Tag Archives: Historical Method

Salvation at Stake

Today we wrap-up a mini-series on the philosophy of doing history.

The final essay in we will look at in this series is a chapter from Brad Gregory’s Salvation at Stake. This final essay represents the strongest set of arguments against a form of historiography dominated by what have variously been called, “the new historicism,” “the linguistic turn” or most simply, post-structuralism.

In the introduction to Salvation at Stake, Gregory describes his two-fold purpose: 1)

Brad Gregory holds the Dorothy G. Griffin Chair in the Department of History at the University of Notre Dame.

present an account of Christian martyrdom from the perspective of four traditions and 2) make a methodological contribution to how historians approach the early modern period. (2) For the purposes of comparing this essay to the others from this week, our focus will be on the section titled “On Understanding Early Modern Christianity.” Here Gregory addresses how poststructuralist theory “alleges a radical disjunction between representations and realities, rendering truth claims unverifiable.” (9) The “insights” of post-structuralism have “taught” us that the martyrs who died for their religious beliefs, in fact held views that are mere constructions. Post-structuralism has also “taught” us that these martyr’s beliefs were nothing but “strategies of domination” and that the literature which reported martyrdom was nothing but propaganda and political power-plays.

In light of these “lessons” Gregory calls us to declare a postmortem for poststructuralism “so that we may avoid its dead end.” (10) Instead we should take these martyrs and their storytellers on their own terms. (10) Instead of deconstructing early modern accounts we ought to be reconstructing these accounts. (11) When we do this we will have come up with an account which (hopefully) the subjects of study would have recognized as their own.

In order to reconstruct plausible accounts Gregory has to address two issues. First, that all claims, including religious claims, are embeded within social relationships, institutions, and other cultural expectations. Second, that people often act for covert interests and rationalize their actions. The second issue can be addressed without adopting a hermeneutic of suspicion. The hermeneutic of suspicion should be avoided because it “destroys the very possibility of understanding historical difference” and “undermines the sincerity and integrity of people whose actions fall beyond the boundaries of behavior enacted ‘in good faith.’”(14) Instead of a hermeneutic of suspicion we ought to adopt a hermeneutic of charity, taking sources at their own words unless there are reasons to believe that the source is being deceptive. In the case of martyrological sources, one can maintain a fine balance between suspicion and charity by checking martyological literature against literature produced by opponents. Surprisingly, both kinds of accounts tend to be very similar in what they report. Thus, it seems as though a hermeneutic of charity can give us adequate details of events as they are reported.


Out of the five essays we have examined this was the essay that I resonated the most with. I find myself agreeing with much of what Gregory has to say; especially as it concerns the problems of post-structuralism or “the linguistic turn.” The method he proposes does a good job of guarding against some of the realities that post-structuralism brings up, namely subjectivity and covert motives. His method does not dismiss these realities, however he refuses to let historiography be put into bondage by these realities. Instead he leverages these two points to develop an even more objective account of historical events.

In addition to the fact that this method has some payoff regarding research I believe that it also has another strength: it displays Christian virtue. By this I mean, that this method attempts to refrain from reading false motives into its subjects. In a sense you could say that this method attempts refuses to bear false witness against its neighbor and thus keeps 9th commandment. Also, one might think that this method is in line with Paul’s description of Christian love in 1 Corinthians 13: love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. For these two simple reasons I am drawn to Brad Gregory’s method over the method of the other authors we have examined thus far.


Last Will and Testament of an Ex-Literary Critic

Today we continue a mini-series on the philosophy of doing history. In the next few days we will take a look at all sorts of views regarding how to do history. These views range from critical realist accounts all the way to post-structuralist accounts and even some feminist accounts.

“Last Will and Testament of an Ex-Literary Critic” is a sort of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde confession. In the same man there exists two persons. The first is a “historian and polemicist of literary theory, who could speak with passion, without noticeable impediment about literature as a political instrument.” (59) This man could murder a piece of literature and expose show how literary texts are devious acts of power. The second is a man who simply enjoyed the pleasures of reading good literature. One might imagine that the second man is Dr. Jekyll, a polite, composed, model citizen and that the first man is Mr. Hyde, a ruthless villain, robbing people of the pleasures of life. Although many non-academics might see things this way, the fact is that in the academy – specifically literature departments – the second man is the one who is paraded as a model to be emulated and the first is deemed to barbarous to roam the halls of the elite institutions of academia. Such a man is called “non-literary.”

In explaining his experience of living as a literary critic and a lover of literature Frank

Frank Lentricchia

Lentricchia exposes some of the absurdities of the sort of literary criticism practiced by various approaches to the study of literature, including (but not explicitly named) the New Historicism. He explains that at one point he was convinced that as a literary critic he could “be an agent of social transformation, an activist who would show his students that, in its form and style, literature had a strategic role to play in the world’s various arrangements of power” and that all literature was “either in opposition to or in complicit with the power in place.” (60) However, Lentricchia eventually came to believe that this sort of approach to literature, which is standard in literature departments is misguided. He now believes that literary criticism is “a form of Xeroxing.” (64) Literary critics a live in an echo-chamber, when they speak of the imperialism, homophobia, sexism, etc. hidden in a literary text, they are simply voicing their own ideological concerns. Instead of being concerned with the “power plays” supposedly voiced in literary texts, Lentricchia now contents himself with simply trying to “describe what is on the page.” (67) And thus, it seems that for now Lentricchia’s Mr. Hyde, the lover of literature, has eclipsed Dr. Jekyll, the literary critic.


