Rule #1 of Historical Reasoning

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neilgodfrey
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Rule #1 of Historical Reasoning

Post by neilgodfrey »

This post is an addendum to my earlier Rules of Historical Reasoning. It addresses a particular instance where a historian uses a very late document as a repository of a very early "primary source" from a much earlier period.

Rule #1 (from Mark Day's The Philosophy of History, 2008, pp. 20-21) addressed the necessity of prioritising primary sources.

Primary sources here are understood to be the documents and other material artefacts that belong to the period being researched.

So coins minted by a king are primary sources for the reign of that king; a written account of that king that looks back on his reign subsequent to his death is a secondary source. A monument or decree written by order of the king that survives today is a primary source. A later historical work asserting claims about what the king wrote or decreed is a secondary source. (These are common definitions of the terms that have been in use since the nineteenth century. There is some fluidity among historians about how they use the terms but I have set out how they are used by Mark Day in his rules of historical reasoning.)

But what happens when the historian has no primary sources? That is, when no documents from the person/period being studied survive although the historian does have much later purported copies of primary sources?

For example. Josephus writing in Roman times quotes what he claims is correspondence between the second century BCE Seleucid persecutor of the Jews, Antiochus IV (Epiphanes), and Samaritans. Is it legitimate for a historian to use Josephus's "record" of this correspondence as primary source material for the actual events of the second century BCE?

The answer, I believe, is found in Elias Bickerman's analysis of Josephus's narrative, "A Document Concerning the Persecution by Antiochus IV Epiphanes" in Studies in Jewish and Christian
History
, 2007, pp. 376-407.

Bickerman goes into very detailed argument to establish a reasonable case that the historian is indeed justified in using Josephus's record as a genuine copy of original correspondence dating from the time of Antiochus IV. His arguments is based on several lines of evidence:
  • archaeological evidence supporting originality of the correspondence in Josephus's work and providing details highly unlikely to have been known in the time of Josephus;
  • misunderstandings by Josephus in his use of the letters that demonstrate an ignorance of practices alluded to in the letters that passed from usage in the Roman era;
  • anachronistic references by Josephus that demonstrate a failure to understand the original context of the correspondence;
  • other examples of genuine and forged correspondence used as controls in Bickerman's argument;
  • the extraordinary difficulties a forger would have had in getting specific details correct -- formulae appropriate to a narrow geographical and chronological range; accurate dating despite many potential chronological traps such as years beginning differently from one city to another, -- as they are in the correspondence cited by Josephus.
Bickerman concludes his argument for authenticity of the correspondence by addressing the possibility that
a forger was skilful enough to fabricate, one or two hundred years later, an impeccable document dated to 166 B.C.E. His diligence would not have done him any good; indeed, it would actually have detracted from the plausibility of his work, because if his readers were to be tricked into accepting it, they needed a document drawn up in the terms with which they were familiar, i.e. in the style of their own historical period. This explains the remarkable fact that forgers in antiquity normally employed the official formulae of their own period when they produced their texts.
In other words, Bickerman is very aware of the absolute necessity to establish a source as a "primary source" in order to use it as a basis for a historical reconstruction of the period being investigated.

I confess I was at first very suspicious of Bickerman's historical methods. The first work of his I read was God of the Maccabees in which he baldly stated, at one point, that we have various sources from the Seleucids pertaining to the Maccabean revolt. It was only after reading his justifications for this claim (as in the article discussed in this post) that I backed down and gave his argument some credence.

What Bickerman has given historians is a very solid argument. He has not given them primary sources. But he has given historians reasons to have some degree of confidence that they do have access to primary sources. That means any argument based on these primary sources must necessarily remain hypothetical, always with awareness that the sources upon which the argument is based are conclusions of argument, hypotheses, and not the "hard facts" as we have with coins or stone monuments or preserved clay tablets, etc. Bickerman's "primary sources" will, like any and all primary sources, remain open to question and challenge. After all, that's what Mark Day (like many other historians) calls for: a constant testing and evaluation of the historian's source material.)

Bickerman's use of the documents as cited in Josephus are not a shoddy licence to make easy excuses for "making do with what we have or else we cannot do the history we want to do" type of unprofessional, unscholarly approach.
Last edited by neilgodfrey on Fri Oct 06, 2017 3:17 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Paul the Uncertain
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Re: Rule #1 of Historical Reasoning

Post by Paul the Uncertain »

Neil

It did come up in the previous thread that "primary" and "secondary" are susceptible both of different definitions and also difficult "borderline cases."

Under your definitions, as I understand them, any source (besides an "autobiographical" author who consulted contemporaneous records of their own words and deeds?) who purports to recite something they have found in a primary source is a secondary source.

On the other hand, the very paragons of rigorous language, mathematicians, allow even standard terms to be adapted to the circumstances of a specific problem. Ancient historians' textual evidence is often at best a scribal transcription. That is, a later source purports to recite what they have found in a (closer to) primary source.

Since all extant textual evidence in a problem may easily be secondary in either the scribal or some other sense, it might make sense in that problem to designate some texts as primary, reserving secondary for less well-rooted texts. So long as the local definitions were clearly stated, and the readers agree that the resulting risk of confusion doesn't outweigh the value of making the distinction, why not?
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neilgodfrey
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Re: Rule #1 of Historical Reasoning

Post by neilgodfrey »

Paul, I am not interested in debating definitions of terms. You can use any definition you want, but I explained the source of my own usage of the terms and feel no need to justify anything further in that respect. Focus on the point, not the dressing.

