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Meaning in historiography

When one rejects the holistic account one thus also abandons the assumption that all the statements in a work of history are meaning- constituting. The polar opposite position is to assume that a historiographical thesis or its components are punctuate or atomistic entities, whose understanding does not require knowing any other meanings and their relations to the thesis studied. This is not feasible in our historiographical case (and more generally). since one needs to be aware of a fair amount of information expounded. For example, in order to understand Thompson's claim that 'The English working class was "present at its own making"' in 1780-1832, one needs to be aware that Thompson understands 'class' as a process and not as a static sociological entity. More importantly, it is necessary to also know how the process of 'making' is understood and what its central constituent parts are. The first link in the process is made evident in first part of the book, 'The Liberty Tree'. It says that in the years and events before the eighteenth-century the seeds for the later emancipatory working class movement were planted. These 'seeds' are composed of various (often religious) forms of dissent and the idea of 'The Free-born Englishman'. The next main section of the book, 'The Curse of Adam', claims cultural and political continuity from the late eighteenth-century and describes how the productive relations and working conditions of the Industrial Revolution changed the life of field laborers (Chapter 7), urban artisans (Chapter 8) and hand- loom weavers (Chapter 9). Thompson's conclusion is that 'by 1840 most people were "better off" than their forerunners had been fifty years before, but they had suffered and continued to suffer this light improvement as a catastrophic experience' (Thompson 1991, 231) and that this meant 'the reduction of the man to the status of an "instrument"' (Thompson 1991, 222). Finally, it is necessary to understand the point in the third main section of the book, 'Working-class presence'. Radicalism remained defensive in the years after 1815 and was often driven underground. And although there is very little (and distorted) information left on the underground movement, Thompson claims that there is a clear continuity of 'making' from pre-1815 years to the 1830s. In order to see where Thomson's reasoning leads to, it is best to take a few direct quotations from him:

At the end of the decade [1820s] . .. it is possible to speak in a new way of the working people's consciousness of their interests and of their predicament as a class ... there is a sense in which we may describe popular Radicalism in these years as an intellectual culture. (Thompson 1991, 781; my emphasis).

In these years, working people learnt to see themselves

as part of a general history of conflict between the loosely defined 'industrious classes' on the one hand, and the unreformed House of Commons on the other. From 1830 onwards a more clearly defined class consciousness, in the customary Marxist sense, was maturing, in which working people were aware of continuing both old and new battles on their own. (Thompson 1991, 781-782; my emphasis)

Further, the final actual (sub-)chapter declares that, in the years 1831-1835:

there is a sense in which the working class is no longer in the making, but has been made. To step over the threshold, from 1832-1835, is to step into a world in which the working-class presence can be felt in every county in England, and in most fields of life. (Thompson 1991, 887; my emphases)

The meaning of the thesis can be said be to be constituted of these kinds of central elements that constitute the process, which results in the birth of English working class. Understanding meaning implies that one is able to link these elements together.

It is worth noting that meaning and evidence naturally become entangled as a deeper understanding of the meaning results in a better awareness of evidence. Again, despite the fact that this conceptual distinction is not clear-cut, there is nevertheless a distinction to be made, the main claim being that most of the factual elements in the book are not necessary for the understanding of the main historical thesis. The deeper one delves into factual evidence, the clearer it becomes that one has crossed the border beyond what is needed for the understanding of the thesis for any practical purposes. The distinction between meaning and evidence is thus gradual and a matter of degree. If one tries to analyze what a historian claims in a book, one eventually normally realizes that that one not only understands the meaning of the central thesis but has also become aware of at least some of the grounds for believing it. In other words, the meaning of a historiographical thesis depends on its historiographical context but not on the whole context. Therefore, it could be said that meaning is narrowly holistic or narrowly context-dependent, without a sharp boundary concerning what needs to be understood. Or, using Fodor and Lepore's terminology, the account is molecularist in the sense that understanding the main historical thesis requires knowing many beliefs, but not all of the beliefs put forward in the book. Alternatively, if one can make a sufficient number of inferences or possesses a sufficient number of relevant beliefs, then one can be said to understand Thompson's historical thesis. The question of how much is sufficient is not important because that depends on the level of specificity required. The central claim is that when one goes beyond the meaning-context, one enters the area of evidence, the knowing of which is inessential for the understanding of meaning.

What about Clark's thesis of Europe sleepwalking towards the First World War? What is its meaning? This thesis is illustrated with some very telling anecdotes in the book. For example, in the autumn of 1913 Serbian Prime Minister Nikola Pasic and the Austrian Foreign minister Leopold von Berchtold met. The recent Serbian occupation of Albania cast a shadow over the meeting and Berchtold intended to raise the issue in discussions. However, he was so overwhelmed by the 'warmth of Pasic's overtures' (Clark 2013, 98) that he 'forgot' to express Vienna's strong objections to Serbia's occupation of Albania. It is worth letting Clark describe the situation:

