The Critical Method assumes that past events cannot be known simply by reading and accepting, uncritically,what is reported in documents –“With ink, anyone can write anything”. Nor, is subjective common sense an acceptable criterion for making judgments about the meaning and veracity of an historic text.
Rather, the past can only be known by objectively critiquing the remnant documents from the past in accordance with the principles and techniques of an “auxiliary science”, and comparing the remnant with corroborating documents.
For example, if we accept uncritically the descriptions of the Persians given in the speeches of Pericles, we would be ignorant about the Persians. If, on the other hand, we properly critique those same speeches in accordance with the rules of linguistic sciences and compare the speeches with other Greek and Persian documents, we can come to know a great deal about both the Persians and the Greeks.
Similarly, the census, survey and other quantitative documents, created by northern Italians purporting to describe the South subsequent to the Piedmontese conquest cannot be taken literarily as a mirror of the reality of the former “Two Sicilies” in the 1860s. On the contrary, unless and until those documents are critiqued in terms of statistical principles and compared with other corroborating documents they tell us little if anything about the South.
In her article, “How Many Italies? Representing the South in Official Statistics” in Italy’s Southern Question: Orientalism in One Country (ed. Jane Schneider 1998), Prof. Silvana Patriaca reports on various such quantitative documents, yet she provides no commentary or references to commentaries on the accuracy of the data reported in those documents. She presents them as essentially true.
Understandable her objective is to report on the “images”, “discourse” and “representations” in those documents. However, in the absence of any comment about their veracity, readers (especially Italian American students) are left with the impression that the “images” and “representations” are true descriptions of their historical reality.
When Americans of Italian descent try to learn the history of their progeneration in the lands of the former “Two Sicilies”, they must understand that unlike Gertrude Stein’s “Rose”: History is not History is not History.
Historians write history books and articles based on assumptions about the nature of knowledge (epistemology) and appropriate methodology. Two historians working with the same documents but different assumptions will produce significantly different histories. Americans of Italian decent must understand these differences if they are going to rationally make judgments about the truth/reality of their cultural origins.
This article will discuss two different approaches (roads - so to speak) to the past as they apply to the history of southern Italy in the years after the Piedmontese subjugation. One road is the three hundred year old historiographic tradition know as the Critical Method; the other, a more recent type of historiography, based on the philosophy of Foucault and Nietzsche, and practiced by a noted and highly credentialed “Ivy League” historian Silvana Patriarca.
Road one: Critical History
Widely known are the profound seminal changes in Western math, physics and philosophy that occurred in the 17th century. Less well known is the similar epistemological revolution in historiography that occurred in the same century (e.g. 1681 Mabillon’s De Re Diplomatica, etc.). Influenced by the Cartesian milieu, historians began developing rules governing valid logical inferences about the past based on the objective analysis of documents similar to the logic and methods of science.
The evolution of this scientific-historiographic revolution continued through the 18th century and reached its maximum fruition during the 19th century when European scholars poured out scientifically rigorous histories of the ancient, medieval and early modern eras.
This historiographic tradition, known as the ‘Critical Method’, was codified in an influential 1898 textbook “Introduction to the Study of History” written by University of Paris professors Charles Langlois and Seignobos. Forty-three years later, Langlois and Seignobos’ brilliant student and renown medieval historian Marc Bloch wrote “The Historian's Craft.” Whereas, the Langlois & Seignobos’ text laid out in great detail and splendid pedagogical form the specific concepts, methods and techniques, Block’s eloquent book provided the epistemological underpinnings, of the Critical Method. In short, these two books posit answers to the Socratic-esque question: “How do we know what we think we know about the past?”
The Critical Method is predicated on the idea that the goal of the historian is to describe and explain past phenomena (reality) by making logical inferences based on observed characteristics of and information in documents.
Langlois and Signobos:
“…history is studied from documents, and documents are the traces of past events…Events can be empirically know in two ways only: by direct observation while they are in progress; and indirectly, by the study of the traces which they leave behind them. (p. 63 emp.+)
“The detailed analysis of the reasonings which lead from the inspection of documents to the knowledge of facts is one of the chief parts of Historical Methodology. It is the domain of criticism” (p. 65 emp.+).
