Historiographic narratives and empirical evidence: a case study

Abstract

Several scholars observed that narratives about the human past are evaluated comparatively. Few attempts have been made, however, to explore how such evaluations are actually done. Here I look at a lengthy “contest” among several historiographic narratives, all constructed to make sense of another one—the biblical story of the conquest of Canaan. I conclude that the preference of such narratives can be construed as a rational choice. In particular, an easily comprehensible and emotionally evocative narrative will give way to a complex and mundane one, when the latter provides a more coherent account of the consensually accepted body of evidence. This points to a fundamental difference between historiographic narratives and fiction, contrary to some influential opinions in the philosophy of historiography. Such historiographic narratives have similarities with hypotheses and narrative explanations in natural science.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Like Dray (1971), Tucker (2004), and Kuukkanen (2015) I think that the narrative form is a widespread and prominent, but not universal or defining, element of historiography. Some parts of Marx's Das Kapital, for example, can be understood as a non-narrativist historiography. Other forms of "synchronous historical writing" are mentioned in Little (2017).

  2. 2.

    Otherwise, the temporally-ordered series would be a mere chronicle. (Morton White 1965).

  3. 3.

    Other conceptualizations of "narrative" exist. For example, Beatty (2017) takes a minimalist view: a narrative just "relates what happened, one event at a time" and Morgan (2017) speaks of narratives that need not be temporally ordered. The formulation above is broad enough to accord with the common uses of the term, but not too broad to make everything a narrative. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for insisting that I clear this point up.

  4. 4.

    I follow the convention in Tucker (2009) whereby history denotes past events and circumstances and historiography is the published outcome of historians' work, except when citing sources that confound between the two.

  5. 5.

    Joseph Pitt (2001) who is arguably the strongest critic of the use of case studies for inquiry of philosophical issues, also allows some merit to ones that "are extended historical studies that contend with the life span of a scientific problematic," which is what I tried to do here.

  6. 6.

    An epistemic community is a (rather loosely bounded) network of professionals with recognized expertise and competence in a particular domain. The concept is akin to Kuhn's (1970) "community of practitioners". In the case discussed here, the relevant epistemic community consisted of archaeologist, historians of the ancient Levant, and biblical scholars.

  7. 7.

    This is, necessarily, a concise exposition. For a fuller overview of the narratives and their interplay with archaeological discoveries see Finkelstein (1988a), Mazar (1990), Moorey (1991), Dever (2011), and Wallach (2018).

  8. 8.

    Subsequent excavations in the 1980s showed Lachish's destruction to have occurred even later, but by then the Conquest narrative had generally been discarded.

  9. 9.

    Actually, some archaeological arguments were raised against it. For example, some of the hill settlements were adjacent to Canaanite cities and in all likelihood lived in close symbiosis with them, something that did not fit the state-of-affaires conjectured in the Revolt narrative. But the narrative could sustain a few contradictory pieces of evidence by bracketing them as isolated exceptions.

  10. 10.

    Originally by Mendenhall (1962), in support of the Revolt narrative.

  11. 11.

    Faust's suggestion is not motivated by a desire to defend the Immigration narrative.

  12. 12.

    I am not committing myself here to a coherentist concept of epistemic justification. Coherentists and foundationalists usually agree that an incoherent set of beliefs is untenable, and BonJour's incremental framework suits my analysis of narratives dynamics.

  13. 13.

    Kuukkanen defines "colligatory concept" and "colligation" as "the synthesising expressions in historiography". The central schemes that underlie the generalized narratives discussed here—"Conquest", "Peaceful Immigration", "People's Revolt" and "Autochthonic Emergence"—are, I think, as good colligatory concepts as other often-mentioned ones like "the Renaissance" or "the Cold War" etc., and Kuukkanen's analysis should, therefore, apply to them too.

  14. 14.

    Compare this to Mink (1978, p. 143) insistence that "narrative histories should be aggregative, insofar as they are histories, but cannot be, insofar as they are narratives. Narrative history borrows from fictional narrative the convention by which a story generates its own imaginative space, within which it neither depends on nor can displace other stories." (More on this discrepancy below and in the next section).

  15. 15.

    Regarding the likelihood of retrieving traces of past events and the prevalence of underdetermination in historical sciences see Turner (2007) and Forber and Griffith (2011) on the pessimistic side, Cleland (2002, 2011), Jeffares (2010) and Currie (2108) on the optimistic side and Tucker (2011) for an intermediate, context-sensitive approach. See also Tucker (2004, Ch. 6) for a systematic discussion of the limits of historiographic knowledge and the distinction between determined, underdetermined and indeterminate parts of historiography.

  16. 16.

    As well as disbelief! See Griffioen (2016) on various explanations for the origins of Western secularization.

  17. 17.

    Generalized historiographic narratives can be different without being conflicting and incompatible, for example when they illuminate different aspects of complex historical circumstances. I thank an anonymous reviewer for noting this point.

  18. 18.

    As for individual texts of historiography, see below.

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Acknowledgements

I am grateful to Yemima Ben-Menahem, Arnon Levi and two anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments on earlier versions of this manuscript.

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Wallach, E. Historiographic narratives and empirical evidence: a case study. Synthese 198, 801–821 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-018-02065-w

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Keywords

  • Historiography
  • Historiographic narratives
  • Archaeology
  • Narrative explanations
  • Case study