Reflections on the making of historical knowledge

Carlo Ginzburg in conversation with Sanjay Subrahmanyam; the introductory passage that precedes the interview gives some biographical details of the both the interviewer and interviewee:

Carlo Ginzburg is one of the best-known historians working today, and his work has been translated into many languages the world over. Born in Turin in 1939, he was educated at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, where he now teaches. He has also taught at the University of Bologna and was Professor of History and Franklin D. Murphy Professor of Italian Renaissance Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) for an extended period from 1988 to 2006. Professor Ginzburg is celebrated for brilliant and methodologically innovative explorations into mentalities, art-history, literature and social history. He is among the pioneers and practitioners of the current known as “micro-history”. His The Cheese and the Worms (English translation: 1980) is an acknowledged classic. His other writings available in English include The Night Battles (1983); The Enigma of Piero (2000); Clues, Myths and the Historical Method (1989); Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath (1991); Wooden Eyes, (1998); The Judge and the Historian (1999); History, Rhetoric, and Proof (1999); and No Island is an Island (2000). Here he responds to questions and remarks from Sanjay Subrahmanyam, who is also Professor of History at UCLA.

The piece alternates between personal information, and the processes that are involved in the making of the historical knowledge; and, at some point, they even become intertwined. It is an interview that needs to be read at leisure and some parts of it are really dense; however, the piece is worth your time. To give a sample, here is Carlos on historians and their continuous dialogues with their own inner devil’s advocates:

Historical knowledge is by definition, as it has been said, a located knowledge, but one should try to avoid preaching (an attitude I detest in all its versions: religious, ideological and so forth). Historians must be involved in a constant, contentious dialogue with their own internal devil’s advocate. To raise serious objections against oneself is not an easy endeavour (to be self-indulgent is tempting); but there is no alternative. I started working on the victims of the Inquisition; only later I realized how deeply my own cognitive approach had been shaped by the inquisitors’ (I tried to unfold the implications of this disturbing contiguity in an essay entitled “The Inquisitor as Anthropologist”).

To my surprise, I am unable to answer your second question and to provide names of historians I admire whose ideological presuppositions I most disagree with. Am I so parochial? In fact, the first name who came to my mind is Joseph de Maistre, who was not a historian. [C.G. refers here to Maistre [1753-1821], a conservative and anti-revolutionary thinker who has sometimes been compared to Edmund Burke]. I feel in trouble – you put forward your question as a real devil’s advocate.

Happy reading!

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