Book Review: Historiography (Breisach)

Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, and ModernHistoriography: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern by Ernst Breisach

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ernst Breisach’s book, “Historiography” is best summarized by his comments in the introduction on page 2. He states,

“Every important new discovery about the past changes how we think about the present and what we expect of the future; on the other hand every change in the conditions of the present and in the expectations for the future revises our perception of the past.”

What was very evident from the begin portions of his book was the implication of one’s presuppositions in approaching the idea of history; what I have come to understand in textual interpretation as eisegesis. In other words, my contemporary culture, my view of sociology, my understanding of anthropology, my political views, and my mood/disposition all have dramatic affects and effects upon my interpretation and assessment of history. Furthermore, all of the above issues impact my view of current and future events. They are instrumental in forming my epistemology and worldview in which I then impose over top of history for interpretation.

Not only is this true for me as a reader of history, the original historian was also impacted by their own view of sociology, anthropology, politics, culture, etc… These forces impacted their drafting of history. The way in which they arranged the material, what they decided to highlight, what they chose to leave out and the amount that they recorded on certain subjects versus other subjects are all a direct result of their own presuppositions, mood, sociological views, anthropology understandings and cultural environment of their specific time period.

Taking this yet to another dimension, Breisach showed me how one’s interpretive lens is impacted not only by the present, but also how the past and future impact one’s historiography. For example, the events of the past have been and will continue to impact our view of the present. Our historical narratives (i.e. narratives of country, narratives of family, narratives of faith, etc…) shape us, guide us and many times compel us. Our historical narratives can inspire us in the present and they many times form our hopes about the future. Therefore, the influences of our history shape and form our present lives which inadvertently shapes the way we then look back and assess our historical narratives; almost a circular motion. Carrying this dialogue a bit further, Breisach also revealed to me how our hopes, desires and aspirations for the future also form our view of the past and shape the present. Thus the past, present and future are all consequently linked together. The past impacts, shapes and guides our present and future. The present and aspirations of the future reversely form our lens in which we view the past. This link between past, present and future, “destroys history’s image as an activity resembling idle rummaging in a bag of dry leaves and makes it into an activity necessary for human life. ” In other words, history cannot be left to an isolated period in the past, bound to rigid dates. Rather, Breisach’s view of history sees the idea of history as being actively involved in forming and shaping a person’s epistemology or for that matter their worldview. His view of history is a view of history with flesh on it.

The challenge for any student of history today is the daunting task of assessing history in light of their own presuppositions and the current influences of culture. Once this has been assessed, the other dimension is that of assessing the presuppositions of the original author and the cultural context of the time in which the material was written. One must keep in mind that the historical author was also impacted by the past, present and future hopes just as the reader of the present is.

Crudely put, Ernst Breisach’s book pushed me to lose my historical virginity. His assessment of history definitely was enlightening and did not drive things to simplicity but rather revealed the complexity of history. This inevitably brings history to a new understanding of making it an art, a skill, and something that demands our patience, respect and consideration.

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