Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

What is History? What is Genealogy? An Introduction -- Part One

Surprisingly, neither of the questions in this blog title are either trivial or rhetorical. They are real questions. The question about history has been addressed by historians for a very long time as an examination of the philosophy of history.

On the other hand I would guess that few people who are interested in researching their ancestry start by addressing the fundamental objectives of the process. The question of "what is history" is entwined with all genealogical endeavors but seldom addressed. There are extensive writings on the philosophy of history but writings addressing the philosophy of genealogy are virtually nonexistent.

Before delving into this topic it is important to point out that there are various distinct usages of the term "genealogy" in the context of historical studies. In one context the term genealogy has the following meaning:
In philosophy, genealogy is a historical technique in which one questions the commonly understood emergence of various philosophical and social beliefs by attempting to account for the scope, breadth or totality of ideology within the time period in question, as opposed to focusing on a singular or dominant ideology. Moreover, a genealogy often attempts to look beyond the ideologies in question, for the conditions of their possibility (particularly in Foucault's genealogies). It has been developed as a continuation of the works of Friedrich Nietzsche. See Wikipedia: Genealogy (philosophy)
The philosophy of history has been applied to two different aspects of history. The critical philosophy of history is concerned with subjects such as the theories of the nature of historical evidence, the possibility of objectivity and the nature of evidence transmitted over time. The speculative philosophy of history deals with the overall significance of human history. Here are a few selections of books on these subjects.

Aron, Raymond. Introduction to the Philosophy of History: An Essay on the Limits of Historical Objectivity. Boston: Beacon Press, 1961.

Atkinson, R. F. Knowledge and Explanation in History: An Introduction to the Philosophy of History. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1978.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, and Robert S Hartman. Reason in History: A General Introduction to the Philosophy of History. New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1953.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, and Leo Rauch. Introduction to The Philosophy of History: With Selections from the Philosophy of Right. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co., 1988.

Stanford, Michael. An Introduction to the Philosophy of History. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1998.

Sullivan, John Edward. Prophets of the West; an Introduction to the Philosophy of History. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1970.

Walsh, W. H. An Introduction to Philosophy of History. London; New York: Hutchinson’s University Library, 1951.

Socrates is quoted in Plato's Apology as stating that the life which is unexamined is not worth living. By this I understand and believe that we cannot make progress in this life or the next without asking questions and resolving the issues raised by those questions. In this context I am raising the question of "what is genealogy?" As genealogists we have too long divorced ourselves from addressing the fundamental assumptions and philosophical foundations of our pursuit. We need to move into the mainstream of historical inquiry and tackle the hard questions that confront the genealogical researcher rather than be satisfied with a simplistic veneer of legal and scientific jargon. 

For example genealogists sometimes refer to making a "reasonably exhaustive search" in seeking enlightenment concerning the identity or relationship of their ancestors, but this approach focuses entirely on methodology rather than examining the underpinnings of the fact selection process. Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, "Whether you can observe a thing or not depends on the theory which you use. It is the theory which decides what can be observed."  Quoted from the following:

Salam, Abdus, P. A. M Dirac, Jonathan Evans, and Gerard Watts. Unification of Fundamental Forces: The First of the 1988 Dirac Memorial Lectures. Cambridge [England]; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Another quote is in order here from the following book.

Carr, Edward Hallett. What Is History? New York: Knopf, 1962.

Carr points out with my added comments,
History [and I might add genealogy] consists of a corpus of ascertained facts. The facts are available to the historian [genealogist] in documents, inscriptions and so on, like fish on the fishmonger's slab. The historian [genealogist] collects them, takes them home and cooks and serves them in whatever style appeals to him. 
We need to go beyond being reasonably exhausted and start to examine the basic tenets of genealogy. Unlike Socrates I do not have anyone with whom I can carry on a dialogue so I am opening one here. For the past few years, I have been thinking about this topic and have addressed it from quite a few different angles. It is now time to move my one-sided discussion into the main stream of historical philosophy for, after all, genealogy is nothing more or less than our own personal history.

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