Aug 27 2012
Knowing the eighteenth century
How about the historian’s knowledge? How do we know what we know? Is it all just texts? Well, of course it’s all just texts – we deal with the written word, and little else. I thought about this a lot when I was writing my book on George Cheyne. How could I expect to get a handle on the life of an 18th century Scottish physician? I have always been bemused by the fact that Cheyne and I are physical opposites: he was huge, tall and over 400 pounds; I am not. I have always loved detective novels, and doing history is in some ways like solving a puzzle – except the pieces are scattered all over the place. In Cheyne’s case, I put together what he said publicly with what he said privately in correspondence. With that went what other people thought of him, publicly and privately. On top of that I looked at his setting – what was happening around him, the political and cultural milieu. I looked at his material circumstances, which I became very conscious of when writing for the Oxford DNB and looking at numerous wills. On the basis of all this, I came to some conclusions about what Cheyne was like, what he believed, and what it was like to live his life. Of course I could be all wrong, but that’s why history is an ongoing enterprise; it’s never finished. When I was in college I read Quentin Skinner’s essay on meaning and understanding in the history of ideas, and it made a deep impression on me. He argued that the text could not be separated from its context, that you had to have both to understand an idea. I could worry forever about the Russian doll of the reader reading the read text and what it means, if anything. I would rather assume that the writer (who in the 18th century, I think, was not as self-conscious as most writers today, except for Sterne) meant something and that maybe I can find out what that something is. It is true that I will never really “know” the eighteenth century, I will only know it from the twentieth. Since time travel is not yet a viable possibility, I guess that will have to do.