N.T. Wright seeks to apply the insights of Critical Realism to the task of doing history which brings with it its own epistemological challenges.
History, which is understood by Wright as the what people write about what happened in the real world, is understood as a ‘kind of knowledge’ which neither proceeds down the road of simply giving bare facts, nor does it fall into the wayside of subjectivity. Instead the task of history is the ‘meaningful narrative of events and intentions’.1
Wright rejects both the ‘pre critical’ and the ‘chastened positivist’ approaches to historiography. These are represented, by Wright, diagrammaticality
Observer Evidence Past Event
simply looking at the evidence…..and having direct access to the ‘facts’
N.T Wright is not original in his critique of a pre theoretical or a positivist approach as these matters have long been discussed in courses and books on historiography. E.H Carr, in one of the standard texts for those who are interested in historiography, comments, and then critiques, this ‘common-sense view of history’.
History consist of a corpus of ascertained facts. The facts are available to the historian in documents, inscriptions and so on, like fish on the fish monger’s slab. The historian collects them, take them home, and cooks and serves them in whatever style appeals to him’ 2
There is simply no uninterpreted history,
‘The myth of uninterpreted history functions precisely as a myth in much modern discourse -that is, it expresses an ideal state of affairs which we imagine erroneously to exist, and which influences the way we think and speak. But it is a ‘myth’, in the popular sense for all that. ‘ 3
All mainstream, as opposed to fundamentalists, schoalrs would reject the pre-critical view of historiography but may still adopt a more sophisticated positvist viewpoint, which differs from the pre-critical in the sifting of evidence.
Observer Evidence Past events
looking at the evidence, sifting it
rejecting some bits
and accepting others
This approach, however, is a dream and does not take into account the subjectivity of the knower. In Historical Jesus research the criteria approach resembles the positivist approach. I offer the following explanatory diagram.
Observer Jesus Tradition ‘Real Jesus’
Putting the ‘Jesus Tradition’ through a series of criterion
rejecting some bits
and accepting others
For Wright the path of history is to be arrived at by a recognition of the valid role of subjectivity for all history involves selection, a spiral of knowledge in which interpreter and source dialogue. There is no neutral position in which the historian can simply arrive at knowledge or fact for all historians have a point of view, and all histories involve interpretation through a particular set of lenses.4 Wright offers the following summary of his historiographical approach,
‘History, then, is real knowledge, of a particular sort. It is arrived at, like all, knowledge, by the spiral of epistemology, in which the story-telling human community launches enquiries, forms provisional judgements about which stories are likely to be successful in answering those enquiries, and then tests these judgements by further interaction with data.’ 5
2What is History? 9 The positivist position is defended by Leopold Von Ranke ‘You have reckoned that history ought to judge the past and to instruct the contemporary world as to the future. The present attempt does not yield to that high office. It will merely tell how it really was.”
3 NT&POG 85, ‘the Myth of Objective Data or of Presuppositionalist History, and the purpose of my present argument is to challenge it, there is in fact no such thing as ‘mere history’. There are data. Manuscripts exist, even very ancient ones. Coins and archaeological data are available. From these we can know quite a lot about the ancient world, with a good a knowledge as we have of anything else at all. But in order even to collect manuscripts manuscripts and coins, let alone read, translate or organise them into editions or collections, we must engage in ‘interpretation’…My present point is simply that all history is interpreted history’ NT&POG 88 ‘Intellectual honesty consists not in forcing an impossible neutrality, but admitting that neutrality is not possible’ NT&POG 89
5NT&POG 109, It is worth reading Wright’s definition alongside Keith Jenkins ‘Re-thinking History’ : ‘History is a shifting, problematic discourse, ostensibly about an aspect of the world, the past, that is produced by a group of present -minded workers (overwhelmingly in our culture salaried historians) who go about their work in mutually recognisable ways that are epistemologically, methodologically, ideologically and practically positioned and whose products, once in circulation, are subject to a series of uses and abuses that are logically infinite but which in actuality generally correspond to a range of power bases that exist at any given moment and which structure and distribute the meanings of histories along a dominant marginal spectrum.’ 26, For Keith Jenkins history is about ‘power’, for Wright ‘knowledge’ and for Von Ranke ‘telling what really happened’.