Historiography’s Promise — Lectio praecursoria

This lecture was given in the beginning of my doctoral defence on November 3, 2023. Its purpose is to introduce the main themes of the thesis and their relevance to a non-expert audience. G.G.
Photo of Georg Gangl giving his Lectio Praecursoria
Georg Gangl giving his lectio praecursoria

Honourable custos, honourable opponent, dear audience,

The title of my thesis is “Telling it Like It Really Was. On the Form, Presuppositions, and Justification of Historiographic Knowledge”. While the subtitle of my thesis is philosophical lingo, perhaps even jargon, the main idea and the main title are easy to grasp, I think: We can come to know the past, though as a philosopher I would like to add immediately some reservations or hedging words to this. So, let me say instead say that the main idea of my thesis is that we can come to know the past, if we employ the right method and “under the right conditions” or “in the right circumstances”. This thesis, then, is in the main about this method and the enabling conditions and circumstances that allow us to know the past.

Before I for the rest of this lectio spell out what I mean by those, let me first again give you in a bit more detail and again in philosophical language what the form, presuppositions, and the justification of historiographic knowledge of the subtitle of my thesis are. And for this I need to begin with another differentiation, that between history and historiography. The philosopher of history typically uses history only to mean the past, whereas historiography is used for the mostly academic subject that researches the past and produces knowledge about it. This is done to avoid confusion in the term history itself, which is often employed for both, the past and our present-day disciplinary efforts to understand it. Now, by historiographic knowledge I therefore mean the knowledge produced by the academic discipline of historiography. The claims that I make about this form of knowledge are then as follows: the form it takes is often narrative; the presuppositions for it my thesis talks about are causal mechanisms, evidence, theory, retrospection or hindsight, historiographic reason, and deliberative democracy. Justification finally is accomplished through independent evidence tokens and the employment of informational background theories. These are the main points of my thesis in philosophical lingo; now let’s unpack all of them a bit.

First, narrative and causal mechanisms, which are closely related to each other as the form and substance of much historiographic explanation. By narrative, I mean a story with a beginning, middle, and end, and a “first happened this, then happened that” form of advancement. Now, if we want to know why much of historiography explains by telling such stories, we need to look at what the discipline actually is in the business of explaining (what its explanandum is, again in the philosophical lingo): unrepeatable past change and process. The French Revolution, the Battle of Stalingrad, and the invention of cuneiform by the Sumerians only happened once in the past, from our present standpoint, and we cannot experimentally rerun these past processes, other than in many, though far from all, natural sciences. (Which is also the reason why we need to reconstruct the past by the information/evidence that it left behind, to which we will come in a second.) Furthermore, these past causal processes are not covered by any general laws or obvious regularities, in other words they are best understood as causal powers and mechanisms; at least that’s my claims. Thus, so as to understand the Battle of Stalingrad, we need to tell what happened, from the beginning to the end. Narrative is ideally suited as the form much explanation takes in historiography because this retelling is naturally done in the story form (though in historiography under evidentiary constraints), as we need to show how something actually developed or unfolded from a status quo ante, the beginning of the story, through the change itself, its middle, to the outcome, the end of the story; in our example of the Battle of Stalingrad, the warring armies first oppose each other, then they battle, and the outcome is that the Red Army won that faithful battle, with the actual details filled out by the evidence.

But of course, so as to be able to say something meaningful about the Battle of Stalingrad and its outcome we crucially need something else, and something more, than just the story form: we need traces of the past that the historian turns into evidence. If the past left no traces behind, we could not know it—and in fact, much of the past did not leave any traces behind, so we actually cannot know it. I know for instance that I must have had a 12th century ancestor who successfully lived to reproduce, otherwise I would not stand here before you today. But I doubt that this ancestor left any traces behind, so I cannot come to know anything about them. Neither could we produce knowledge if there are such traces, but the historian is unable to understand those and turn them into evidence. This accounting for the evidence, so I argue in my thesis, is done through informational background theories. Historians and other historical scientists need to understand the media of information through which information of the past is relayed to our present—documents, material remains, fossils, but also sound and light, especially in modern times where those can be “captured”, among others—and they use such theories about the media, the information transfer, and reliability of information to assess if the traces they can see in their present are actually of the past and are independent of each other. Only if we have independent pieces of evidence about some past state of affairs or change can we produce knowledge about it. (And given that historiography is not an experimental science, it cannot produce such evidence by itself; we’re in the historical sciences “at the mercy of what nature just happens to leave in her wake; sometimes she is generous and sometimes she is stingy, but the bottom line is that you can’t fool with her” (Cleland 2002: 485), as Carol Cleland emphasized). The gold standard for the production of historiographic knowledge therefore is independent evidence, and this independence of evidence is assessed through information theories. This is my claim.

