Friday, December 18, 2009

A call to dialogue between postmodernists and historical critics

I am so glad that John van Seters published his response (Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 9.26 [2009]) to Aichelle, Miscall, and Walsh's call for dialogue between historical critics and postmodernists (JBL 128.2 [2009] 383-404). I came across Seters article via the Dunedin School blog.

It will be no surprise that I hold very similar criticisms to Aichelle, Miscall, and Walsh's position. I have been wanting to take a moment to respond on my blog to this 'call' for dialogue since I read it last summer. So now appears to be a great opportunity to do so.

1. It has become evident to me especially in the last year that postmodernism is not a method, and should not be confused with a method, and is not a substitute for empirical research. It does not move us "beyond" the rigors of historical criticism. Rather Postmodernism is a set of critiques and attitudes toward texts and their interpretation that are largely dependent on modernism and historical criticism's own hermeneutic of suspicion.

2. The historian relies on empirical data gathered by using a critical, rational, contextual approach to the materials being studied. In Europe this is called "the scientific" approach to the study of religion rather than the "theological approach".

3. The postmodern approach, which divorces literature from historical context and questing for 'authorial' intent, is more amenable to churched traditions and theological readings which have been at odds with historical methods for 200 years. It claims that texts have a diversity of meanings that are located in the point of view of those reading it and the intertextual associations that those readers make. Thus many postmodernists want to conclude from this that historical interpretation is no more meaningful or valuable than any other. It is as 'ideological' and 'mythic' as the next. This conclusion is very dangerous and very inaccurate for some of the reasons that I outline in #4.

4. The historian is no idiot. Every generation of historians has critiqued its outcomes, well aware that personal biases affect the interpretation or assemblage of the data. In fact, this is a point that I first learned when I was an undergraduate in college in a history class. My professor called it "our colored glasses", and how it was necessary for us to be aware of them because they would affect our interpretation of the data. The fact that we all have biases that affect the interpretative process does not suggest that the historical critical method does not work or that it is 'mythic' or equivalent in validity with any other interpretation. On the contrary! The historian's own hermeneutic of suspicion and agreement to employ a critical or scientific approach to understanding our past demonstrates that the historical method works and that over time, as more and more historical interpretations and critiques of these interpretations are generated, we get a better and better grasp of our past and what was going on.

That's all I have time for today. I need to get back to cleaning and organizing my office, but at least it is a start to the 'dialogue' called for by Aichelle, Miscall and Walsh.

37 comments: said...

"The historian is no idiot." This needs some qualification. If some historians are not idiots, they are certainly naive. I am particularly thinking of the way most Jewish and Christian scholars interprete the writings attributed to Josephus.

Chris Weimer said...

Hi Dr. DeConick,

The same problem exists in Classics as well. I've dealt with a lot of postmodern works on various authors, especially Herodotus, and see a two-fold problem.

Many pomo works have legitimate ideas: structuralism, for example, which posits the creation of identity by defining the Other, is particularly valid in my opinion, but its use by Lacan, Derrida, Foucoult, Kristeva, Iriguray et al. is in my opinion a tragedy of scholarship (intellectual fraud if you ask Dawkins or Sokal).

I've twice now used various (quasi-, since they're not fully so) pomo concepts that are still grounded in the historical tradition (i.e. rely on context and authorial intent), and I'm a bit annoyed when comparisons are made between what I've written and the abusive authors I sometimes combat.

I'm thinking now of undertaking a book like Sokal combating the abuses of postmodernism in relation to the historical sciences and humanities as it desperately needs to be done.

Chris Weimer, SFSU
Classics MA student

Chris Weimer said...

Oops, that should have been Irigaray, not Iriguray. said...

Its a waste of time.

PAULYR said...

These debates are old and stale to me. T

PAULYR said...

Sorry; type-o in my previous posted comment. As I was saying, these debates are old and stale to me. They remind me of long-ago debates between theologians and historians in post-enlightenment quest for sure knowledge about all sorts of things. What I think is good about postmodernism is it is not beholden to any method in interpreting texts. It is open to all points of view, but has a penchant for pointing out flaws in particular methods. Historians are well aware of potentialities for error in their field. They don't need postmodernists for that.

