Saturday, March 14, 2015

Truth in Sport History: Facts, Objectivity and Interpretation - Douglas Booth

No, it's not Joe Weider.

from "The Field"
by Douglas Booth (2006)

Facts and objectivity are the knowledge base of reconstructionism, the dominant approach in sport history among those firmly committed to finding truths about the sporting past. "It is the search for truth that must guide our labours," wrote Geoffrey Elton, whose philosophy continues to guide the field. 

 - Geoffrey Elton, Return to Essentials: Some Reflections on the Present State of Historical Study, 1991, p. 48.

This volume contains the text of the three Cook Lectures, delivered by Sir Geoffrey Elton at the University of Michigan in April 1990, which reviewed various current doubts and queries concerning the writing of reasonably unbiased history. 

Today, Elton represents the conservative reconstructionist position as evident in the following quote: "uncertainty around historical truth and a true view of the past arises from the deficiencies of the evidence and the problems it poses, rather than from the alleged transformation of events in the organizing mind of the historian. That doctrine, however dressed up, leads straight to a frivolous nihilism which allows any historian to say whatever he likes. We historians are firmly bound by the authority of our sources . . . And though gaps and ambiguities close the road to total reconstruction, the challenges they pose lead to those fruitful exchanges, even controversies, among historians which do as much as anything does to advance our outworks ever nearer to the fortress of truth."  [Return to Essentials, pp. 48-49.]

However, if the search for truth prevails in history, reconstuctionists have, over time, revised their understanding of the relationship between truth, facts and objectivity. As David Hackett Fischer reminded reconstructionists some time back, "it is no easy matter to tell the truth, pure and simple, about past events; for historical truths are never pure, and rarely simple." Indeed, he explained, "the process of historical truth-telling itself is even more intricate than the truths which historians tell":

 -- Every true statement must be thrice true. It must be true to its evidence, true to itself, and true to other historical truths with which it is colligated. Moreover, a historian must not merely tell truths, but demonstrate their truthfulness as well. He is judged not simply by his veracity, but by his skill at verification." 

 - David Hackett Fischer, Historians' Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought, 1970, p. 40.
"If one laughs when David Hackett Fischer sits down to play, one will stay to cheer. His book must be read three times: the first in anger, the second in laughter, the third in respect....The wisdom is expressed with a certin ruthlessness.Scarcely a major historian escapes unscathed.Ten thousand members of the American Historical Association will rush to the index and breathe a little easier to find their names absent."

"An important terms of helping an entire generation of scholars who profess to have lost confidence in being historians." - New York Times Book Review.


I begin this chapter by examining the shift in the meaning of facts from absolute, naturally occurring entities that reside in historical materials -- and which are the converse of opinion, supposition and conjecture -- to historical relevancies constructed by practitioners as they seek answers to specific questions. 

I then look at a revised approach to objectivity which stemmed from criticisms that historians are inextricably bound up with the construction of facts and that not even the most elaborate forensic tests of evidence will reduce the gap between historical materials and the interpretation of those materials. 

As Robert Berkhofer puts it, facts may be 'necessary' to 'produce a proper history,' but they re 'not sufficient': 'facts do not determine an interpretation; rather all interpretations are underdetermined.' 

 - Robert Berkhofer, Beyond the Great Story: History as Text and Discourse, 1995, p. 56.

What legitimate form can history take when faced by the severe challenges issued in recent years by literary, rhetorical, multiculturalist, and feminist theories? That is the question considered in this long-awaited and pathbreaking book. Robert F. Berkhofer, Jr., addresses the essential practical concern of contemporary historians; he offers a way actually to go about reading and writing histories in light of the many contesting theories.

Berkhofer ranges through a vast archive of recent writings by a broad range of authors. He explicates the opposing paradigms and their corresponding dilemmas by presenting in dialogue form the positions of modernists and postmodernists, formalists and deconstructionists, textualists and contextualists. Poststructuralism, the New Historicism, the New Anthropology, the New Philosophy of History -- these and many other approaches are illuminated in new ways in these comprehensive, interdisciplinary explorations.

From them, Berkhofer arrives at a clear vision of the forms historical discourse might take, advocates a new approach to historical criticism, and proposes new forms of historical representation that encompass multiculturalism, poetics, and reflexive (con)textualization. He elegantly blends traditional and new methodology; assesses what the "revival of the narrative" actually entails; considers the politics of disciplinary frameworks; and derives coherent new approaches to writing, teaching, reviewing, and reading histories.


