mind of the historian and expressed. The difference is that the artist's inspiration comes from within. The historian's inspiration comes from without.

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