Pastor Bob said...

It seems to me that if one evaluates method one has to say that the historian to do his/her work places certain limits on the work that are prescribed the the method. I don't think this is wrong, in fact I think it is necessary. I think it would be helpful if historians and theologians, including Biblical theologians, and historians could admit to each other that they are pursing different tasks and therefor use different methods.

The theologian's task is informed by a particular faith. This isn't wrong. It is necessary to the theologian's work.

One sees this in the various works of the Yale school of thought of which Brevard Childs was a member. Child's work is a specific kind of Biblical theological work. It isn't less valid that the historian's but is it different.

So when a Biblical theologian makes a historical claim s/he is making a faith claim.

On the other hand the work of the historian uses an entirely different set of rules. his/her task is to study texts within the historical context. This may lead the historian to make certain statements about the probable historical validity (what, as far as we can tell happened).

But more than that the historian asks what does the author of a document say, how does the what the author says interact with the culture of his/her day and (in the case of various Christian groups and viewpoints) how the author and the author's community interact with those outside the community.

So the theologian is going to make statements about the validity of a particular document in relation with his/her faith and faith community. When the theologian says a document isn't true s/he is making a faith statement.

So also when a theologian makes a historical claim that claim will always be tinged (and in fact comes out of) his/her faith.

This statement comes out of my work as a pastor. I find the work of the historian fascinating and valuable. But ultimately I will look at the world through they eyes of faith.

Anonymous said...

April, you obviously have no idea what 'postmodern' means. And when I discuss historical criticism with historians and literary critics from other disciplines they give me quizzical looks, pointing out that the assumptions of biblical historical criticism are locked into 19th century assumptions.

Thomas said...

I think Roland put it rather bluntly but basically the PM position is that you cannot have a view of events (historical or otherwise) from nowhere. Everyone is somewhere and your view is coloured by that position (and cannot be uncoloured). So I could agree with your first point. Your second point would be fundamentally rejected by any PM. Your third point isn't really a point, just an assertion. Your fourth point must therefore carry the day, but does it?
"The historian's own hermeneutic of suspicion and agreement to employ a critical or scientific approach to understanding our past demonstrates...[the conclusion you want to posit?!?]"

What you do state is "...demonstrates that the historical method works and that over time, as more and more historical interpretations and critiques of these interpretations are generated, we get a better and better grasp of our past and what was going on." What we get are more and more books written without concern for basic presuppositions and circular arguments such as yours.

PM allows you to be proud of your presuppositions but to deny that you have any is fatal and to posit that it is possible to escape them is considered naive.

Anonymous said...

shoot me now! i don't believe we are still having this sort of discussion about so-called postmodernism and at this level!

Dr DeConick's post and especially Chris Weimer's comments are symptomatic of average first year humanities term papers, where one "critiques" Derrida because, duh, of course there is something outside the text. unfortunately, the use of a label such as 'postmodernism' that manages to group Lacan, Derrida, Foucault, Kristeva and Irigaray itself reflects a certain naivete. 'Postmodernism' is only useful as a heuristic device if one is writing an 'Introduction to Social Theory' textbook; It is an attempt by kindly professors who want to provide 'scaffolds' to facilitate understanding. However, to mistake the scaffolding for the building itself reflects a pretty lazy intellectual posture.

I too will be glad for the passing of this fad (and label) because then maybe people will start to actually read and cease shadowboxing with their fantasy opponents.

pearl said...

Dr. DeConick, thank you very much for this post. I found John Van Seters’s response to Aichelle, Miscall, and Walsh's request for dialogue between historical critics and postmodernists to be very ‘enlightening’.

N T Wrong said...

Dr DeConick's post and especially Chris Weimer's comments are symptomatic of average first year humanities term papers, where one "critiques" Derrida because, duh, of course there is something outside the text.

"Outside the text"? Oh! All this time I interpreted Derrida as saying there was no Horse Text.