Last, I investigate some recent thoughts about objectivity as proposed by a group of reconstructionists in their attempt to preserve history's status as a truth-finding discipline.

I conclude with an outline of contemporary reconstructionism and a defense of the model in the face of criticisms from deconstructionist-leaning historians.

Questioning the Facts

Early reconstructionism conceived of history as a simple practice. Disciples began by examining remnants of human activity -- what Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt and Margaret Jacob call the 'detritus of past living' -- some of which they claim to have discovered. 

    - Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt and Margaret Jacob, Telling the Truth About History, 1994, p. 259.

This text examines the problem of historical truth. Seeking the roots of contemporary historical study in the Enlightenment, the authors argue that a model of historical research, based on neutrality and objectivity, served historians well until World War II. After that post-modernism suggested history could not reveal the truth about the past and the rise of social history produced a great amount of statistics which effectively swamped the search for historical truth. Accepting that much of history teaching has been flawed, the authors nevertheless argue for an affirmation of historical knowledge against the doubts of the skeptics and the relativists, guiding the reader through the complex areas of political correctness and multiculturalism.


They then extracted from those historical materials what they called 'facts,' a term deemed synonymous with truth. From these facts, or truths, historians wrote their narratives -- typically descriptions of what happened, with perhaps an explanation of why it happened. Reconstructionists, especially, praise their colleagues whose narratives or stories appeared to flow 'naturally' from the facts. 

 - The origins of this model lie in scientific revolution. See:

Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The 'Objectivity Question' and the American Historical Profession.

The aspiration to relate the past "as it really happened" has been the central goal of American professional historians since the late nineteenth century. In this remarkable history of the profession, Peter Novick shows how the idea and ideal of objectivity was elaborated, challenged, modified, and defended over the past century. Drawing on the unpublished correspondence as well as the published writing of hundreds of American historians, this book is a richly textured account of what American historians have thought they were doing, or ought to be doing, when they wrote history--how their principles influenced their practice and practical exigencies influenced their principles. Published with the support of the Exxon Education Foundation.


My analysis here is of early reconstructionism and its assumptions about facts and truths, and of the critiques launched by constructionists and proto-deconstructionists. As we shall see, these criticisms changed the notion of a fact in reconstructionism. What was previously a naturally occurring entity in the materials of the past now became a relevancy, that is, a truth-bearing statement pertinent to the question at hand.

Facts are the backbone of reconstructionism.

But what is a fact? And how do reconstructionists use them? 

Followers of this model typically define facts as finite, permanent, fixed and transparent in their meaning, although, given the indispensability of facts in this school, they have written surprisingly little on the subject. Bernard Whimpress is one of the few practitioners to discuss the centrality of facts in sport history.

 - Bernard Whimpress, 'The Value of Facts in Sports History', Sporting Traditions, 9, 1 (1992), p. 2.

While he goes on to argue that historians must put their facts into context, his underlying assumption appears to be that it is as easy to determine a context as it is to gather the facts. On the contrary, determining a context is as difficult as deciding the facts. Indeed, the latter formulation highlights the deficiencies of the map analogy: maps only provide a sense of place if the reader knows how to translate cartographic symbols and scales into real terrain.

Reciting Australian cricketer Bill Lawry's batting record on the 1961 Australian tour of England (57 at Edgbaston, 130 and 1 at Lords, 28 and 28 at Leeds, 74 and 102 at Manchester, a duck at The Oval), Whimpress asserted that such facts inspire confidence in the understanding of the past. Echoing the view of the early descriptive approach to sport history, Whimpress drew an analogy between historical facts and maps (that provide 'a sense of place;) and chronologies (that provide 'a sense of time').

 Note: While he goes on to argue that historians must put their facts into context (the circumstances that form the setting for an event in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed), his underlying assumption appears to be that it is as easy to determine a context as it is to gather the facts. On the contrary, determining a context is as difficult as deciding the facts. Indeed, the latter formulation highlights the deficiencies of the map analogy: maps only provide a sense of plane if the reader knows how to translate cartographic symbols and scales into real terrain.

Long strips of factual statements -- each one dutifully noted* with some sort of conclusion tacked on, figure prominently in early sport history.