Note: “Reasoning” understood in this context as logic, and “facts” understood as past events, i.e. reality; e.g. who did what to whom - where, when and why.
Because European historians up to Langlois and Siegnobos' time were largely concerned with ancient, medieval and early modern documents, analysis entailed expert language skills.
Langlois and Siegnobos:
“Solid philological study ought logically to precede historical research in every instance where the documents to be employed are not to be had in a modern language, and in a form in which they can be easily understood…Philology is understood in the comprehensive sense of the German ‘Philologie’ which includes the history of language and literature, epigraphy, paleography, and all that pertains to textual criticism (p.50 emp.+)
All of these various types of linguistic knowledge and skills were characterized as the “auxiliary sciences” of history. Marc Block, anticipating the next great historiogaphic revolution coming in the late 20th century includes statistics as a necessary auxiliary science. He refers to “...one of the newest applications of method: statistical criticism.” ( p118)
As historian's research moved from the ancient and medieval into the modern industrial era they encounter new types of documents; quantitative documents that had relatively few words; and, an enormous amounts of numbers such as ‘prices of wheat’, ‘tons of steel’, ‘census documents', etc. The analysis of these types of quantitative documents entails knowledge of the “auxiliary science” statistics.
Even though the Critical Method has been a very effective tool for coming to know the past; i.e. arguable the vast majority of what we know about the ancient, medieval and early modern eras comes to us via this method, nevertheless Marc Bloch observed:
“Criticism has not yet succeeded in winning over that wholehearted approval of [all historians]…thus, historians like Maurra, Bainville, or Plekhanov affirm that which Fustel de Coulanges or Pirenne would have doubted.” (p.86)
Professor Patriaca seems to be one such historian, who has not embraced the critical method. Note: emphasis on ‘seems’; a word that comes to my mind repeatedly when considering Prof. Patriaca’s work. Her writing is to me enigmatic, especially because her epistemology seems to be rooted in the enigmatic (to me) philosophies of Foucault and Nietzsche.
Road two: Representation History (note: my characterization)
A genealogy of Silvana Patriarca’s Historiogarphy
In her “How Many Italies?...” article, and “Indolence and Regeneration: Tropes and Tensions of Risorgimento Patriotism” (The American Historical Review Vol. 110, No. 2 April 2005), Prof. Patriarca seems to identify with the philosopher Michel Foucault who in turn identifies with the philosophy of Frederic Nietzsche. For example,
In a “How Many Italies?” footnote, she writes:
“By the term knowledge I mean… ‘constitutive’ of reality rather than…discovery of things…the reference here is of course M. Foucault...The Archeology of Knowledge and The Order of Things” (fn. 2 P. 92 emp. +)
Also, in an “Indolence and Regeneration” footnote, she writes:
“…some important guidelines for my understanding of representations as an integral part of the social fabric [comes from]… Joan W. Scott, who maintains, after Michel Foucault, the constitutive power of discourse (fn. 16 emp. +)
I have no idea what ‘constitutive’ means in these contexts. However, the connection to Foucault is clear. Further, Foucault’s connection to Nietzsche is brought out in William V. Spanos’ The Errant Art of Moby-Dick. He quotes Foucault as follows:
"Nietzsche's criticism… always questioned the [19th century] form of history… I am a Nietzschean."
Nietzsche made a career out of viciously attacking 19th century critical historiography. The great historian and philologist Ulrih von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff was not alone in seeing Nietzsche’s work as an attack on the basic tenets of scientific thought and took the position against Nietzsche's "rape of historical facts and all historical method"
Prof. Patriarca’s work, in this Foucault/Nietzscheian tradition, demonstrates her rejection of critical historiography by her treatment of quantitative documents in “How Many Italies?”