It was agreed that he would broach the Albanian Question with the Serbian leader that evening when the two men were both expected to attend the opera. But when the foreign minister arrived a little late to take his seat in the royal box, he found that Pasic had already retired to his hotel, where he was supposedly in bed fast asleep. The Serbian prime minister left Vienna early next morning without any further meeting having taken place. Berchtold went back to his desk and spent the small hours writing a letter that was taken round to the hotel courier so that it reached Pasic as he was leaving the City. But since it was scrawled in German script (not to mention Berchtold's notoriously inscrutable hand) Pasic was unable to read it. Even when the letter was deciphered in Belgrade, Pasic supposedly found it difficult to see what Berchtold was getting at. And the people of the Austrian Foreign Office had no idea either, because Berchtold had not thought to preserve a rough copy of the text. This comedy of errors ... is in no doubt in part an indictment of Austrian disarray ... Above all, it conveys a sense of the paralysing awkwardness that had settled over Austro-Serbian relations by the eve of the First World War. (Clark 2013, 98)

This is of course only a small episode in the saga that took the world to its first total war, but the 'comedy of errors' and miscalculations of this episode exceptionally vividly exemplifies the sleepwalker thesis concerning the First World War. The main players in the pre-Great War drama were not in full control and lacked full understanding of the consequences of their deeds.

Clark gives several reasons for this 'sleepwalking'. One is that there was a 'chaos of competing voices' both between the allies and within the decision-structures of the European powers. For example, there was inherent uncertainty and lack of clarity in the monarchical decision processes. If a king failed to perform an integrative function (and they often did) in the power relations of the monarchical structure, the system remained unresolved and potentially incoherent. 'In this sense, kings and emperors could become a source of obfuscation in international relations' (Clark 2013, 184). In general, the international system was marred by a relatively poor understanding of each other's intentions, and it did not improve the situation that confidence and trust (even within the respective alliances) was low, combined with high levels of hostility and high paranoia (Clark 2013, 240). The key foci are the 'fluidity' and 'fluctuations' of power structures and influences, which manifested in uncertainty and in a high degree of contingency in the system.

One way in which Clark's reading differs from various other interpretations of the Great War is that he does not look for single culpable actors in the crisis, and nor does he put particular blame on Austria- Hungary and Germany. In his book, Austria-Hungary provides a prime example of 'sleepwalking' because its decision-structures conditioned the walk towards the unknown. Clark compares Austrians to 'hedgehogs scurrying across a highway with their eyes averted from the rushing traffic' (Clark 2013, 429). The decision-makers in Vienna discussed the possibility of Russian mobilization and a general European war, but these scenarios were never properly weighed and assessed in the process of policy-making. A central reason was 'that the hive-like structure of the Austrian-Hungarian political elite was simply not conducive to the formulation of decisions through the careful shifting and balancing of contradictory information' (Clark 2013, 429). A tendency to miscalculate the intentions of negotiating partners and underestimate the seriousness of the situation was widespread. For a long time, and on many sides, there were no indications that the leaders wanted war. There were, for example, according to Clark, no signs at the end of July 1914 that British Foreign Secretary Grey wanted war, and all the major British newspapers viewed a European war with 'distaste' (Clark 2013, 492).

Another important reason for 'sleepwalking' was the lack of historical experience itself. Clark asks whether the protagonists understood how high the stakes were. 'Europeans subscribed to the deluded belief that the next continental conflict would be a short, sharp cabinet war of the eighteenth-century type; the men would be "home before Christmas", as the saying went' (Clark 2013, 561). Clark notes that people had no experience of a total war before 1914 and thus lacked a substantial understanding of what might follow, that is, the 'wisdom' that later probably helped prevent an open nuclear war between the superpowers after 1945. All in all, Clark points out that although before 1914 people realized the dangers hidden in the international system and they indeed had some understanding of the horrors of war, they didn't really grasp them fully: 'The protagonists of 1914 were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world' (Clark 2013, 562).15

In sum, understanding Clark's thesis requires grasping the kinds of issues mentioned above. What precisely it is that needs to be known cannot be accurately stated because the border between meaning and evidence is porous. Nevertheless, many of the details in the book clearly fall on the evidence-side of the border in any normal inquiry. It is quite possible to understand Clark's view on the Great War without being aware of the way in which the Serbian King Alexander and Queen Draga of the Obrenovic dynasty were assassinated and, for example, that it was king's first adjutant Lazar Petrovic, who led the assassins through the 'darkened halls' in the hunt for the king (cf. Clark 2013, 3-5) - although knowing this incident illuminates the tumultuous nature of Serbian politics at this point and may help better appreciate how precarious the situation in European international relations actually was. Undoubtedly, Clark could have used different examples to make that point.

Again, it cannot be explicitly stated what belongs to the meaning component and what to the evidence component. Rather, it is a question of a sliding scale in which there are, on one hand, such linguistic meanings and central historical claims without which understanding would hardly be possible and, on the other hand, there is some numerical and other semantically inessential information. One can always go from the most central elements to more marginal ones and understanding of the thesis improves and becomes more nuanced in the process. But there is a point at which the student of the book is entitled to say: 'Now I understand what Clark means' without linking every evidential detail to the central claim.

Finally, I would like to further suggest that the blurred line between meaning and evidence is a strength of historiography and not a weakness. Given the twentieth-century philosophy of language and philosophy of science, it would not be wise to re-awaken the debate of whether there is a distinction between analyticity and syntheticity. And it would not be reasonable to commit to full-bloodied holism, which makes everyday communication a mystery. Some distinction is needed, but it is best to keep the border between meaning and evidence porous in the spirit of pragmatism.

 
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