From what I saw in the other thread, efforts to deflect the topic to definitions and supposed categories supposedly not addressed in my own definitions are nothing but smokescreens that function to deflect the point of the argument being made.
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Paul the Uncertain
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Re: Rule #1 of Historical Reasoning

Post by Paul the Uncertain »

Neil
Paul, I am not interested in debating definitions of terms. You can use any definition you want, but I explained the source of my own usage of the terms and feel no need to justify anything further in that respect. Focus on the point, not the dressing.
I proposed no definitions. I recalled what happened in a recent thread which you had alluded to, your thread. I then noted that a group of scholars who are well-known for thir care about definitions allowed behavior which your OP illustrates: adopting local definitions of otherwise standard terms. I didn't do that adopting, Bickerman did, according to your report.

If you believe that my post was off-topic, then take it up with the site administrator. I look forward to having that discussion in that forum. Meanwhile, I am not the topic.

So far as I can tell, I generally agreed with your principal points in the OP. Please back off.
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Re: Rule #1 of Historical Reasoning

Post by spin »

Paul the Uncertain wrote: Fri Oct 06, 2017 1:22 amSo far as I can tell, I generally agreed with your principal points in the OP.
Where exactly do you think you "generally agreed with [Neil's] principal points in the OP"?

If you did agree, perhaps it would be better that you added to that conversation.
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Re: Rule #1 of Historical Reasoning

Post by Paul the Uncertain »

spin
Where exactly do you think you "generally agreed with [Neil's] principal points in the OP"?
Why don't we cut to the chase instead. Was there something specific in my post that you found to be in disagreement with any of Neil's principal points?

If not, then that's what "general" means in the ordinary English expression which you quoted. If you do point to something specific, then we'd have something specific to discuss, as opposed to me guessing what's on your mind.

Win-win, either way.
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Re: Rule #1 of Historical Reasoning

Post by spin »

Paul the Uncertain wrote: Fri Oct 06, 2017 9:46 am spin
Where exactly do you think you "generally agreed with [Neil's] principal points in the OP"?
Why don't we cut to the chase instead. Was there something specific in my post that you found to be in disagreement with any of Neil's principal points?
You asserted general agreement, yet your initial post was an extended quibble with no sign of agreement. It is irrelevant what you don't say. If you assert something, such as general agreement after having apparently just quibbled at length, a bit of evidence for your assertion would make your statement a little bit more credible than it seems in its baldness.

It seems though in your three posts so far that you are more interested in not dealing with the substance of the OP. The topic at least partially hangs on Bickerman's being able to argue the primary nature of a document contained in a secondary source. You want to talk about that?
Paul the Uncertain wrote: Fri Oct 06, 2017 9:46 amIf not, then that's what "general" means in the ordinary English expression which you quoted. If you do point to something specific, then we'd have something specific to discuss, as opposed to me guessing what's on your mind.

Win-win, either way.
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Re: Rule #1 of Historical Reasoning

Post by Paul the Uncertain »

spin

If you feel that my posts are off-topic, then take it up with the site administrator, and we'll have that discussion in the appropriate setting, not here, where that is itself off-topic.
The topic at least partially hangs on Bickerman's being able to argue the primary nature of a document contained in a secondary source. You want to talk about that?
As I said, there is a field of scholarship, renowned for its rigor, where an analog of what Bickerman proposes is typically allowed. I briefly laid out the mechanics of that (which mechanics included - >gasp< -defining terms).

Compare

"What Bickerman proposes is typically alowed."

"Bickerman goes into very detailed argument to establish a reasonable argument that the historian is indeed justified in using Josephus's record as a genuine copy of original correspondence dating from the time of Antiochus IV."

I don't see the disagreement with Neil. In the absence of disagreement, I don't see the quibble, either.
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Re: Rule #1 of Historical Reasoning

Post by spin »

Paul the Uncertain wrote: Fri Oct 06, 2017 10:51 am spin

If you feel that my posts are off-topic, then take it up with the site administrator, and we'll have that discussion in the appropriate setting, not here, where that is itself off-topic.
So far it seems you don't take comments about your apparently tangential posting well.
Paul the Uncertain wrote: Fri Oct 06, 2017 10:51 am
The topic at least partially hangs on Bickerman's being able to argue the primary nature of a document contained in a secondary source. You want to talk about that?
As I said, there is a field of scholarship, renowned for its rigor, where an analog of what Bickerman proposes is typically allowed.
You did not say that. Your only mention of Bickerman was "Bickerman did, according to your report." I guess you didn't say what you thought you did.
Paul the Uncertain wrote: Fri Oct 06, 2017 10:51 amI briefly laid out the mechanics of that (which mechanics included - >gasp< -defining terms).

Compare

"What Bickerman proposes is typically alowed."

"Bickerman goes into very detailed argument to establish a reasonable argument that the historian is indeed justified in using Josephus's record as a genuine copy of original correspondence dating from the time of Antiochus IV."

I don't see the disagreement with Neil. In the absence of disagreement, I don't see the quibble, either.
You might like to reread your posts to improve communicability.

To answer my question, "Where exactly do you think you 'generally agreed with [Neil's] principal points in the OP'?" it seems you didn't make such a statement, though you apparently thought you did.

Dear readers, please ignore my exchange with Paul and read the OP. That is more interesting.
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Paul the Uncertain
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Re: Rule #1 of Historical Reasoning

Post by Paul the Uncertain »

spin
So far it seems you don't take comments about your apparently tangential posting well.
No, I don't. They are off-topic, wasteful of everyone else's time and corrosive of any sense of community or collegiality on the forum. Please take your complaints to the administration or pursue the matter in a PM to me, or both.
it seems you didn't make such a statement, though you apparently thought you did.
We disagree. My statement stands as written. Your question has already been asked and answered. That is all.
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