I can accept the absence of Horse Texts, but nothing outside the text is just ridiculous. What about The Event? No Horse Text is absurd. What about Mr Ed? And Black Beauty? Postmodernist nonsense!! said...

Biblical history, at least the period from about 200 BC to 75 AD needs to be re-written, and with it a whole load of secular history. I question the work of biblical historians. Their interpretation of the main source of primary information, the writings attributed to Josephus, is suspect.

Rick Sumner said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rick Sumner said...


Let me try rewording this, deleted the last comment because it came out all wrong.

The historian shapes his materials, if not in accordance with what Popper calls (and criticizes as) a "framework of preconceived ideas," then in response to the imperatives of narrative discourse in general. These imperatives are rhetorical in nature. In what follows I shall seek to show that in the very language that the historian uses to describe his object of study, prior to any effort he may make formally to explain or interpret it, he subjects that object of study to the kind of distortion that "historicists" impose upon their materials in a more explicit and formal way.

Hayden V. White, Historicism, History, and the Figurative Imagination, History and Theory, Vol. 14, No. 4, Beiheft 14: Essays on Historicism (Dec., 1975), pp. 48-67

Post-modernist criticisms are sent out against historians (though, most particularly, the literary critics--"historical criticism" as we like to call it in our little niche of the Humanities).

Then people decide that these criticisms apply to Biblical historical-crit, and nowhere else. So suddenly it's different from other history. "Real" historians don't do that sort of thing. Except, well, they do. And receive the same criticisms for it. So if it's wrong (and I can't objectively show that it is or not. . .does acknowledging that make me pomo?), we're in good company.

While I would grant that other branches of historical inquiry have gotten better at hiding things, I see no reason to view them as fundamentally different. Oftentimes they just reword their conclusions such that it appears their historiography has matured. Once you venture out of History and Theory, the criticisms haven't made much impact in how the Historian--Biblical or otherwise--gets the job done.

But all branches of history fall prey to exactly the same criticisms. They just stand out more here.

Unknown said...


A couple thoughts:

1. I don't think one can say that all those who seek to your a historical critical method are neccesasrrily historicists.

2. Method as motive and presuppositions as a basis for method I think are an important discussion. One can trace how world view and philosophical movements from Reimarus on down have allowed philosophy or world view to affect their conclusions.

I don't come to this conclusion out of any postmodern thought. I learned it from Dutch Calvinists back in the 1970s. One of the great tasks in historical criticism, I think, is to put our presuppositions out there and allow those who disagree with them say whether they share conclusions or not based on a different method.

This is not to say that all methods or presuppositions are equal. Some have to be ruled out as unacceptable from the start. said...

Bob would rule me out. We are dealing with two garbled stories. One is the New Testament, and the other is the writings attributed to Josephus. The latter has been formed from the original writings of Josephus which have been edited and fabricated to support not only the Flavian view of Roman history, but, clumsily, the New Testament also. And the former is derived from original prophetic writings that have been edited, expanded, and fabricated, probably by the same Flavian writers.

Rick Sumner said...

Hi Bob,

The citation of White wasn't so much to indicate my agreement with it as it was to show that the implications of Roland--that historical critics are falling prey to something that "real" historians don't--is misguided. Using White as something of a paradigm, we can see this easily enough, just by punching his name into JSTOR. The criticisms he levels against "real" historians are the same criticisms issued to distinguish the historical critic from the "real" historian.

"Post-modern" historiographies abound in historical theory, but are exceptionally rare in historical inquiry.

This is not to say that all methods or presuppositions are equal. Some have to be ruled out as unacceptable from the start.

How do we set the line for what presuppositions we can eliminate a priori? As near as I can see, there is no objective line, and if we're going to be consistent in our epistemology, it has to be all or nothing. Anything else is arbitrary.

Either all prejudice is acceptable, and all we can claim is that it is more plausible to me personally, or no prejudice is acceptable, and we follow down the path of relativism to the merry conclusion that history is lost beyond a simple catalog of facts, with no interpretation.

Post-structuralism seems, at least to me, to force in to almost a sort of historical nihilism, of one flavour or another. And surely that's wrong. Even though I can't objectively demonstrate that either.

pascal said...