* historians use notes -- as footnotes of endnotes -- to record where they found their facts/evidence/testimony. In this sense these are the sites where historians prove that they have consulted relevant historical materials. They are also frequently the sites where historians engage with and challenge each other and describe their own reflexivity.

Louis Gottschalk, Understanding History: A Primer of Historical Method, 1969, p.19.

The five uses of footnotes the author itemizes can be applied to any aspect of historical writing. One, it allows other people to test the conclusions. Two, the discriminating reader is shown where to find greater verification. Three, a challengeable statement can be traced to its point of origin. Four, quotation accuracy is assured. Five, researchers who wish to explore related topics have bibliographical leads in the documentation.


Sloppy noting, excessive and pedantic noting, and especially the absence of notes, expose historians to intense peer criticism. Practitioners use notes in a myriad of ways: to deny or assert facts, to amass citations and quotations of no interest to any reader, or to attack anything that resembles a new thesis.

But yeah . . . Long strips of factual statements -- each one dutifully noted* with some sort of conclusion tacked on, figure prominently in early sport history. Reconstructionists occasionally label these narratives as inductive histories, a term used to imply that the practitioner has drawn general conclusions directly from the facts.

 Keith Windschuttle, The Killing of History: How Literary Critics and Social Theorists are Murdering Our Past, 1999, p. 22 and p. 212.

The Killing of History argues that history today is in the clutches of literary and social theorists who have little respect for or training in the discipline. He believes that they deny the existence of truth and substitute radically chic theorizing for real knowledge about the past. The result is revolutionary and unprecedented: contemporary historians are increasingly obscuring the facts on which truth about the past is built. In The Killing of History, Windschuttle offers a devastating expose of these developments. This fascinating narrative leads us into a series of case histories that demonstrate how radical theory has attempted to replace the learning of traditional history with its own political agenda.


- Induction takes its name from the English philosopher and statesman Francis Bacon who advanced a method that 'derives its axioms from the senses and particulars, rising by a gradual and unbroken ascent, so that it arrives at the most general axioms last of all.' (cited in Fischer, Historians' Fallacies, p. 4 note 2). But as Fischer comments, Bacon's major work 'did not defend an induction as simple-minded as this, but rather a more complex method of interdependent inquiry and research' (P.5).

The following account of women's golf in late nineteenth-century Canada (complete with the original note numbers) is a good example. 'It is difficult,' the author began, 'to find mention of a golf club anywhere in Canada that did not have lady members in surprising numbers.'

  - Probably the first women's golf club in the Dominion (of Canada) was the ladies' branch of the Royal  Montreal Golf Club, formed in 1892. The wife of George A. Drummond became the first president, and in addition to Mrs. Drummond, other ladies involved were: Mrs. H.V. Meredith, secretary; Mrs. W. Wallace Watson; Mrs. Halton; and Misses P. Young, A. Lamb, and A. Paterson. The Montreal Club had moved to new premises at Dixie in 1896, after 'collisions with passing pedestrians were of such frequent occurrence that it was found necessary to seek other grounds.' [Collisions here referring to people walking by being struck with flying golf balls.] The following year, no fewer than 150 lady members 'built themselves a club-house adjoining that of their husbands and brothers at Dixie.' . . . A Quebec Ladies Gold [Club] was also formed in 1892 or 1893; and the Ottawa Golf Club had '25 lady associate members in 1894. Four years later this total had risen to 48 . . . It was in 1896, too, that the Oshawa and Sherbrooke Golf Clubs came into being, and both had ladies' clubs attached within two years. Also, by 1898, the Victoria Golf Club of British Columbia  was 'nearly equally divided between the two sexes,' whilst at Hamilton in Ontario, the lady golf-club members actually outnumbered the men. And at the Branford Golf Club   by the turn of the century, there were more female members than male, the reported figures being 39 gentle-men and 48 ladies.

By presenting these statements as a finite universe of transparent facts that require neither clarification nor elaboration, it is a simple matter for the author to conclude that 'feminine enthusiasm for the game was manifest throughout Canada . . . '

But what makes these statements facts? In large measure the factual properties derive from their origin in primary sources. A primary source is one with a direct link, in time and place, to the person, event, situation or culture under study. Secondary sources, in contradistinction, provide commentary on, or interpretations of, past events.

