Darwin-L Message Log 1:191 (September 1993)

Academic Discussion on the History and Theory of the Historical Sciences

This is one message from the Archives of Darwin-L (1993–1997), a professional discussion group on the history and theory of the historical sciences.

Note: Additional publications on evolution and the historical sciences by the Darwin-L list owner are available on SSRN.

<1:191>From DARWIN@iris.uncg.edu  Tue Sep 21 23:46:18 1993

Date: Tue, 21 Sep 1993 17:19:16 -0400 (EDT)
From: DARWIN@iris.uncg.edu
Subject: "Witness" and "testimony" in the historical sciences
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Organization: University of NC at Greensboro

In civil history our knowledge of past events is often based on the testimony
of witnesses.  By "witnesses" we ordinarily mean persons who observed the
events in question.  But the terms "testimony" and "witness" have been used
for a very long time in the historical sciences with reference to _objects_
rather than persons.  For example, one of the great popular geological works
of the nineteenth century was Hugh Miller's _The Testimony of the Rocks_.
(What does it mean to say that a rock "testifies"?)  Students of textual
transmission speak of the manuscript copies of a work -- the many different
manuscript copies of the _Canterbury Tales_, for example -- as the "witnesses
to the tradition" of that particular text.

My questions are these:

(1) How widely are these terms used in the historical sciences?  Can anyone
think of other examples of their use?  When, for example, did textual
scholars first start referring to individual manuscripts as "witnesses" to a

(2) Are there any historical or theoretical analyses of the notions of
"witness" and "testimony" as they apply to historical _objects_ rather than
persons?  I have seen one very interesting book called _Testimony: a
Philosophical Study_ (C.A.J. Coady, 1993, Oxford University Press), but it is
a work in the philosophy of law and is devoted exclusively to the testimony
of persons.

Bob O'Hara, Darwin-L list owner

Robert J. O'Hara (darwin@iris.uncg.edu)
Center for Critical Inquiry and Department of Biology
100 Foust Building, University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Greensboro, North Carolina 27412 U.S.A.

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