There are 14 thoughts on “The Inevitability of Epistemology in Historiography: Theory, History, and Zombie Mormon History”.

  1. Alan,
    Just ran across this, and wanted ask whether you have any sympathy for Bill Dever’s position:

    Dever, William G., “The Western Cultural Tradition Is at Risk,” Biblical Archaeology Review, 32/2 (Mar-Apr 2006):26,76. On the “historiographical crisis” in both archaeology and biblical studies, in which skepticism about nearly everything has become the norm.

    • Robert, I subscribe to that journal and read Dever’s article when it came out. Dever is an odd hybrid: he insists that he is a positivist, although I don’t see much evidence that he is in his writings. Historians like to compare their discipline to archaeology because they both deal with the past, but archaeology seems so much more brute fact oriented because it deals with material remains whereas history overwhelmingly deals with written texts. But archaeology is going through its own theoretical revolution. Twenty years ago archaeologists believed they had access to brute, uninterpreted facts. Archaeological theory has demolished that claim recently (I was just last week sorting through my old photocopies of articles while writing an article that has nothing to do with archaeology and came across at least ten such articles about archaeology). In many ways Dever is still old school, belonging to the pre-theory generation of archaeologists. His spat with the biblical minimalists demonstrates his dependence on old models and ideas. In other words, he doesn’t understand postmodernism. He instead relies upon other people’s misunderstandings of postmodern thought (as is common among old-school historians such as Himmelfarb, Evans, Windschuttle, Spitzer, Clark, etc.). These are people who don’t understand the philosophical reasoning the postmoderns undertake, so they depend on secondary readings that simplify and grasp the issues even less than they do. So Dever is good at pointing out the ideological presuppositions of the biblical minimalists, but he doesn’t perform well dealing with the theoretical issues himself.

      • Maybe so, Alan.
        Those of us from the “old school” will just have to see how the postmodernists respond to Dever’s forthcoming magnum opus on Iron Age Israel.

        Meantime, we still have to contend with Dever’s claims that the OT is not a reliable source for recreating the religion of Israel, that it is “a minority report,” “a construct.” Dever says, for example, that the OT writers devalue Ashera by making her the consort of Ba’al. He says that archeology tells us far more, and give us a far richer perspective. So he said last Oct 23rd in Logan, at The Lady of the Temple Conference.

        If there is an epistemic correlate there it must be interdisciplinary and very dynamic, because that is what his teachers taught him.

  2. Thorough and informative article, Alan,
    If a bit long.

    Dan Vogel, Bart Ehrman, and some others may indeed adhere to an anti-supernaturalist and anti-metaphysical creed (at least Ehrman is entirely up front about it), but that is not at all an uncommon (if unspoken) assumption among most people in modern, industrialized nations, and a prime reason for their rejection of religion. Thus, rather than endlessly haranging Vogel for his naive acceptance of that theoretical base, might it not be better to address the empirical reality which he so often, and so systematically ignores? Even assuming that his historiosophy is deeply flawed, why not simply demonstrate that (by his own standards) his empirical case is deeply flawed also? When he asserts that the Book of Mormon is readily available as a fit subject for empirical testing, why not take him up on his challenge? – with, for example, the empirical evidence assembled in John L. Sorenson’s Mormon’s Codex, even if “empirical evidence is already the result of interpretation” (161). In my discussions with him, I have found Vogel quite unprepared for a serious engagement with empirical reality.

    As for Vogel’s biographical excursions, it might be nice to compare the way he treats his sources with the way Doris Kearns Goodwin treats hers. For example, how much psychohistory does she do?

    All that quite aside from the notion that Mormonism is based on the assumption that reality is monistic, that there is no supernatural or metaphysical. All is matter, and even God abide’s by natural law.

  3. I have a friend who cannot distinguish between red and green. He is a brilliant bioinformatics scientist, but he is color blind. He believes in the colors red and green not because he has seen them himself, but because he believes in the testimony of others. He believes I can distinguish between red and green, even though he can’t see them and even though he knows he is smarter than I am. Just because you think you are some kind of brilliant scientist doesn’t mean you can discount the spiritual experiences of others. And who knows, if you opened your spiritual eyes you too might learn something.

  4. As a neophyte and layman to philosophy and positivism, it seems to me that Mr. Goff has done an admirable job in defense of the assertion that Dan Vogel is a positivist. Whether or not Vogel and Smith actually are positivists or not, the old saying seems to apply, “If it quacks like a duck and waddles like a duck…”

    By Vogel’s interpretation of empirical evidence, nine-tenths of any and every man’s life would be subject to questions of whether his life events actually happened or not due to a lack of proof correlating evidence. By Vogel’s methodology you could almost prove that any certain man didn’t exist because of the lack of correlating evidence corroborating every minute of every day of every month of every year of said man’s life. But what seems to me to be worse than this, is the methodology of taking what evidence has been left behind (such as direct eye-witness statements) and turning them around or even upside down so as to suit the preferred desired outcome of the researcher (historian). This seems very disingenuous to me because almost anything can then be said or “made up” about any historical figure just because the researcher (historian) chooses to do so.

  5. So we are left with “my faith is as good as your faith” and “empirical evidence” cannot be conclusive. Great.

  6. Great article. It not only sounds the death knell for positivistic history as the final arbiter, but it also crumbles the clay feet of scientism as the ultimate authority in religious discussions. I plan to mine the article often for use in on-line debates. Here is one of my favorite quotes: “A major but often unacknowledged problem with historical knowing is that the past is not an object of sense perception that can be experienced empirically in the present.”

  7. “I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge, in order to make room for faith.”—Immanuel Kant. “When knowledge is against the man, the man is against knowledge.”—David Hume.

    • You are an ironist, Dan, or your comment is an April Fool’s joke. You dismiss epistemology as “esoteric and irrelevant” and then here in the comments section you quote from Kant’s epistemological study. Except you reduce the greatest modern study of epistemology to a bumper sticker bromide. Have you read the Critique of Pure Reason? You do something similar with the quotation you attribute to Hume (although I can’t “verify” by finding evidence in his writings that Hume ever said what you attribute to him). I do notice that ten years ago (Oct. 11, 2004) when I accused you of being a positivist on the Liberty Pages discussion board, you cited this very quotation when those discussing the matter were coalescing around the conclusion that you were a positivist despite your denials because you kept making positivistic claims unaware that you were doing so. Bumper sticker slogans won’t do. You need to think for yourself, and do philosophy either on your own or by citing reputable sources that you demonstrate you can grasp. You shouldn’t dismiss philosophy as “esoteric and irrelevant” then draw upon it for your uncritical cliches; the morality of knowledge forbids such abuse. Both your quotations refer to knowledge, so it is ironic that you dismiss epistemological inquiry about knowledge claims as useless and irrelevant. Every time you make comments on the Internet you make matters worse for yourself by confirming what you deny, in this case when you assert your superior knowledge about how knowledge is produced while scorning the discipline that takes up knowledge claims and arrogantly disdaining to consult the relevant literatures in philosophy and historiography.

  8. This article was simply too long and unfocused – I couldn’t finish it. My impression from what I did read was that the author does point out some positivist weakness in Vogel’s work and in a general attitude of modernist dismissal of religious experience as ignorably unempirical. Yet it all does come across as ad hominem, which seems to undermine its contribution.

    • Saying that it “come(s) across as ad hominem” doesn’t really make sense — not to get all positivist here, but ad hominem argumentation has a real definition. Can you provide any examples of ad hominem arguments that Goff used in this piece? Or are you just saying that you feel his piece is too critical?

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