The primary sources in the extract above are a period book, four period magazines and two period newspapers; the secondary sources are a Master of Arts thesis and a general history of golf published in 1973. 

 - Primary and secondary are not 'cast-iron categories', the distinction depends on the questions that the historian asks.

Luise White, Speaking With Vampires: Rumor and History in Colonial Africa, 2000, p. 311.

During the colonial period, Africans told each other terrifying rumors that Africans who worked for white colonists captured unwary residents and took their blood. In colonial Tanganyika, for example, Africans were said to be captured by these agents of colonialism and hung upside down, their throats cut so their blood drained into huge buckets. In Kampala, the police were said to abduct Africans and keep them in pits, where their blood was sucked. Luise White presents and interprets vampire stories from East and Central Africa as a way of understanding the world as the storytellers did. Using gossip and rumor as historical sources in their own right, she assesses the place of such evidence, oral and written, in historical reconstruction.

Evidence spatially and temporally removed from an event may qualify as a primary source. Often historians are as interested in what contemporary commentators thought was happening, or thought had happened, as in what actually did happen -

John Tosh, The Pursuit of History: Aims, Methods and New Directions in the Study of Modern History, 2000, p. 38. 

This classic introduction to the study of history invites the reader to stand back and consider some of its most fundamental questions - What is the point of studying history? How do we know about the past? Does an objective historical truth exist and can we ever access it?

In answering these central questions, John Tosh argues that, despite the impression of fragmentation created by postmodernism in recent years, history is a coherent discipline which still bears the imprint of its nineteenth-century origins. Consistently clear-sighted, he provides a lively and compelling guide to a complex and sometimes controversial subject, while making his readers vividly aware of just how far our historical knowledge is conditioned by the character of the sources and the methods of the historians who work on them.

 - In their respective analyses of the conquest of Mount Everest, for example, Gordon Stewart and Peter Hansen pay as much attention to the account given by John Hunt, the ascent team's captain who stayed at the base camp, as to Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay who climbed to the summit. Hunt's views constitute a primary source for Stewart and Hansen who seek to understand the conquest of Everest and Late Imperial Culture in Britain.

Historians mostly use secondary sources to contextualize their subject. When When historians use secondary sources as evidence, as they often must, they access evidence through an intermediary who mediates, or filters, the information. In the search for evidence about the physical ascent of Everest, John Hunt is a secondary source: he neither accompanied nor observed Hillary and Tenzing on the summit.

Inductive or reconstructionist narrative histories have been subjected to loud and sharp criticisms. Fischer [see above] describes the process of induction as one where historians go 'a-wandering in the dark forest of the past, gathering facts like nuts and berries, until [they have] enough to make a general truth. Then [they] store up . . . general truths until [they have] the whole truth.

R.G. Collingwood was more scathing. He called these forms of induction 'scissors and paste' history. According to Collingwood, facts in scissors-and-paste history are merely the minutiae flowing from historical materials.

R. G. Collingwood, The Principles of History, 1999, pp. 12-13.

This book contains a lengthy editorial introduction that puts Collingwood's writings in their context and discusses the philosophical questions they initiate. A landmark publication, this work will appeal not only to those studying Collingwood but also to anyone broadly curious about philosophy of history.    


Appleby, Hunt and Jacob [see above] capture well the mindset of these practitioners whom they describe as entering into a 'trance investigation.' In this state, historians 'simply brush aside' their own 'beliefs, values and interests . . . to allow the mirror to capture the reflection of [facts].' Last, critics admonish scissors-and-paste historians for not querying the subjective dimensions of their narratives or those present in their sources. 

Practitioners of induction did not passively retreat in the face of critics' claims. Defenders cited peer reviews, especially in academic journals, as the key sites at which historians confirm facts. An unwritten protocol in history directs book reviewers to check facts and highlight errors. Simon Milton, for example, finds a series of factual errors in FIFA and the Contest for World Football:

Cameroon's opening match of the 1990 World Cup was against defending champions Argentina, not the hosts; Saudi Arabia faced Sweden, not Germany, in the second round of USA 1994; and Brazil lost to Nigeria in the semi-final of the 1996 Olympic tournament, not the final.

