Monday, 15 October 2012

Elton and the practice of history

My links with Sir Geoffrey Elton were slight but memorable.  I had attended some of his lecture on the Tudors while I was in the sixth form and had dinner with him following a Historical Association conference in Cambridge where I had given a paper on the industrial revolution that he said he enjoyed.  The dinner proved to be an edifying experience during which Elton demonstrated all the qualities that I had heard about from his students and had culled from other historians.  I found that he was pugnacious in his response, devouring arguments and expressing himself with a combination of wit, sarcasm and certitude, a heady mix of relevant and irreverent comment that combined charm and a certain rudeness.  This, I was later told, was not usual as he drew out his sparring partners with a mix of often outrageous and frequently indefensible statements and blunt responses.    Nonetheless it proved to be a memorable evening as he talked about history and what was wrong with it and politics and what was wrong with that as well and responded with barbed words that slurped on into the early hours. 
When Elton died in late 1994, the obituaries inevitably focused on his contribution to the history of Tudor England. His name will forever be identified with the Tudors though even before he died revisionist historians were beginning to chip away at many of his conclusions.[1] This process continues and a cursory glance to bibliographies on Tudor England for current students makes little mention of his work and then critically.  But Elton left another, equally important, legacy: a vigorous defence of traditional, narrative history, history as the reconstruction and telling of tales about past human experiences, actions and thoughts. Elton’s first and most famous foray into the philosophy of history was The Practice of History (1967), a manifesto, he said, setting out his experience of studying, writing and teaching history. This was followed by Political History: Principles and Practice (1970) in which he argued for the centrality and importance of political action in the study of the past and further developed his views on the nature of historical explanation. In Which Road to the Past? (1983), he debated the merits of ‘traditional’ versus ‘scientific’ history with Robert Fogel, the American economic historian and, finally, Return to Essentials: Some Reflections on the Present State of Historical Study (1991), a restatement of his faith in those ‘old-fashioned convictions and practices’ that informed his work.

Elton presented his writings on the nature and methods of history not as philosophy, but as a pragmatic account of what working historians like himself did. But to make such an account convincing, it was necessary to explain and defend the fundamental assumptions underpinning the discipline’s traditional practices. The  result was a sustained defence of a human action account of the past, that history was not the result of social structures, objective forces or linguistic discourses, but of autonomous human agents and that to explain and comprehend the past, historians must provide an account of those agents’ actions in their own terms, as they were lived and played out at the time as far as the available sources allowed. The assertion of the role of reason in human affairs was also at the heart of Elton’s conception of the purpose of studying history. The study of history is an exercise in reason whose purpose is to enlarge the area of individual experience by teaching about human behaviour. Elton wrote in Return to Essentials

History provides the laboratory in which human experience is analysed, distilled and bottled for use. The so-called lessons of history do not teach you to do this or that now; they teach you to think more deeply, more completely, and on the basis of an enormously enlarged experience, about what it may be possible or desirable to do now ... By enormously enlarging personal experience, history can help us to grow up--to resist those who, with good will or ill, would force us all into the straitjackets of their supposed answers to the problems of existence. [2]

Elton started from the view that in the past there were people like us, with thoughts, feelings, ambitions, concerns and problems. These people lived and made choices and what they did produced the events, effects, creations and results which is history. When people acted in the past, exercised their will and made choices they made their futures and created our present. History for Elton was explicable, but the varieties, complexities and vagaries of human reasoning and thinking in diverse situations made it unpredictable. This led him to assert that those who study the past have a responsibility to acknowledge its humanity:

The recognition that at every moment in the past the future was essentially unpredictable and subject to human choice lies at the heart of a study which respects the past and allows it a life of its own. If men (and women) are treated as devoid of choice, their reason is demolished; the product is a history which dehumanises mankind.

In this perspective, there was little place for the large-scale forces, trends, structures, and patterns beloved by social scientists. Everything in history, the events of the past, happens to and through people. Sociological categories may be useful descriptive short-hands of movements and outcomes over the long-run, but they remained abstractions unable to explain specific actions and events, the details and particularities of past happenings created by real people doing something. ‘History’ Elton argued, ‘deals with the activities of men, not abstractions’.  He nonetheless recognised that all events happen in a context, in particular conditions and circumstances of thought and action but, he maintained, this contest represented a set of influences and constraints on action, not a transcendent force directing or determining action.  Elton developed his account of causation in history in Political History: Principles and Practice. The task of historians, he argued, was to explain the events of the past. They did this by working backwards from known effects to their causes. By ‘causes’ he meant those ‘antecedent events, actions, thoughts and situations’ relevant to the explanation of the event to be explained. Such causes he divided into two types: situational or contextual causes and direct causes.  It is the latter that are decisive: while situational causes (which are anyway largely human creations themselves) produce contexts, it is direct causes--the exercise of human will--which make history.

