No “Brutum Factum Historicum” or Principles for the Study of History

1. The past no long exists, only the present.

Corollaries:

  • There is no way to actually return to the past (no time machine).
  • The present is, in part, a large “archive” of the past.

2. Historical study reconstructs the past from fragments found in the extant archive.

Corollaries:

  • Historical reconstructions are selective.
  • Historical studies are necessarily interpretations (human acts and artifacts).
  • There is no brutum factum historicum (“pure historical fact”).
  • The would-be “facts” of history come to us within inescapable interpretive frameworks.

3. All recorded human histories (selective reconstructions of the past) are fallible, provisional, and in need of continuous revision.

Corollaries:

  • The historical data is always incomplete.
  • Historical interpretations are never final and perfect.

4. Historical reconstructions are always from a particular perspective or orientation.

Corollaries:

  • Every historical interpretation has its own context and presuppositions, whether explicitly acknowledged or not.
  • While historians can be critically self aware, they cannot fully escape their own historical situatedness.  (cultural embeddedness in time, place, and language)

5. Historical interpretations can be more or less valid.

Corollaries:

  • There are criteria for evaluating historical validity.
  • Historical work should be evaluated.  It is appropriate to ask, “Is this interpretation warranted? And if so, why?”

6.  “History” is an exercise in power (over others).

Corollaries:

  • Historical work has ethical entailments. This includes historical research, the reconstruction/interpretation of the past, and the transmission (dissemination/reception/archiving) of history.
  • “History” is an activity with moral implications.

Greene (Christology in Culture Perspective: Marking Out the Horizons, section on history, chapter 5) writes, “Even within contemporary theology there are those who are suspicious of the claim that history mirrors reality. Rather, it is claimed that history merely portrays ideological self-interest and the inevitable bias of one cultural aspiration over and against another” (p. 161).

The six principles found on page 164 are helpful: The first three deal with the historian (presuppositions, limitations, prejudices, etc.). It is imperative to ask who the historian is, what is his cultural setting, what is his time in history. The last three deal with how the historical record influences the view of history. This involves the combining of records, interpretation of records, framework of the presentation, and the response of readers.

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