Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A note on the merit of secondary sources and materials.

This debate is far too lengthy, and complex, for me to elucidate here, but I feel I should make a brief statement of my thoughts on the topic, especially considering the fact the question was brought up in my thoughts on Robin Seager's "Pompey: A political biography".

The myriad of philosophical and historiographical views on whether secondary sources are indeed useful are difficult to wade through, and so my immediate thoughts are to consider a more simple understanding, which I hope to, briefly, explain.

I think secondary sources have inherent worth. The amount of extant works we have from the classical corpus is extremely limited, and while the focus should always be on trying to make sense of the primary sources, secondary studies are, to my mind, necessary for further understanding. Essentially I'm walking, what I consider at least, a pragmatic line - it's unlikely that we'll find any more classical manuscripts and so to avoid stagnation, secondary literature is essential.

The amount of scholarship on the pitfalls of historiography generally is legion, and while I don't advocate disregarding it entirely (I think it's useful to be familiar with the intrinsic faults of any system one uses/is a part of), I believe that truly great secondary literature drives forward discussion and understanding of the primary literature, and regardless of any possible weaknesses, that cannot fail to be helpful.

For example, Ronald Syme's "Roman Revolution" and his works on Tacitus have driven forward interpretations of both Tacitus and the Late Republic/Early Empire with great enthusiasm and vim, whether or not one holds to his views now (it's unlikely anyone does now entirely, although the are still highly respected) is irrelevant, for the jolt he gave to scholarship was immense, and one can hardly say reading him did not force them to reevaluate the primary sources with a keener eye.

Generally these are my views. I'm aware of the debate, and also of the various problems of historiography, but I choose to skim over them somewhat in order to spend more time considering the secondary sources and in the light of those (and sometimes not in the light of those) reread the primary ones, always aware of the inherent problems of historical research and interpretations but choosing not to get lost in them.

No comments:

Post a Comment