The craft of history

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Dipesh Chakrabarty is an insightful and clear historian specialising in the post-colonial scene. This week he returned to his old department of history at Melbourne University to deliver a lecture ‘Empire, Ethics, and the Calling of History: Knowledge in the Postcolony’.

He began with reference to those who founded the modern idea of a historian as someone with a calling for the truth. Such an historian resists political pressures to produce hard facts on which the truth about the past can be established. Chakrabarty spoke about the Indian historian Jadunath Sarkar who attempted to pursue this kind of vocation in the early 20th century, to a negative response locally and indifference in the home of Empire, England.

Chakrabarty argued that historical relativism is bad for democracy: it provides nothing around which different interests might negotiate their common ground. He defended Sarkar, though he found his idea of history too romantic. In the end, Chakrabarty said that we need to have faith in the ‘craft of history’ as a practice that is open to reasoned skepticism.

For Chakrabarty, the concept of ‘craft’ seems similar to ‘calling’ in that it provides a way of pursuing your vocation for its own sake, rather than political expediency. However, unlike the individualistic notion of priestly vocation, ‘craft’ is collectively managed, whether through guilds or, indeed, history departments.

As scholars of the humanities begin to look for tentative forms of universalism, in response to growing tribal conflicts, might ‘craft’ become a a useful framework for constructing truths. A ‘crafted’ truth has a reliability, but its origin can be traced back to specific practices organised within a collective entity. Can we take this further – a craft of sociology?

The French sociologist Bruno Latour would certainly agree. His books like Laboratory Life all try to uncover the craft work that lies at the root of the manufacture of scientific knowledge. Latour invokes Martin Heidegger, Gedanke ist Handwerk – thinking is craftwork.

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