In the beginning there are the words, all kinds of words from all kinds of places: words from philosophical treatises and tombstones, from government documents and fairy tales, from scientific papers, advertisements, dictionaries, and collections of jokes. There are, of course, other sources of information: images, sounds, objects of use and of enjoyment, ledgers of debits and of credits, gathered statistics—countless cultural artifacts, each of enormous value but analyzable only when translated into words. Thus the historian's world is always a world of words; they become his primary data; from them he fashions facts. He can then go on to create other words, propositions about the world that follow from his study of those data.(Warren I. Susman, Culture as History. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2003. Reprint of New York: Pantheon Books, 1973.)
This creation of fact is never an easy task. The historian must discover the precise nature of the human experience the words attempt to describe, the particular attitudes toward that experience they define. Thomas Hobbes warned us centuries ago that "words are wise men's counters, they do but reckon with them, but they are the money of fools." The historian must learn to tell the wise man from the fool—and then learn from both of them. He must learn how people do in fact "reckon" with words.
But the good historian is not done when he has presented the facts. He must be able to take words seriously but not always literally. He must pay special attention not only to what writers "parade but what they betray": the unstated sassumptions that make the stated words intelligible. The historian searches not only for truth but for meaning. In that process the very words the historian uses become symbols themselves. Each age has its special words, its own vocabulary, its own set of meanings, its particular symbolic order. This is true of the world about which the historian writes; it is equally true of the world in which he [sic] writes. Turning facts into interpreted symbols, the final stage of the historian's craft, becomes the most difficult and the most intellectually dangerous.
Sunday, January 2, 2011
From the Preface (pp. x-xi):