This essay asks us to rethink the evidentiary basis for the claims we make in historical scholarship and criticism. How certain can we be of what we think we know? What evidence do we have, and can it be tested or otherwise verified? Many biographical questions cannot be answered with any confidence. Was Jonathan Swift a virgin? Opinions differ, and evidence is lacking. In theater history huge gaps in performance records prior to the advent of daily newspaper ads post 1700 leave us ignorant of what was performed on more than 80 percent of nights in Restoration London. In some realms we can dig up lawsuit testimony, but plaintiff and defendant rarely agree. What seems plausible is not always true, and the improbable can sometimes be proven. Attribution is a particularly knotty problem, as the horrible messes in the canons of Defoe and Fielding remind us. Memoirs are treacherous, even if not demonstrably laced with lies, and the temptation to use a bad source in the absence of any other needs to be resisted. Reliability must always be questioned, and if possible, tested. We should always remember that when trying to answer a historicist question, we may find ourselves at any of five points in a spectrum stretching from (1) what we believe is proven fact to (5) what may well be irresolvable indeterminacy. A level below “fact” is (2) high probability. Two steps down we have (3) plausible but not proven. Below that we have (4) incertitude, where the evidence is sufficiently limited or conflicted that no sound judgment can be rendered. When we get down to (5) indeterminacy, the reason is usually either complete lack of necessary evidence or fatally contradictory evidence. To fail to admit the inadequacy or unreliability of evidence is to build on rotten foundations. If our scholarship is to be anything more than wishful thinking, we must be prepared to ask ourselves, and to demand of our colleagues, “How do you know that? Prove it!”
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Research Article| September 01 2017
The Problematics of “Evidence” in Historical Scholarship and Criticism
Robert D. Hume
Eighteenth-Century Life (2017) 41 (3): 20–56.
Robert D. Hume; The Problematics of “Evidence” in Historical Scholarship and Criticism. Eighteenth-Century Life 1 September 2017; 41 (3): 20–56. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00982601-4130765
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