Direct causes explain why the event actually happened; situational causes explain why direct causes proved effective.

Elton illustrated his point with reference to the type of explanation he proposed in Reformation Europe, 1517-1559 (1963). Situational causes such as the state of the church, nationalist resentment of Italian popes, spiritual dissatisfaction, the growth of humanism and the desire for ecclesiastical wealth allowed or encouraged a particular historical result, the split in the Church of Rome. But that outcome was actually brought about by actions such as those of Luther and other reformers, the separatist moves by the German princes, Henry VIII’s divorce petition and Thomas Cromwell’s programme for a political break with Rome.

Elton claimed that what distinguished history from other approaches to the study of human affairs was the role of evidence in generating and limiting, as well as validating, the statements and conclusions of historians.  His historical method consisted of the critical examination of this evidence to reconstruct the causes of historical events. Elton called his approach to evidence the ‘empirical or thesis-free’ method, meaning that historians must be committed to allowing interpretations of the past to emerge from the evidence not the other way round.  In arguing for the primacy of evidence in historical work, Elton had to deal with how far human subjectivity in the interpretation and selection of the `facts’ intruded into what were claimed to be ‘true’ accounts of the past. Historians are human and there is biased and subjective history as well as balanced and objective history. Furthermore, argued Elton, the process of historical research should not be a matter of selecting facts to prove a thesis or an argument (bad history) but the reconstruction of a real past peopled by real individuals who did things that actually happened (good history) and the veracity of such reconstructions should be assessed and judged against all the known evidence, not just that which is presented in a particular account.  He recognised the difficulty with his ‘practice’ and in The Practice of History, commented:

All assessment of evidence must be the work of the intellect, of the reasoning faculty. The historian cannot but work on the assumption that whatever happened is capable of rational explanation and that evidence is the product of an act discoverable by reason. And yet we all know that this is not quite true; that we act, react and reflect from motives which have little to do with reason and under influences--such as ill-health, a quarrel with people not involved in the transaction, whim and lack of thought--that can but rarely appear in the…evidence. [3]

Elton favoured the writing of history in the form of ‘narratives thickened by analysis’, stories of human action and reaction over time punctuated by in-depth discussions and explanations of direct and situational causes. But no narrative, of necessity composed of a linear sequence of sentences, could adequately capture the simultaneity of thoughts and actions, the complexity and multiplicity of causes, and the interconnectedness of events. Life was a mess on which historians imposed order, shape, pattern, meaning and intelligibility. Elton concluded that ‘In a very real sense history cannot be correctly written’.

How historians conducted this exercise in reason was, for Elton, crucial. Historians’ rejection of all paradigms except the assumption of reason and human choice secured their freedom from all authorities except that of evidence. In preserving their intellectual freedom to insist on the primacy of evidence and simply to state what happened and why, historians contribute to freedom of thought and action for all. On one occasion Elton wrote: ‘history is an unending search for the truth, with the only certainty at each man’s end that there will be more to be said and that, before long, other’s will say it’. In the case of Elton’s ‘philosophy’, much of what he said was often said better by others such as Isaiah Berlin, Carl Becker, R. G. Collingwood, Pieter Geyl, even Jack Hexter. But as one of the greatest practitioners of his craft and as one of the few outright defenders of what he saw as the ‘beleaguered bastion of empiricist and non-ideological history’, Elton deserves more than most to be read and listened to.

[1] Elton’s publications included The Tudor Revolution in Government (1953); England under the Tudors (1955), The Tudor Constitution (1960), Reformation Europe (1963), Reform and Renewal (1973), Reform and Reformation: England 1509-1558 (1977), The Parliament of England 1559-1581 (1986), and The English (1992). .
[2] G.R. Elton Return to Essentials: Some Reflections on the Present State of Historical Study, Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp. 72-73.
[3] G.R. Elton The Practice of History, Fontana, 1969, p. 64.













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