One central element in this process is hindsight; the historian as it were looks back onto the past (though this of course is a metaphor; we cannot look at the past in any literal sense because it is irretrievably gone). The received view about hindsight is negative, i.e. that it impedes our efforts to know the past. If I asked you what you did this morning or yesterday, I suppose you would be reasonably clear about it; if I asked you what you did on June 15, 1997, you would most likely not know. In the language of my dissertation, information about the past often gets lost, or even destroyed, as time advances forward. Also, the past might have been very different from the present the historian is used to—“the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there” as the famous aphorism goes, which might complicate our hindsight too. These issues are indeed problems for the production of knowledge of the past, but this is not the whole story, and hindsight can also have positive effects for our knowledge producing efforts; and it is these positive effects that I scrutinize in my thesis. For one, via hindsight (and with the appropriate evidence) we can describe the past in ways that no historical agents could ever have, thanks to us also knowing what happened in their future, which is still our past. If I describe my presumable 12th century ancestor that we already met as exactly such—my ancestor—I will have described them in ways that they could have never described themselves, via the unintended causal consequences of their actions—my existence (but also this defence). Such descriptions of past happenings through their future causal effects are absolutely central for historiography, and they can only be accomplished via hindsight, which also means that historiography cannot only be about how historical actors saw themselves. Similarly, can we bring the whole apparatus of modern knowledge and science to bear on our evidence of the past, which is also only possible because of our positioning in the past’s very future. Only speaking about the last decade, thanks to advances in Paleogenomics and Distant Reading for instance, we can today know about the family relations and migration patterns of Stone Age peoples in Europe, and we can understand the literary genres and reading habits of the English literary public of the 18th century (the former thanks to paleogenomics and the latter via distant reading). In the philosophical lingo of my thesis, these interpretative and evidentiary anachronisms that historiography employs and that are occasioned by hindsight or retrospectivity are epistemically beneficial. Without them, the discipline would be much poorer and could produce much less knowledge of the past, from which follows that hindsight can’t be that bad (again, “under the right conditions” as the philosopher quickly adds).

If we take these things together—historiographic knowledge in the form of narrative but also beyond and the methods of information evaluation by which we come to know such knowledge—we arrive at an issue that grew dearer and dearer to me the longer I worked on my thesis: historiographic reason (and this notion itself I have taken from my esteemed opponent, with and much of my understanding of reason coming from our esteemed custos of today; see Tucker 2021 and Kuukkanen 2021). What I mean by this is that historiography offers us the knowledge and the information assessment skills to argue well about the past but also beyond, and these skills are incredibly valuable in our breathless social (or anti-social) media age full of “fake news”, “alternative facts”, “shitstorms”, and the cancelling of people for their apparently untoward opinions (not to forgot the wars that are, at least partly, waged due to some bogus and concocted historical reasons as in the case of Putin’s war in Ukraine). As my esteemed opponent, Dr. Aviezer Tucker, has written “probable inference from information preserving evidence in the present does not mutate according to personal identities or passions” (Tucker 2021: 161). The production of such knowledge, the skills needed for it, and humanistic values underpinning both of these are what I call “historiographic reason”. On the level of this reason, personal identities and passions, indeed politics, should play no role; or as I write in my thesis, again in the language of philosophy, the justification of historiographic method is apolitical and therefore we must keep politics out of it to the best of our abilities (Though I do also say that politics and political values can have positive effects on historiography, just not on this level.)

