Not Everyone Who Studies the Past is a Historian

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A couple of weeks ago Stanford history professor Jonathan Gienapp published a critique of the so-called “originalist” approach to the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution.  Gienapp showed the difference between the ways historians think about the Constitution and the ways judges and lawyers think about it.

Georgetown law professor Randy Barrett responded to Gienapp’s piece here.

And now Gienapp has responded to Barrett with another lengthy post that is, once again, worth reading for it’s articulation of how historians approach the past, particularly the founding era. It is a great reminder that not everyone who studies the past is a historian and it returns to the old debate between the past as “usable” and the past as a “foreign country.”

Here is just a small taste of his piece at Process blog: “Knowing How Vs. Knowing That: Navigating the Past.”

…in discussing the art of thinking historically, I talked in my initial essay about how historians take up residence with the natives of the past, how they immerse themselves in their subjects’ logics and assumptions in order to think as they once did. The reason why is something of an article of faith in the profession: that the past is a foreign country. As Rhys Isaac once persuasively put it, “Whether one moves away from oneself in cultural space or in historical time, one does not go far before one is in a world where the taken-for-granted must cease to be so. Translation then becomes necessary. Ways must be found of attaining an understanding of the meanings that the inhabitants of other worlds have given to their own everyday customs.”[6] The past, in others words, comes to us encoded in a foreign language. If we wish to understand the original meaning of historical texts, we have to translate them. This is what historians mean when they say that understanding historical texts in their original forms requires restoring them to their original historical context.

Here is where things often seem to get stuck, though—because originalists, Professor Barnett included, seem to agree with these claims. They recognize that meaning needs to be contextualized and that the past is different than the present. Originalism would not make much sense unless followers assumed that the Constitution means something different now than at the time of its inception. So we need to be especially clear on how historical practice and Originalism 2.0 actually diverge. The key is not that meaning needs to be put in context (everybody thinks that), it is, instead, figuring out which context and why.

Those questions can only be answered by first determining just how different the past really was from the present. Historians believe that the past is far more foreign than champions of Originalism 2.0 do. Because they believe the past is so foreign, historians insist upon a much wider and more far-reaching brand of translation than originalists think is necessary. And because they demand this kind of translation, historians call for a much deeper form of contextualization than originalists do.

Everything then begins with the foreignness of the past. To understand the past we must, as the historian Robert Darnton once articulated it, “put back together symbolic worlds that collapsed centuries ago.”[7] Where this seems to become a problem for originalist-historian debates is not in discussing the “past” in broad terms, but the past period that is most immediately relevant to originalist inquiry—the American Founding. The unwitting assumption upon which most originalist writings are based is that the era of the American Founding is rather easily accessible, that it is not that different from the conceptual world in which we currently reside. After all, not only did Founding-era Americans speak English and seem to draw upon many of the same concepts that still animate us today—such as “liberty,” “rights,” “happiness,” or “the state”—they also inaugurated many of the political and constitutional traditions in which we still find ourselves. Professor Barnett betrays this assumption clearly when discussing lawyers’ expertise in reading legal texts: why, he asks, would historians be better equipped to read a law enacted in the eighteenth century when they are unable to read one enacted in the twenty-first? Is Professor Barnett saying, generally, that as a lawyer he is always better equipped than other scholars to read legal texts—that he is better armed to decipher Qing dynasty legal texts than Chinese historians; or local civil suits in colonial West Africa than African historians and anthropologists; or the Justinianic Code than Byzantine historians? I assume not. So most legal texts produced in other times and places are actually not subject to the legal expertise of American lawyers. His point must simply be that those produced at the time of the American Founding are. The only justification for this distinction could be that those late eighteenth-century American texts are written in a conceptual vocabulary that is readily accessible to an American lawyer in a way that Qing dynasty legal texts or colonial West African civil suits or the Justinianic Code are not. That is the argument Professor Barnett, and most other originalists who have weighed in on this debate, are really making.

Here is the critical divergence, because historians of the Founding era (like historians generally) adamantly reject this claim. The most important scholarship on Revolutionary America has pierced the veneer of familiarity that unites the present and this historical period and shown that the Revolutionaries’ guiding assumptions were strikingly different than our own. As Gordon Wood so revealingly put it to begin his immensely influential, The Creation of the American Republic, “As I explored [the revolutionaries’]pattern of beliefs, it became evident that” the prevailing interpretive approach to the American Founding had “been deeply ahistorical, there had been too little sense of the irretrievability and differentness of the eighteenth-century world.”[8] Even though the Revolutionaries used words and ideas that bore a superficial resemblance to our own, beneath this seeming familiarity lay a largely alien conceptual world that, Wood showed, had to be reconstructed in its totality from within.

Read the entire piece here.