I agree with your observations, and think that April is behaving with impeccable dignity and self-restraint.

In her shoes I would simply have typed the five mystical letters:


and eaten another mince pie.

pearl said...

Dear Pascal,

Yes, April predictably does behave with impeccable dignity and self-restraint.

I’m quite a fan of the numinous qualities of rationality. To be sure, those particular, dignified mystical letters you share support self-restraint in matters nonsensical.

Also, I’d love to participate in the peer review of that mince pie, should there be any samples left to referee.

Chris Weimer said...


Would that be the same peer review that approved Alan Sokal's machine-created paper?


pearl said...

Very possibly the same, Chris. The nonexistent peer review. A belief that such a peer review existed might require ‘transformative hermeneutics’ based on a ‘quantum’ leap of faith ‘transgressing the boundaries’ of evidence to the contrary.

Then again, I wouldn’t mind initiating a peer review for that mince pie. said...

I can't help feeling that in the writings attributed to Josephus, and the New Testament, I am being lied to. Now what kind of philosophy can handle that? A dose of old-fashioned realism, probably?

Chris Weimer said...

No, Geoff, theology deals with what you "feel" - or self help books. Either way without evidence your beliefs are just that - merely belief.

pascal said...


Sadly the mince pies did not survive the rigorous testing procedures designed to ensure that they really were mince pies and not, say, things which merely believed themselves to be mince pies.

But I have added you to the list of persons prepared to devote themselves to the pursuit of evidence-based refreshment strategies for Yuletide 2010...

Unknown said...


Re: ruling out

Actually I was thinking of the Nazis when I wrote that.

pearl said...

Much obliged, pascal...

Happy 2010 to everyone! said...

Its nice to know I am like the Nazis, Bob. At least I am not a holocaust denier. But I do deny that Vespasian ever won a victory in Judea, unless you consider his ordering the burning of the temple after the five years of peace, as a victory.

I would like to know what Chris thinks is evidence. You could hardly have better evidence of Flavian propaganda on an extraordinary scale, than the so-called Jewish war as portrayed in the writings attributed to Josephus. The number of scholars who cite those writings as literally true just astonishes me. said...

My article here contains some evidence:

Unknown said...


I wasn't thinking of you at all. I was thinking of an example of a presuppostion about the nature of history that I would say is false and chose and extreme example. said...

Bob, you are an ever-caring pastor.

Hamblin of Jerusalem said...

I am not by any stretch a pomo, but it seems to me that the study of history cannot be empirical in the technical sense of the term because we cannot directly observe the past. All we can observe is the textual, artifactual and artistic remains of the past, but those remains must not be confused with the past itself. To cloak history in terms such as "empirical" and "scientific" only confuses the matter. History is epistemologically its own unique discipline, and should not be conflated with either literature or science.

sparkwidget said...

Thank you so much April! Some friends and I have been discussing these issues at length for a few months now. Thanks for pointing me towards the Seters article!

Rick Sumner said...


The problem with putting history as an entity on to itself is discussed at length by Hayden White (Metahistory, and, well, pretty well everything else he's ever written).

The issue is that the historian claims the advantages of both, but dodges the criticisms by claiming to be neither. Historical inquiry is too empirical to be criticized as an art, and too artistic to be criticized as a science. And so we are left free to pull whatever techniques we like, without being subjected to the caveats the artist or the scientist endure.

We can't dodge the pomo critic by claiming disciplinary immunity, because, at its basest level, that claim is precisely what is being disputed in most post-modernist criticism of historiography. You're just repeating the claim that's at issue.

sparkwidget said...

The historical method isn't perfect, no, but it is also better than the pomo technique of deciding what is what by what FEELS better. I'll take an imperfect grappling with evidence and troublesome squabbling with criteria over a pomo "this theory FEELS good to me" approach any day of the week.

Funny to me how so many non-historians allege to know so thoroughly all the ins and outs of professional scholarship as to so roundly dismiss it as "naive," "misguided," or my personal favorite, "orthodox-conservative."

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