At the same time is historiography based on, or as the philosopher would say historiography presupposes, certain essential humanist values without which it couldn’t go about its business of “telling it like it really was”, and these values link it with democracy, especially in its deliberative form. Those values are: respect, reciprocity, the orientation towards a common goal or good (i.e. the production of knowledge of the past), and a method to rationally solve disputes, so that everybody who is rational should be able to agree on an results obtained via the method (under the right conditions)—and here the similarity with democracy might already end. Given these characteristics, I think historiography (and its philosophy, or philosophy quite generally) offer us a “form of life” that is highly attractive, and that I have to say I find quite beautiful.

This form of life looks something like this: Given the temporal beings that we as humans are—given that we are what we are thanks to our histories as individuals, as a species etc., something I call in the “philosophese” of the thesis ontological historicism—we cannot not relate to the past and we cannot be understood without any reference to the past, just as we cannot help but use the (imagined) past to understand the present and chart a future for us. In other words, in our efforts to master the present and create a (desirable) future, we have to engage in historical thinking, reasoning, and explanation. Also, given that the future is fundamentally open and, in many ways, unpredictable—who could have, 10 years ago, predicted the sorry state of Europe and the world today?—the past often is the best guide that we have for any future action.

Now, thanks to historiography and other historical sciences, we have the option to relate to large swaths of this past in a rational and truthful manner. We can rebuff all kinds of falsehoods, myths, ideologies, and passions about the past that cloud our judgment. Thus, with historiography comes the promise of actually knowing the past in its own right without any of those distortions, which entails that we might come to know something that is very different from us and our present (again, the past might be a foreign country where they do things very differently). In other words, historiography is the via regia, the “royal road”, to understanding the diversity and contingency of human forms of life. That means we can through the discipline and its offerings come to understand humans in all their ingenuity and greatness, their waywardness and quirkiness, but also in all their wickedness and depravity; all of which are amply on display in history. Historiographic knowledge therefore enables us to appreciate the human condition in all its breadth, beyond the “often unrepresentative, atypical sliver of time” (Currie 2019: 2) and place that we happen to inhabit. It shows us that things have been quite different before, which means that they can be meaningfully different again in the future too, and that we in all likelihood do not live best of all possible worlds.

Historiography then stands for both, the understanding and appreciation of the vastness of the gap that separates present and past and the near endless possibilities that there are to lead a human life (if there is any meaning in history, I think it should be sought in this), and the optimistic promise to overcome this gap through knowledge of the past, i.e. through “telling it like it really was”. And with knowing the past also comes the promise that we can learn from it, from its lowest and highest points. What we receive in return is a realistic but capacious understanding of the human condition and a relativization of much of the smugness and self-righteousness of the present; what E.P. Thompson called “the enormous condescension of posteriority” (Thompson 1967: 12) that many people hold as natural attitude of the past. And all of these are indispensable for the realization of any desirable future, I believe.

Historiography and philosophy are indeed two of the endless historical possibilities to lead a human life. They are equally committed to both basic humanist values such as respect and equality and the impartial demands of reason. Basic respect and equality are in historiography and its philosophy wedded to an objective method and a rationally oriented discourse geared at producing knowledge of the past. Under these conditions, the possibility of unforced consensus and progress beyond any dogmatically held beliefs and any fixed and parochial identities emerges. Together, I believe they provide us with invaluable guidance for the project of the good life for all, what the philosopher calls eudaimonia, whatever that in detail may be, and they represent a “way of life” that I can’t describe any differently but as beautiful.

Thank you!


Cleland, C. E. 2002. “Methodological and Epistemic Differences between Historical Science and Experimental Science” Philosophy of Science 69(3), 474-496.

Currie, A. 2019. Scientific Knowledge and the Deep Past. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kuukkanen, J.-M. 2021. “Historiographic Knowledge as Claiming Correctly” In J.-M. Kuukkkanen (ed.) Philosophy of History. Twenty-First-Century Perspectives. London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 44-46.

Thompson, E. P. 1967. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Vintage Books.

Tucker, A. 2021. “Historical Evitability. The Return of the Philosophy of History” In J.-M. Kuukkanen (ed.) Philosophy of History. Twenty-First-Century Perspectives. London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 143-161.