Full Disclosure

By November 7, 2009

The comments on my last post got me thinking about a few things, particularly the fact that the subject of the post studied under the venerable historian of the English Reformation, Eamon Duffy. In the second edition to Duffy’s monumental The Stripping of the Altars, which present the English Reformation as an unwanted destruction of the English people’s traditoinal religion, Duffy makes the following disclosure:

It was only after the book had been published and began to be debated, that I came to realize that the energy and engagement which had helped to produce it, and which gave it some of its rhetorical force, did not belong entirely in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Till my early teens I had been brought up in the Ireland of the 1950s, and the religion of my childhood had a good deal in common with the symbolic world of the late Middle Ages. My later teens had exactly coincided with the Second Vatican Council, of which I was an eager observer. That Council had triggered the dismantling of much of what had seed immemorial and permanent in my own inner imaginative landscape, as the externals of the ritual life of the Catholic Church were drastically altered and simplified. My account of the English Reformation presented it less as an institutional and doctrinal transformation than a ritual one, “the stripping of the altars”: in retrospect, I see that the intensity of focus I brought to my task as an historian was nourished by my own experience of another such ritual transformation. [then he quotes a poem] For there is, of course, no such thing as a presupposition-less observer. All historians who aspire to be more than chroniclers derive their imaginative insight and energy from somewhere, and if reading and research provide the core materials, our own experience provides us with the sensitivities–an no doubt the blind-spots–which make what we do with that material distinctive. The book, as rigorously and exhaustively based as I was capable of making it on a mass of historical, literary and material evidence, was also shaped and informed by the imaginative and symbolic revolution through which I myself had lived in the 1960s and 1970s.

Though we’re all taught about inescapable bias in grad school, I have never seen an author be so forthright. Of course, this was a second edition which served as a kind of victory lap for Duffy in which he is pleased to show that his point of view about the English Reformation had won out. But such a statement still smacks of tremendous self confidence.

So how much ought one to disclose? As John Turner pointed out on my last post, people are interested in knowing where the author is coming from. I remember discussing The Stripping of the Altars with one of my professors who told me that I had to keep in my that Duffy was an Irish Catholic with a particular point of view, to which I thought “Yeh, I know. He makes it very clear in his preface.”

Article filed under Methodology, Academic Issues


Comments

  1. Steve, thanks for pointing out the quote from Duffy, which I like very much. Similar things have been on my mind recently.

    As for how much one ought to disclose, I don’t know. I suspect not very much (until the second edition comes out, at least), because it’s too easy to go from knowing an author’s background, to dismissing his or her argument. Certainly it makes the question, “Where did you get the idea for your project?” much trickier to answer than it would first appear.

    Comment by Jonathan Green — November 7, 2009 @ 6:51 pm

  2. I’ve seen this frequently among historians of religion – Marsden does something similar in the afterward to Fundamentalism and American Culture, where he draws an analogy to Tolkien – “We live in the midst of contests between great and mysterious spiritual forces, which we understand only imperfectly.” This is, actually, not only his own faith but reflects something of the way in which he understands the historian’s task to be theological.

    To cite another example off the top of my head, Grant Wacker’s intro to Heaven Below discusses his own upbringing as a Pentecostal.

    I rather like it, not only because it’s an acknowledgement of subjectivity, but because I’m interested in these larger questions of the relation between history and theology.

    Comment by matt b — November 8, 2009 @ 2:29 pm


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