The insinuation here is that factual errors dilute readers' confidence in the reliability of a work. Andrew Moore agrees. In a blunt assessment of the ABC of Rugby League, he wrote that 'when one brief entry, that on North Sydney [Rugby Club], contains two glaring errors, one is left with the impression that this volume is less than valuable.'

Andrew Moore, 'Testosterone Overdose: Popular Culture and Historical Memory, Sporting Traditions, 10, 1 (1993), p.17:

Yet, supporters of inductionist-type histories confront a paradox: notwithstanding the apparent primacy of fact, practitioners rarely praise peers for getting the facts right.

 - Some historians at least have the grace to apologize for their own errors. After castigating Bill Mallon and Ian Buchanan 'for perpetuating . . . a long held error in the expression of the name of the celebrated (1908 Olympic Games) Italian marathoner Dorando Pietri,' Robert Barney revisited the issue and on the basis of fresh evidence magnanimously conceded that his appellation Pietri Dorando was incorrect. (Robert Barney, 'Setting the Record Straight - Again: Dorando Pietri It Is', Olympika, 10,[2001], pp. 129-30).
(A reconstructionist might reply that facts are so obvious in historical material that only the grossly incompetent and willfully dishonest err.* However, as I shall show in both this and subsequent chapters (The Field: Truth and Fiction in Sport History), the lengths to which historians can go to prove facts, and the intensity with which they quarrel over them illustrates the limitations of that argument.)  
* Arthur Marwick draws the useful distinction here between human 'inaccuracy' and 'willful dishonesty'.

Arthur Maxwick, The Nature of History, 1981, p. 162.

Contents: Preface - Justifications and Definitions - The Development of Historical Studies to the End of the Nineteenth Century - The Development of Historical Studies: The Twentieth Century - The Place of Theory: History, Science and Social Science - The Historian at Work: Historical Facts and Historical Sources - The Historian at Work: The Writing of History - History, Philosophy and Interdisciplinary Studies - Controversy in History - Conclusion: The Nature and Profession of History - Appendix A: Examples of Aims and Objectives - Appendix B: Some Aphorisms - Appendix C: Glossary - Bibliography - Index 
Does this mean, then, that there is more to historical practice than simply discovering and/or identifying the facts of the past? Evidence form book reviews in academic journals informs us that factual accuracy is rarely the defining criterion on which historians judge each others' work (see: Berkhofer, Beyond the Great Story, p. 56). Milton, for example, describes the 'surplus of historical mistakes' in FIFA and the Contest for World Football as merely 'irritating.' *

*Edward Carr likened bestowing praise on historians for factual accuracy to congratulating 'an architect for using . . . properly mixed concrete.' 'It is a necessary condition of their work,' he says, 'but not [their] essential function.' Carr maintains that historians do not require the expertise 'to determine the origin and period of a fragment of pottery or marble, to decipher an obscure inscription, or to make the elaborate astronomical calculations to establish a precise date.' These are the 'so-called basic facts,' they are the 'same for all historians,' and 'belong to the category of the raw materials of the historian rather than of history itself.'

Edward Carr, What is History?, second edition, 1990, pp. 10-11.

"Study the historian before you begin to study the facts. This is, after all, not very abstruse. It is what is already done by the intelligent undergraduate who, when recommended to read a work by that great scholar Jones of St. Jude's, goes round to a friend at St. Jude's to ask what sort of chap Jones is, and what bees he has in his bonnet. When you read a work of history, always listen out for the buzzing. If you can detect none, either you are tone deaf or your historian is a dull dog. The facts are really not at all like fish on the fishmonger's slab. They are like fish swimming about in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean; and what the historian catches will depend, partly on chance, but mainly on what part of the ocean he chooses to fish in and what tackle he chooses to use – these two factors being, of course, determined by the kind of fish he wants to catch. By and large, the historian will get the kind of facts he wants. History means interpretation." - E. H. Carr

So, where does this leave the reconstructivist notion of facts as the self-evident truths upon which history rests?

Micheal Postan implied that there is much more to history than collecting the facts when he argued that practitioners only gather those facts germane to their specific questions and that even so-called hard, or fast, facts are no more than relevancies. Within this conceptualization every historical fact is a product of 'limited vision':

 - 'If an historical 'event' can be defined as a past occurrence . . . then an historical fact is nothing more than one of the event's observed aspects. What makes it observable is its affinity to an interest uppermost in the observer's mind. This affinity impels the historian to focus his vision upon it, but to be able to focus the historian must also be prepared to neglect. Outside the facets of events within his focus, there must be other facets which he does not wish to observe, or even facets so far outside the range of . . . professional vision as to be altogether outside the scope of historical study.' 

