Historical inquiry is no different from scientific inquiry. I’m an ancient historian saying this, and one particularly fond of the man who first applied the emergent principles of scientific inquiry (those still used to this day in so-called ‘Western’ science) to the study of our species and specifically to a scientific inquiry into the causes of the Persian Wars, namely Herodotus of Halicarnassus, a so-called ‘father of history’ as well as of anthropology, geology, exploration, sociology, and many other more focused disciplines (religious studies, for example). Let me repeat: historical inquiry and scientific inquiry are, when properly conceived of and used, identical in nature.
So, among scientists and scientifically minded individuals, one recognizes that a theory is only mildly better than a hypothesis, that settled facts are extremely few in number, and that most alleged facts spread popularly are really only theories. Thus it is with history: what can you honestly, dear reader, take as settled, even established, fact? If you are wise you might smile wryly and acknowledge how precious little you know of what you suppose is actual fact. (Pardon me: I am myself, like Socrates and others, determined to spread a healthy awareness of how fragile are the things we suppose we know.)
Historical inquiry begins with a historical researcher, sometimes called a student of history, and short-handedly known as a historian, called after the founding principles of our discipline which ancient Greeks like Herodotus called ‘historía.’ Now because all historical inquiry and analysis involves a living, thinking individual, we must account for that individual’s position, not only socioeconomic but experiential. All knowledge is situated knowledge: cognition may be general, but ideas are sprung from individuals at particular moments in their lives due to their particular experiences and the perspective they’ve acquired over time resultant from their experiences. This is their ‘situation,’ and as Donna Haraway so gloriously argues in a 1988 essay, all knowledge is therefore ‘situated knowledge.’
So it is with historical inquiry, historical research and historical analysis. Any opinion taken on a historical subject is nothing more than a personal opinion. That is a fundamental truth, a human social law. We are remarkably self-obsessed creatures who imprint ourselves on whatever we see, hear, feel or think. So we must be aware of what the court is doing with its recent ruling overturning 50 years of settled constitutional interpretation when they state in the majority opinion that “history and tradition” must guide interpretation of liberty if it is to be “ordered liberty.”
But neither history nor tradition exist in and of themselves: these are but the accumulation of the products of many decades of situated inquiry and situated analysis. There is deep bias built into this court’s guiding principle.
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