This essay does a fine job of exposing the fact that literary criticism can serve as a form of political activism. The literary critic, by exposing the supposed ideologies present in great works of literature, believes she can shape and mold her audience towards pursuing a better world. There is something noble about this. However, Lentricchia, rightly in my mind, exposes the fact that in their desire to make the world a better place, some critics can read things into texts that are not actually there simply because the critic is driven by a particular agenda. This is what he calls “Xeroxing.”

The act of “Xeroxing” is a danger that is not just present for the literary critic but the historian as well. Its too easy to read sexism or racism, issues which a historian is right to be concerned with, into historical texts which are neither sexist or racist. “John Calvin did not allow women to take the pulpit in Geneva, therefore he is a sexist.” “Peter Martyr Vermigli never attempted to teach outside of Europe, therefore he is euro-centric.” These are potential examples of “Xeroxing” in the discipline church history. Lentricchia is right, we should attempt to allow our “texts” speak for themselves instead of imposing our own judgements upon “texts” for issues that “texts” are not even concerned with.

See, Frank Lentricchia, “Last Will and Testament of an Ex-Literary Critic,” Lingua Franca 6/6 (September/October 1996): 59-67.

The “New” Historicism

Today we continue a mini-series on the philosophy of doing history. In the next few days we will take a look at all sorts of views regarding how to do history. These views range from critical realist accounts all the way to post-structuralist accounts and even some feminist accounts.

What happens when E.H. Carr’s claim that “The historian, before he begins to write history, is the product of history” is applied to the historical study of literary texts? (Carr, 48) [See the previous blog post] What happens when “the norm of disembodied objectivity to which humanists have increasingly aspired” is perceived as an illusion, and not just an illusion but an illusion which is capable of producing harm? (Veeser, ix) The result is what is called, “The New Historicism.”

Although the term escapes a clear definition (Veeser, x) or an “agreed upon intellectual and institutional program,” or a “systematic or authoritative paradigm” for practicing the New Historicism,” (Montrose, 18) there are several key assumptions which tend to mark New Historicist thought. Veeser lists five of these assumptions. (Veeser, xi) What binds these assumptions together is the idea that all “texts” both literary and non-literary do not stand apart from cultural-linguistic frameworks. Because no text ever exists a se the literary critic ought to discard modes of analysis which content themselves in analyzing the purely literary features of written texts. There is no purely literary text. As Montrose explains, “the social is understood to be discursively constructed”  and “language use is… socially and materially determined and constrained.” (Montrose, 15) Because language is socially and materially determined and constrained, literary texts like those of Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Orson Wells or any number of authors of “great books” are products of history, culture, society, politics, institutions, class and gender. (Montrose, 15) Recognizing that all texts are socially constructed (even determined) the New Historicist also recognizes that her own writing of “texts” will be socially constructed. She will realize that she is also “incapable of offering any description or explanation that is located at some Archimedean point” outside of history. (Montrose, 30) She will recognize that issues of politics, gender, ethnicity, class, age color her choice of which literary texts to read, how she reads these texts, and how she writes about them. In other words the New Historicist is a “product of history.”

Recognizing that she is a project of history, the New Historicist cannot help but be invested in her “product.” She has a task, namely to, “disabuse students of the notion that history is what’s over and done with.” (Montrose, 25) This task, is by no means neutral, it is a task of “oppositional social and political praxis.” By showing students that “they live history” the New Historicist takes part in the task of exposing hidden assumptions in our own cultural-linguistic frameworks. In doing so she takes part in confronting “harmful” ideologies.


There is something attractive to me about this approach to the study of historical texts. The New Historicism as represented in these two texts correctly, in my mind, draws our attention to the fact that historical texts do not exist in a vacuum but that when they were first created they were placed within a particular cultural-linguistic framework. That is historical texts are based on the assumptions of their day. Second, the New Historicism draws our attention to the idea that even the historian is socially and linguistically located, and that such a location affects both the texts we select as worthy of study and how we study those texts. To ignore the role our own history plays in doing history would be foolish. These two points are points that are very similar to E.H. Carr’s in What is History? However, these two points differ a bit from Carr’s points in that they emphasize not just that cultural-linguistic location affects the texts that are read and our reading of these texts, but that the cultural-linguistic location determine and constrain texts and reading of texts. Carr advocated for the possibility of “objectivity” through a dialectical process of moving between the past and present. However, it is not clear to me that the New Historicist believes that such a dialectical process is even possible. Without the possibility of “objectivity” even in the sense that Carr calls for it seems to me that the possibility of doing history is severely undercut – historical analysis ends up being the critical practice of analyzing  how our own ideological commitments color older ideologically colored texts.

For references see:

  • H. Aram Veeser, “Introduction” in The New Historicism (New York: Routledge, 1989), ix-xvi.
  • Louis A. Montrose, “Professing the Renaissance: The Poetics and Politics of Culture,” in The New Historicism, 15-36.