M. M. Postan, Fact and Relevance: Essays on Historical Method, 1971, p. 51.

A collection of fourteen essays in which Professor Postan draws together for the first time his contributions to the debate on historical method, and discusses from a variety of different angles, the inter-relation of history and the social sciences. 

Postan's views fused neatly with those of Edward Carr for whom the push for facts 'rests not on any quality of the facts themselves, but on an a priori decision [relating to or denoting reasoning or knowledge that proceeds from theoretical deduction rather than from observation or experience] of the historian.'  Comparing historians to journalists who select and arrange the facts in order to influence opinion, Carr observed that 'the facts only speak when the historian calls on them.' Historians 'decide to which facts to give the floor, and in what order or context,' and in this sense they are 'necessarily selective.' In Carr's opinion 'the belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the interpretation of the historian is a preposterous fallacy.

Indeed, the emergence of new complements of facts whenever sport historians turn their attention to a new problem or issue add weight to Postan's and Carr's arguments and direct our attention to the infinite composition of historical events and to the infinite choice of historical facts. By Carr's reckoning then, historical facts are judgements about which historians agree; they are a function of whether other historians accept a particular incident or interpretation as 'valid and significant.'*

* Carr, What is History, p. 12 and p. 13. Here Carr added that in most cases a particular interpretation 'has been preselected and predetermined for us by people who were consciously or unconsciously imbued with a particular view and thought the facts which supported that view worth preserving.' 

Those not persuaded by Carr and Postan, and convinced that indisputable facts exist, that is, that facts are more than 'constructions and interpretations of the past' framed by individual perspectives, might consider the following statements taken from ostensibly factual histories of the legendary English cricketer William Gilbert Grace. Here I want to categorically demonstrate that even the simplest, most straightforward of facts involve definitions, frameworks and concepts, all of which ultimately require some level of clarification while many others are contestable. 

1) Grace was born 18 July, 1848 and died 23 October, 1915.
2) Grace scored 54,896 first-class runs.

Even these simple statements are not straightforward facts. Dates, for example, are defined by calendars, in this case the Georgian calendar that was not a universal Western standard even in Grace's time. The Greeks, for example, used the Julian calendar to schedule the Olympic games of 1896 from the 25 March to the 3 April (equating to the 6-15 April in the Georgian calendar). Grace's tally of first-class runs varies according to the definition of a first-class match. Disagreement emerges here between figures produced by F. S. Ashley-Cooper for Wisden (the annual cricket almanac) in 1916 and the Association of Cricket Statisticians. The latter's definition reduces Grace's run tally to 54,211

3) Grace was the founding father of modern cricket.
4) Grace was the king of 19th Century cricket and occupies an unassailable position in the history of sport.

The factual content of these two sentences resides in quite specific interpretive frameworks that derive their persuasive power from two metaphors -- 'father' and 'king' (I discuss the centrality of metaphor in historical explanation in Chapter 4). Most rankings in sport focus on performances that rapidly lose their gloss as they are invariably surpassed. Not even Grace's 126th century, scored at the ripe old age of 56 in 1904, could earn him a place in one recent list of supreme 20th Century British sporting achievements.

5) Grace was the best-known Englishman of his era.
6) Grace was instrumental in the establishment of Victorianism.
7) Grace embodied John Bull.

Even if the reader agrees with the description in the fifth sentence, acceptance of sentences six and seven mean subscribing to very specific ideological and class-based notions of Victorianism and English nationalism that tend to whitewash domestic class and political relationships. Both assertions rest on considerable theory (see Chapter 3). Furthermore, the John Bull allegory of British character is a caricature that has changed considerably over time, variously referring to an honest clothier, a gross and rather stupid figure, a prosperous citizen, and a jovial and honest farmer.

8) Grace aligned himself politically with Gentlemen (amateurs) against Players (professionals).
9) Grace was a notorious shamateur - a gentleman professional - whose expenses and appearance fees far exceeded the salaries earned by professional players.
10) Grace breached the amateur code which dictates that cricketers play for the love of the game.

