A Question of Interpretation

'Truth Presenting a Mirror to the Vanities', Dutch, c.1625

‘Truth Presenting a Mirror to the Vanities’,
Dutch, c.1625

This is interesting. Here we base most of our stories on history, whether it is that of a British regiment, or the church, the American Revolution, or politics, or whatever. We firmly believe that we should make decisions based partly on what happened when similar decisions were made in the past.

If there were no other reason, and there are many, it would be sufficient to say that it reduces the scope of ‘the Law of Unintended Consequences’ because some of them have already happened. That’s partly why those who want to make unprecedented change almost always denigrate history, such as the often heard disdain for ‘old, dead, white men’. Thing is, those guys have something to teach us because they had many of the same problems we do, and often hit on the same solutions. So, they provide a guide as to what works, and what doesn’t, if we read and learn.

Yet those lessons can often be clear as mud. Why? Because history is an interpretation, it’s not the complete story. It can’t be. There was a Republican debate just last night, maybe you watched it, as I did. If we wrote the lessons we learned from it, they would likely be quite different. That’s last night. Now, what if it was between Charles I and Oliver Cromwell about 400 years ago. And all we have to go on is what the published reports said. If we spin those reports enough, we probably can posit almost anything.

And that is in some ways what historians have to work with. In my experience, most (but not all) do a very good job of trying to being objective, and writing the truth, as it presents to them. Some, like politicians, serve an agenda rather than the truth, but they are, usually a minority. If they become the majority, history becomes essentially useless, and reputable historians know it and pay attention.

One of those very reputable ones is Suzannah Lipscomb, Head of History at The New College of the Humanities, London, and she explains this very well, I think.


In the term before Christmas I was teaching first-year undergraduates. At the end of each term those who have been lecturing and tutoring get together with each student to talk about how it has gone. They are bright students who made great progress, but a repeating theme that emerged from this general round-up was the need for them to develop their own voices in the midst of the historical argument: to imagine, with each essay, that they take their seat at the dinner table of historians who have written in that field and then join in the debate. This is no new counsel. I remember a comment written on one of my undergraduate history essays at Oxford by my then-tutor, Susan Brigden, with her characteristic elegance of phrase: ‘Don’t bow with such becoming submission to the secondary authorities.’

History is debate, history is discussion, history is a conversation. Hugh Trevor-Roper wrote in 1957, ‘history that is not controversial is dead history’. While some of this controversy comes from the pronouncements of historians as public intellectuals addressing the present day, much of it comes from them arguing with each other. The collective noun for historians is – honestly – an ‘argumentation’.

Continue reading:  A Question of Interpretation | History Today.

I love that phrase, as well as the admonition:

‘Don’t bow with such becoming submission to the secondary authorities.’

That’s some really good advice, even when you apply it to me!



About NEO
Lineman, Electrician, Industrial Control technician, Staking Engineer, Inspector, Quality Assurance Manager, Chief Operations Officer

5 Responses to A Question of Interpretation

  1. the unit says:

    History subject to spin? Can one be allergic to it? And family as well? Nearly every obit describes so and so died while being surrounded by loving family (well, down here in South). Folks have seen Jesus on a piece of toast. Has anyone reported seeing $$$ signs in loving families eyeballs?
    What does above have to do with grey matter of post. Well, maybe a lot$ $…is that any way to end a sentence? Fancy exclamation point!
    Not sure if I was way off topic or not. lol

    Liked by 1 person

    • NEO says:

      Nor am I! but like Suzi says, usually there are many interpretations. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. the unit says:

    I read this just yesterday. A paraphrase, I think attributed to Socrates…if you don’t want to participate in politics, be prepared to be ruled by your inferiors. Pretty good admonition from a while back.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. the unit says:

    Example of being old, retired, too much time on one’s hands…googled your name (not NEO) and Jessica’s. Guess what I got?
    Bird Dog Hall of Fame Museum in TN, HOF. Y’all more famous than you knew. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • NEO says:

      Hah! News to me! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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