April 03, 2010

Particular or Universal

Joanne Bailey in her study of early modern marriage notes that 'it is important for the historian not to treat these moments of extreme marital tension as abstracts'. She is absolutely right- the historian's focus is not, like the social scientist's, upon society in the abstract but upon individuals as they go to make up society. It is worth thinking about the implications and reasons for this for a moment and this is what I propose to do here. Basically why is history about the particular and not the general? And what furthermore can the particular tell us that the general law or principle can miss? The answer to the first might be a just so argument- history is history, not social science which is why I think we need to consider the second question in a little more detail because it will tell us why it is neccessary that we understand the particular and think about it before moving to general theories.

The first is suggested by Bailey's next line, 'these events, invariably sad, sometimes uplifting and touching, often brutal and callous, had great meaning for the people involved'. History does in one sense fulfill an obligation to remember, conveyed on the future by the past. Secondly remembering this kind of event makes it easier to understand people's lives in the round, and it is easier in this context to understand those events in the particular. The reason for this is that all people from all times do not react in the same ways to events, what may be a source of joy in one civilisation is the source of anger in another. Empathy is a large part of the historian's armory when she comes to deal with what happened. It is important precisely because if we are to discover anything more than our own impressions of the events of the past, we need to recover what those events meant to those involved. The general rule that we might formulate therefore is effected by our particular instances: searching for the general may bias our conclusions towards accepting realities of modern life, whereas searching for the particular confronts us with the strangeness of their lives.

History, if done properly, is about strangeness- its about trying to find out what was different about the past and see why intelligent men and women, good men and women, believed in witchcraft or sacrafice or patriarchy. History seeks not to excuse but to understand how the world looked to them- because if we do not understand that all our conclusions about that world will become false- that's why Bailey's statement is true. She has grasped that the particular conditions our approach to the general- because only through a particular instance can you grasp how people in the past related different facets of their lives together, and through doing so you are committed to unravelling the strangeness in those lives, rather than stringing together the commonalities between now and then in a skein of general theory.