Sentences eight to ten combine fact and opinion. The truth of Grace's hypocrisy in breaching the amateur code exists solely within the theoretical perspective of a pure amateur ideal that in practice rarely came to fruition. Moreover, it says nothing about the relationships between professional and amateur cricketers that were critical to the development of the game.

Each of these sentences contains 'differing degrees of factuality depending on the proportion of empirical evidence and theory.' [Beyond the Great Story, p. 55] Empirical evidence, however, is paramount and non-negotiable in the establishment of historical fact (although historians are not totally averse to treating silences as presumptive evidence and to reasoning from, and mounting arguments on the basis of them.)

 - 'Historians who claim that silence constitutes concealment must first prove that the silenced information was 'integral' to the account and 'so central' that it should have been automatically included.'

[Martha C. Howell, Walter Prevenier, From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods, 2001, p. 74.]

A lively introduction to historical methodology, an overview of the techniques historians must master in order to reconstruct the past. Its focus on the basics of source criticism, rather than on how to find references or on the process of writing, makes it an invaluable guide for all students of history and for anyone who must extract meaning from written and unwritten sources.


The final statement below is one that most academic sport historians would look at with skepticism without direct evidence:

11) Grace dreamed of cricket as the world game.

The varying degrees of interpretation and contextualization in each of the other ten 'factual' sentences should alert even the most conservative reconstructionist to the artificiality and subjectivity of concrete statements that typically masquerade as facts; at the very least they should be persuaded that facts are not natural entities leaping at them from past materials. In the words of Keith Jenkins and Alun Munslow, 'facts are not bits of reality lying around in the past waiting to be picked up, polished and displayed. They are propositional statements about the nature of reality (past events under a description)'.

Keith Jenkins and Alun Munslow (eds), The Nature of History Reader, 2004, p. 14.

In this timely collection, key pieces of writing by leading historians are reproduced and evaluated, with an explanation and critique of their character and assumptions, and how they reflect upon the nature of the history project. The authors respond to the view that the nature of history has become so disparate in assumption, approach and practice as to require an informed guide that is both self-reflexive, engaged, critical and innovative.

The notion of a fact as something other than an incontrovertible fixed truth engendered enormous unease within reconstructionism. Among reconstructionists, the association of facts with interpretations and judgements not only undermined the foundations of truth upon which historical practice rests, but opened the door to ideologically and politically motivated practitioners who gathered selected facts that supported their political agendas. Yet, notwithstanding their discomfort, in formulating their replies to the Postans and Carrs, reconstructionists subtly shifted the focus of their craft away from gathering and reporting facts. The interrogation of historical material became the new paramount task of reconstructionists. And in an attempt to make their facts indisputable, reconstructionists increasingly referred to them in legalistic terms as evidence.

Espousing the modified reconstructionist doctrine, Keith Windschuttle conceded that the past does not advertise itself, and that the retrieval of facts is not one of merely extracting observations. Rather, discovering facts is a labor intensive activity that precludes practitioners from making prior decisions. Indeed, Windschuttle believes that historical evidence frequently forces practitioners to change their minds. When they 'go looking for evidence,' he says, historians

 'do not simply find the one thing they are looking for. Most will find many others that they have not anticipated. The result, more often than not, is that this unexpected evidence will suggest alternative arguments, interpretations and conclusions, and different problems to pursue.'

[Windschuttle, The Killing of History, p. 219 and p. 220]

Windschuttle places colossal faith in the objectivity of historical materials. Objectivity, he asserts, exists in the creation and substance of historical material. Whether an 18th Century cricket bat, proclamations and laws banning men and women from swimming together in public pools, the diary of a mountaineer, a late 19th Century film of a horse race, or police testimony presented to a court prosecuting men attending illegal dogfights, all these materials were created to serve contemporary wants, needs and goals, and not for the benefit of future historians. In this sense, they are untainted by foresight. Similarly, figures in cricket score books, the poses adopted by members of a victorious football team for a photograph, or the relief images on a coin produced to commemorate a sporting festival, are fixed, irrespective of who might look at them later, their purposes for looking at them and their subsequent interpretations. Thus, Windschuttle concluded, historical analysis and interpretation are not open-ended: 'the evidence itself will restrict the purposes for which it can be used' and 'this is true even of those documents for which all historians agree that varying interpretations are possible. In these cases, the range of possibilities is always finite . . .'. [The Killing of History, p. 220.]

