The Limits of Credulity (Presidential Address)

By Beckman, Gary | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, July-September 2005 | Go to article overview

The Limits of Credulity (Presidential Address)


Beckman, Gary, The Journal of the American Oriental Society


  However, skepticism on principle is neither a more estimable nor a
  more productive intellectual attitude than the credulity with which it
  is frequently blended in the simpler minds.
  Marc Bloch (1)
  For Bill Hallo

Historiography has often been the subject of the after-dinner talk delivered by the scholar whom you have honored with your presidency. For instance, in 1952 Egyptologist John A. Wilson discussed "Oriental History" of early and modern times; (2) in 1992 Jack Lassner spoke of the difficulties facing the historian of early Islam; (3) in 1993 Thorkild Jacobsen addressed us on the use of Sumerian religious texts as historical sources; (4) in 1997 Jack Sasson set out the problems attendant upon reconstructing the events of the reign of King Zimri-Lim of Mari; (5) and in 1989 my teacher Bill Hallo considered "The Limits of Skepticism." (6) Bill argued forcefully that the historian of the early Near East should accord greater trust to the ancient narrative sources than has been customary in the wake of the "linguistic turn" (7) and stressed that above all "we should not expect to know more than the ancient sources knew, but we can hope to know more than they chose to tell." (8) I am in agreement with Bill that the scholar must not dismiss any relevant textual evidence out of hand, but as a confirmed skeptic, I will offer here some observations in support of adopting a rigorous and hypercritical approach to the sources.

Any consideration of historiography must open with the question: what is history? (9) To begin with, we must distinguish between history and the past, that is, the humans who lived before us and their institutions and activities. The past in all of its manifold aspects is gone forever and cannot be retrieved. (10) History is a reconstruction of elements of the past in the mind of a human being of a later generation. It should be stressed that in principle there will exist multiple histories of any given period, each congruent to the mental world, social purposes, and sources available to the person who creates it. Thus the history of the Sargonic kings of the twenty-fourth and twenty-third pre-Christian centuries written in Babylonia during the second millennium B.C.E. differs from a history of the same dynasty produced in Italy or the United States in the twentieth century C.E. (11)

Bill is fond of quoting (12) Johan Huizinga to the effect that "[h]istory is the intellectual form in which a society renders account to itself of its past." (13) This is true, as far as it goes, but why do societies even perceive a need to render such account? Historian of England J. H. Plumb remarks that "[history] is always a created ideology with a purpose, designed to control individuals, or motivate societies, or inspire classes." (14) Furthermore, it "was needed to strengthen the purpose of those who possessed power and, equally important, to reconcile those who lacked it." (15) In practice, the sanctioned history of a social group conveys the message that the current organization and power distribution of that society is the inevitable result of the progress of events, a function exemplified by the current vulgar belief that the triumph of capitalism and liberal democracy in Eurasia after 1989 has brought human political development to its end. (16) Alternatively, some idealized future or past state of affairs may be held up as a goal to be achieved, as in Christian eschatology or Stalinist visions of a communist utopia under construction on the one hand, (17) or as in German National Socialist nostalgia for a premodern society purportedly free of internal conflict on the other. (18)

Furthermore, each individual member of society fashions his or her own history as part of the construction of identity. (19) This idiosyncratic history will be an amalgam of elements drawn from personal experience and components of one of the available histories of the encompassing society, suitably adapted to the situation of that individual. …

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