Book Review

Hume, Robert. Reconstructing Contexts: The Aims and Principles of Archaeo-Historicism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Reviewed by William Warner | July 12, 2000

Robert D. Hume makes a thoughtful and responsible case for scholarship that aspires to be faithful to the past, as those who lived in the past conceived it. Hume offers a lively and readable defense of the usefulness of traditional historicism against literary history, new literary history, and various forms of “strong” reading. Hume’s suspicion of various forms of reading – deconstruction, reader-response, “a priori” (or what others would call “ideological”) reading—is quite familiar from the “theory wars” of the 1970s and 1980s. However, what is distinct here are the common sense arguments for the efficacy of “reconstructing contexts” by practicing an “archeo-historicism.” This project is motivated by the desire of traditional historicism: to get as close as we can, in spite of many gaps in the archive and historical record, to the thoughts, meanings and reality of an earlier epoch. This, Hume insists, will allow us to have a more accurate understanding of the texts we read. Hume’s approach to this project is flexible and sensible; the examples of arbitrary historical accidents, like Charles II’s creation of a duopoly in the theater in 1660, and its unforeseen consequences (the wide publishing of plays), are vivid and convincing. He values this sort of intrinsic, non-ax bearing historicism for its reticence about making broad generalizations, its absence of an abstract theory of how literary history progresses or genres “rise.” Hume describes the salient elements of his method this way: archeo-historicism “works on a bottom-up basis” by “struggling with primary evidence” so as to “reconstruct the outlook of your subject”; it is “additive” for the way it builds upon the work of earlier scholars and makes itself available to be built upon by those who come later; finally, it offers the widest possible choice of explanatory “theory” with which to report your findings (187-188). The last sentence indicates that Hume is not a naïve empiricist. Hume knows that the texts we gravitate to, and the contexts we construct around those texts, will be influenced by our biases and obsessions. However, Hume’s empiricism is evident in the desire that informs this project: by championing the modest project of “reconstructing contexts,” Hume finally gives the context a different, more grounded and firm status than a text. He also defines a certain ideal for his historicism: to minimize the distorting effects of our “theory” and method, our passions and interests, in other words, many of the things that embed us in our own history.

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