Tuesday, February 14, 2012

LaCapra: Intellectual History

If I had to define the method that I am most comfortable with, I would probably place myself within the Intellectual History tradition.  This tradition has come under fire for being too philosophical or not contextual enough, but I think it has much to offer multiple disciplines.  The author I will be leaning on for help to describe this method is Dominick LaCapra.  LaCapra is famous for his work on Intellectual History and his work on the Holocaust; some of the questions he raises is on how historians can show empathy for their subjects like in a topic as grave as the Holocaust.  Much of the information below is found in Elizabeth Clark's book History, Theory, Text.

LaCapra describes Intellectual History as "a history of the situated uses of language constitutive of significant texts."  He criticizes a documentary historiographical approach (this includes both social and economic historians) to texts as positivism; he notes that historical documents are never simply just "there" to read.  His point is to ask what do these text really do. Oftentimes the move is to read everything per context or authorial intention and thus the text takes a backseat to the context.  However, context itself is something that also needs interpretation.  Another factor to take into consideration are those traces in a text of what is actually left unsaid.   LaCapra therefore focuses on the place where contexts and texts come into relation with each other.  Clark notes that what is so helpful about LaCapra's method is that his concern for language does not compromise the importance of good research practices.  Therefore, better reading methods with regards to a more nuanced reading of the context/text and the way the historian actually reads them combined with typical research methods of archival work, and attention to primary and secondary works is the method that seems to form here.

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