Committed to finding the truth, mainstream reconstructionism turned to validating (or more correctly invalidating) historical evidence through what amounted to forensic-type examinations.

[Louis Gottschalk, Understanding History: A Primer of Historical Method, 1969, p.42.]

Such examinations became standard fare in reconstructionist methodology textbooks that invariably included multiple chapters on the subject. The critical question is, do these tests actually lead practitioners closer to historical truths? In order to answer this question, I now analyze a standard set of reconstructionist tests for verifying historical evidence.

Validating Historical Truths

In his primer of historical method, Louis Gottschalk defined historical fact as the 'credible' details derived 'directly or indirectly' from historical materials. According to him historians validate or verify those details by interrogating (questioning) their materials. In practice, interrogation involves asking those who produced or created the historical materials or testimony (usually an author or a witness) questions like: was the witness able and willing to tell the truth, and did second-hand parties accurately report or record what primary witnesses said or observed? Interrogation also means searching for independent corroboration. 

[Gottschalk, Understanding History, p. 140 and p. 150.]

Reconstructionists typically see these and similar tests as forensic-type examinations that produce incontrovertible evidence. While space does not allow identification of the full range of tests needed to verify historical sources and arguments, I can apply a selection to several examples. [Book forums are a good starting point to examine the complexity of evaluating historical arguments. See, for example, Jeffrey Sammons, 'A Proportionate and Measured Response to the Provocation That is Darwin's Athletes,' Journal of Sport History, 24, 3 (1997), pp. 378-388 and John Hoberman, 'How Not to Read Darwin's Athletes: A Response to Jeffrey Sammons', Journal of Sport History, 24, 3 (1997), pp. 389-396.

The objective here is simply to ascertain whether a rigorous examination of historical material is enough to establish the truth and shut the door on other possible interpretations, as Windschuttle claims.    

Ability to Tell the Truth

Reconstructionism issues a standard set of questions for determining whether sources or witnesses are telling the truth:

 - How close geographically and temporally was the witness or witnesses to the event?

- How soon after the event did the witnesses record their observations, or provide their testimony to another party for recording?

- How competent were the witnesses, that is, what was their state of mental and physical health, age, and level of education, memory and narrative skills?

Following these lines of inquiry, Joan Patrick correctly challenged the reliability of three key sources widely cited in popular accounts of the events that led to the lifting of the bans on public bathing in daylight hours in Sydney. These are an article in the Daily Telegraph (Sydney) published on 7 January 1907, an account by P.W. Gledhill, a member of the Manly Historical Society published his Manly and Pittwater: Its Beauty and Progress (1948), and another article in Manly Daily (Manly, Sydney) newspaper that appeared on 28 July 1966. None of these sources, said Patrick, provides direct testimony; all were written well after municipal ordinances promulgated unrestricted daylight surfbathing hours in the summer of 1903-04. Patrick preferred the version given by the pioneer surfbather Arthur Lowe which she felt benefited from his personal involvement with the events. However, far from establishing the truth of Lowe's account, Patrick conceded that his reminiscences are those of 'a seventy-year-old man living in the 1950s nostalgic about a carefree past of endless summers'. Moreover, his story is 'disjointed, suggesting that it was written over a long period of time'.

Patrick's work highlights two fundamental issues in historical interrogation. First, given that the 'toughest' questions in history are 'what is right?' and 'how do historians prove it is right?', interrogation tends to gravitate towards the easier approach, namely, identifying 'what is wrong with any given history'. [Berkhofer, Beyond the Great Story, p. 55]. The second point is that reconstructionists usually express their judgements of competing interpretations of facts in terms of probabilities rather than absolute proofs.*

 * Combat Sports in the Ancient World: Competition, Violence, and Culture
Michael Poliakoff, 1987, p.6.

Willingness to Tell the Truth

Reconstructionism issues a standard set of questions for determining whether sources or witnesses are telling the truth:

 - How close geographically and temporally was the witness to the event?

 - How soon after the event did the witnesses record their observations, or provide their testimony to another party for recording?

 - How competent were the witnesses, that is, what was their state of mental and physical health, age, and level of education, memory and narrative skills?

Following these lines of inquiry, 





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