The Pursuit of Primary Sources

Barton's so-called “myth” argument for the apparent value of primary sources critiques the prima facie infallibility of such sources. In other words, the utilization of primary sources is fundamentally based on the presupposition that such sources provide an unbiased and immanent view of historical texts. However, this interpretation basically de-historicizes these same texts, absolving them of their belonging to a particular historical context and hindering what he terms “our historical understanding” : the student thus neglects the possibility that the content of such sources may themselves be influenced by various historical factors, such as politics and ideology.

In this regard, Barton can be said to make a valid argument about the over-reliance on primary sources, because he criticizes their mystification, while concomitantly not discounting them entirely. Certainly, such texts provide a valuable didactic tool for the students, introducing them to original accounts of historical events. The mistake, however, is to present such accounts as purely authentic, as if only one type of historical text deserves to be studied – this illusion of authenticity strips such documents of their historical relevance, precisely because they are extracted from the real life situations that constitute history. In other words, the reliance on primary sources can be said to treat such texts as forms of quasi-dogmatic scripture, thus preventing them from being critically approached.

By stressing the importance of historical texts alongside the relevance of, for example, commentaries on these same sources, the student begins to understand the essential dynamism and heterogeneity of history. History is an unstable process, made up of contingent events – the emphasis on only primary sources gives history the appearance of a series of necessary events. This can be considered a certain ideological interpretation of history, in which the course of history was fundamentally inevitable. Accordingly, the de-emphasis on primary sources helps the student develop a critical perspective on historical research, understanding that any text, despite its age, may have been formed by a diverse number of historical facts which lie, as it were, beneath the document’s surface.

Posted by December 6th, 2016