Francis Bacon and history

The last chapter of Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses moves away from making the case that the four gospels record genuine eyewitness testimony to Jesus, and takes a look at the nature of testimony itself.

This centres round the work of philosopher C A J Coady in his book Testimony. Coady demonstrates that testimony is actually a unique means of acquiring knowledge that cannot be reduced to other epistemologies. Because it relies necessarily on trust, it is the truly social form of epistemology that has been neglected in the Enlightenment emphasis on the individual and his knowledge and reason.

Testimony is actually by far the most important route for knowledge acquisition in every area of life. In fact, human society would be impossible to sustain without it. Although testimony can sometimes be doubted, checked or reinforced/refuted by other evidence, the vast majority of it is taken on trust. That of course applies in daily life, from my wife’s telling me her plans for the day to the news on the radio. But it applies even in science, where nearly all knowledge comes from the testimony of others about their research (or other people’s at several removes) rather than our own checking of their work.

The neglect – or rather rejection – of this truth is exemplified, as Bauckham shows, by R G Collingwood’s classic on philosophy of history, The Idea of History, which very much flies the Enlightenment flag on the matter. The author’s autonomy as a historian is paramount:

He can never be under any obligation, or have the right, to let someone else make up his mind for him. If anyone else, … even a very learned historian, or an eyewitness, or a person in the confidence of the man who did the thing he is inquring into, or even the man who did it himself, hands him on a plate a ready-made answer to his question, all he can do is reject it: not because he thinks his informant is trying to deceive him, or is himself deceived, but because if he accepts it he is giving up his autonomy as a historian.

That is so Enlightenment, isn’t it? The rational hero, standing alone against the forces of darkness embodied, in this case, in what historical sources are trying to testify to him. He could be Galileo in the mythic portrayals of his trial, or any one of a thousand other heroes of progress. Collingwood relies consciously on the concept of experimental science put forward by Francis Bacon. Bacon used the metaphor of “putting nature to the question”, the very opposite of respectful attentiveness to what it is offering to tell us. As Collingwood says:

What he was asserting was two things at once: first that the scientist must take the initiative, deciding for himself what he wants to know and formulating this in his mind in the shape of a question; and secondly, that he must find means of compelling nature to answer, devising tortures under which she can no longer hold her tongue… Bacon laid down once for all the true theory of experimental science. It is also, though Bacon did not know this, the true theory of historical method.

Bauckham points out wrily that Bacon’s analogy was not merely picturesque – he himself was involved in the actual torture of prisoners to get information. There is something deeply unpleasant about that attitude, which seems to spill noticeably over into some of the history of scientific investigation, but that’s another matter.

One can see the direct influence of this Baconian approach on biblical higher criticism. The gospels make every effort to tell us a story. But the autonomous scholar knows on his own initiative that the prisoner is lying. He cannot be believed, and must be put to the question. Lo and behold, after vivisection of the text into sources, traditions, legends and embellishments, the real story – that is, the answer to the question the scholar had already formulated in his mind – is forced from the text. It’s rather damaged in the process, but knowledge is power, so the price must be paid.

It’s only in biblical studies that this Baconian approach has been retained for so long with such zeal. Historians generally, though certainly applying useful critical tools, and maybe paying lip service to the skeptical approach, in practice are still forced to rely in large part on testimony, or else the only history would be the woefully sketchy and dry record of archaeology.

But the Baconian analogy in itself provides cautionary lessons on the idea of putting testimony to the question. In Tudor times, the conspiracies suspected by the state were convoluted beyond imagination. A word in a letter here, a dropped glove, were enough to crystallise an entire plot in the minds of the authorities. That was what they wanted to know in the face of the suspect’s protestations of innocence. Torture, of course, produced reliable confirmation of their suspicions. And that, apart from matters of cruelty, is why evidence adduced under torture is discounted in our courts today: it uncovers what the torturer wants to hear, not the truth.

Bauckham draws a loose parallel between the extraordinary events testified in the gospels, and the verbal testimonies of victims of the Holocaust. In the first place, the events are so far outside common experience that only those actually involved can begin to make them known. But by the same token, the skeptical historian who brings “common experience” to bear on the stories will fail to learn the truth, because the truth is not “common experience” – the very reason, of course, that the witnesses felt compelled to record it.

Torturing texts, then, like torturing people, carries the great risk of missing the truth that is being offered simply and honestly, but in contradiction of the historian’s invincible autonomy. Torture also has the unfortunate effect of leaving the innocent victim dead.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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