The FootnotePosted: March 28, 2011
After reading Grafton’s The Footnote I considered the legacy of von Ranke for the historical discipline and for my own historical bildung (education/upbringing). While Grafton effectively notes that Ranke was not the first to employ “footnotes”, he was the first modern historian (or at leas the one we still recognize) that provided that crucial positivist pivot towards an historical methodology that–regardless of whether we want to recognize it or not–most of us are still engaged in. The footnote as a rhetorical/methodological/theoretical maker is an interesting and effective way to understand the legacy of von Ranke.
As I read Grafton’s analysis I could not help but wondering about really how much our discipline has changed. I certainly don’t want to suggest that we are all doing the same thing that Ranke was doing with late-medieval and Renaissance histories. We cannot deny, however, that epistemologically many of us are still very close to Ranke’s positivism. Out footnotes demonstrate that we believe in triangulating sources to articulate a narrative that gets to what “really happened.” As one of my colleagues in the department likes to repeat: when we are truly honest with ourselves most of us have not completely given up on a glimmer of objectivity in our works. If we did, then our footnotes would look very different.
What about Grafton’s footnotes? Unlike Gibbons, Grafton applies his clever quibs to the actual text. His footnotes are better described by his own metaphor: “Like the high whine of the dentist’s drill, the low rumble of the footnote on the historians page” (5). Note the lengthy and raw materials: long passages in German, etc.