Figuring History

Figuring History August 13, 2014

Timothy Furry’s Allegorizing History is a careful, engaging study of the Venerable Bede’s understanding of history, and of biblical hermeneutics. But perhaps the book’s greatest interest comes at the end, in a more theoretical conclusion, where Furry draws on the work of Frank Ankersmit to argue that history-writing is invariably figural.

Ankersmit distinguishes between historical description and historical representation. The latter is not merely an accumulation of facts but a proposal, a representation of the past “in much the same way,” Ankersmit writes, “that the work of art is a representation of what it depicts” (quoted p. 114). 

Representations don’t float free of actual events or descriptions. Furry points to the role that the “sixth age” plays in Bede’s history of England, and observes that this “representation” depends on the real existence of Jesus, the actual event of His death and resurrection. Though they are representations of facts, representations have different criteria of evaluation than descriptions. Representations are not about the world but about speaking; a representation is a speaking abut speaking. As Furry elaborates the analogy between history-writing and painting a portrait, he writes, “Proposals are suggestions or heuristics for understanding an historical event or person, and suggestions are not usually subject to propositional truth or falsity. It is true that we speak of portraits as true likenesses. However, likeness is not reducible to correspondence” (121).

Another oddity of the logic of representations is that they have no clear referent, in the way propositions and descriptions do. “Representations relate things to things, not words to things,” Furry writes (122). Representation “requires language and sentences that are subject to truth and falsity” yet the representation “remains distinct from these claims” (122). You can point to Da Vinci’s paintings and drawings and artifacts; you cannot point to “the Renaissance.”

Ankersmit doesn’t think historians can avoid representation, and thus they cannot avoid using concepts that elude simple evaluation according to truth and falsity. Working from Bede, Furry concludes from this that “figural” conceptualities are inevitable in history-writing. He argues that “historical writing itself is intrinsically figural insofar as it is representational” (126).

Despite being a historian and a figural exegete, Bede doesn’t consistently link the two. Furry exploits Bede’s inconsistencies to argue that the use of the notion of a “sixth age” inaugurated by Christ’s death and resurrection has the same historiographical function as “claims about the Reformation, Renaissance, Enlightenment, and revolutions” (129). Thus, the objection “that Bede’s language of the sixth age is unhistorical or theological (and therefore not historical) simply reveal an aesthetic (representation) bias that constitutes the practice of history and how it is conceived” (129).

Furry’s argument is persuasive and accomplishes the “ground-clearing” that he aims at. It opens up ground for history-writing that is more coherent with the Christian figural reading of Scripture than Bede’s own.

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