“…this rhetorical question, which would appear to demand a reference to the reality behind the representation. In what follows, however, I will not invoke this reality, but will focus my attention on what today's social scientists would call "hard data," i.e. quantitative information, and treat them as a representation. ( emp.+P78)
Prof. Patriarca specifically rejects ‘reality’ as the object of her inquiry, whereas critical history is all about (indeed, only about) REALITY.
“With ink, anyone can write anything”
For the critical historian, documents are the medium through which past societies come to be know. But, the documents are not simply read and quoted, as Prof. Patriarca does throughout the “How Many Italies?” article.
Marc Block writes:
“In the 11th century, a country squire of Lorraine in reference to some monks who had armed themselves in a lawsuit against him with documentary proofs, exclaimed: With ink, anyone can write anything” (p 79)
With that in mind, when presented with 1860s Italian quantitative documents, the critical historian will critique the documents in accordance with the principles of the “auxiliary science” of statistics, and compare them with corroborating documents. Bloch wrote: “At the bottom of nearly all criticism there is a problem of comparison.” (p.110)
Prof. Patriarca does neither (i.e. no statistical and no comparative analysis), and makes no references to such analysis in the form of parenthetical comments or annotated footnotes. She simply reports the numbers as though they were [in fact] objective measures of ‘reality.’
That is the problem; her implicit characterization that the various quantitative documents she discusses (census, conscription’s medical reports, election, crime, etc.) are accurate measures of southern Italian society in the 1860s.
Apart from the failure to engage in any discussion or references to the statistical veracity of the documents (e.g. absence of random sampling as a basis for generalization, etc.), to my mind, the most egregious omission is the failure to refer to shocking comparative documents like the incredible reports in John Dickie’s Darkest Italy which virtually negate all the statistical data Patriarca cites.
“Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics”
Prof. Patriarca writes:
“...the new Italian state immediately after its establishment began to assemble a "positive" and "scientific" knowledge of the new country and of its various components through the collection and publication of statistics…Statistics was then considered a "governmental science" and a method that produced what was believed to be an objective and scientific evaluation of the level of "civilization" of a country. (p.78 emp.+)
How can anyone take the ‘1861 Italian Census of southern Italy’ or ‘anthropometirc data on conscripts collected by army doctors in 1863’, or ‘data on violent deaths in 1866’ or ‘election and crime statistics in the 1860s’ seriously, indeed characterize them as scientific, when the South during the 1860s is described from (comparative) source documents by Dickie as follows:
“ Unauthorized, brutal measures such as mass arrest, summary executions, and reprisals had been used from the start by the Piedmontese army against lawbreakers and rebels… (p.31)
“The many grisly ‘hunting-trophy’ photographs of the condemned or executed taken by army officers… (p. 33)
“The Messogiornno spent the first five years after incorporation into the new Italy under different forms of what was essentially a military regime…A very difficult situation developed into near anarchy in the Spring of 1861… (p. 37)
“One of the most infamous instances of pitilessness was the razing of the town of Pontelnadolfo whose inhabitants had deceived and butchered a column of troops. (P 41)
“In August 1863 the infamous Pica law was passed that grafted transportation onto the system of punishments…” (i.e. the peasants were physically removed from their communities p. 41)
“Parliamentary commissioner Nino Bixio wrote in 1860: ‘this is a country that should be destroyed or at least depopulated and its inhabitants sent to Africa…” (p. 35)
(Of course we know now that Nino’s wish for depopulation came true starting in 1870 and continued till 1920. Only the people went to the Americans instead of Africa.)
One could go on and on with such descriptions of the horrific conditions in southern Italy in the 1860s. Yet even as the people of southern Italy were being brutalized by Piedmontese army, Prof. Patriarca would have us believe that the Milanese, Pavia University graduates, doctor Pietro Maestri and lawyer Cesare Correnti were executing scientific statistical studies of the South which she quotes without qualm or comment.
Frankly, Prof. Patriarca adds new meaning to the old saying:
“Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics”
In short, I don't know about "Zarathustra" but, I say:
Professor Patriarca … “you got some s’plainen to do”