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Lionel Gossman’s Towards a Rational Historiography (American Philosophical Society Transaction 73-5, ISBN: 142237467X)

Towards a Rational Historiography
(American Philosophical Society Transaction 79-3, ISBN: 142238196X)
by Lionel Gossman (Paperback, 68 pages, 1989, $25.00)

Towards a Rational Historiography

Author Lionel Gossman maintains that underlying the argument that historiography cannot be subsumed under a poetics or a rhetoric (in the sense of a system of purely linguistic or literary tropes) is a larger claim, namely that a wide range of activities, from literary criticism, through legal debate, theology, ethics, politics, psychology, and medicine to the natural sciences, all constitute rational practices, even if there is considerable variation in the degree of formalism and rigor and in the type of argument most commonly employed in each of these different of fields of inquiry.

See the Google Preview: Towards a Rational Historiography of this book before you purchase it.

Hence Gossman emphasizes the practice or process of doing history rather than the product. What appeals to him in the idea of reason as a practice is its open, liberal, and democratic character. Historiography as a rational practice supposes a community of participants rather than the “anomie” of a world in which every man is his own historian or, at best, the relation of hero and follower that appears to be implied by privileging the historical “text.”

“In a 1963 essay on Voltaire’s History of Charles XII,” author Lionel Gossman tells the American Philosophical Society, “I had argued, in reaction to the seemingly entrenched positivism of the historical profession, that in constructing their narratives historians use the same literary figures and tropes as writers of fiction.

“After the publication of Hayden White’s groundbreaking Metahistory by the Johns Hopkins University Press (of whose editorial board I was then a member), I became associated with a group of historians, philosophers, and literary scholars, who were putting forward similar arguments.

“Soon, however, as often happens, what had been a challenging, critical position became a new orthodoxy. My students seemed to believe that there was no difference at all between history and fiction.

“I was convinced there was and I began to argue that modern history at least was a problem-solving rather than a myth-making activity, an ongoing process of criticism and revision, which could never, certainly, result in a representation of past reality but which in fact neither aimed nor claimed to offer that.

“I suggested that we consider historical narrative as closer to the competing evidence-based narratives presented in a court of law than to literary fictions. Towards a Rational Historiography was my attempt to stake out a position that was neither naively positivist nor completely skeptical.”

Edward Berenson writes in his book The Trial of Madame Caillaux: “Unlike many recent critics of historians and historical practice, especially those influenced by French literary theory, Gossman grounds his discussion in a solid sense of what historians ‘actually do’, not just when they write their narratives but when they perform their research, integrate and evaluate the work of others, revise and reconceptualize their scholarship in the face of new evidence and critical scrutiny.”

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June 30, 2010 at 10:29 pm Leave a comment


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