Germs of doubt

by Will Pooley (University of Bristol)

Where did “Doubt and the dislocation of magic: France, 1790–1940” my piece in Past & Present No. 262 come from?

All origin stories are, of course, excuses. Historians are no more immune than anyone else from inventing their own pasts to suit the present. After all, historical fictions are fun.

So let me tell it like this: I wanted the piece to do what the Wild on Collective have called ‘historically grounded theory’.

I wanted to take seriously the possibility of ‘alternative epistemological inquiries, orientations, or starting points’. Historians are not passive consumers of ‘theory’: we have a record of proposing theoretical categories that are applied in other fields, too: ‘emotives’, ‘moral economy’, ‘critical fabulation’.

I did not want to take a set of existing theories and applying them to an example, but wanted to ask how historical evidence challenges historians to – perhaps – rethink categories that appear commonsensical. What does it mean to say that people in the past ‘believed’ something? Is ‘belief’ really what the sources convey? And how do historians think about what the sources habitually omit, mischaracterise, or misunderstand?

‘Drawing by a “paranoid demoniac”’ from a clinical report by J. Capgras, 1911, via BnF Gallica

So, the truth is that I started with the category of belief.

When I began this research, I thought – for some stupid reason – that what I could do would be to survey what kinds of people ‘believed’ in witchcraft in France in the long nineteenth century. Were they men or women, young or old? What kinds of work did they do? Where did they live? I still think those social historical questions are important, and they underpin the book project I’m writing about witchcraft.

I am now embarrassed by the naivety of the category of ‘belief’ that I wanted to use to frame these social and quantitative questions.

Take an example I mention in the article, a man named Joseph Auloi who murdered a neighbour in 1886. All of the circumstantial evidence indicated that Auloi suspected his victim of bewitching his family. Yet after his arrest, Auloi fervently denied believing in witches. I cannot see this as some kind of strategy. If anything, juries and even judges in this period proved surprisingly sympathetic to people who committed murder out of a fear of witches. I think he was telling the truth. The ways that people talked and behaved about witchcraft in this period were inconsistent. Auloi may have been a dramatic example, but he was not even the only witch-killer who denied believing in witches after the fact. Whatever these people were doing, belief came to seem to me to be far too blunt, too total.

The article is my attempt to fashion something truer to the attitudes I find in the sources: uncertain, inconsistent, even incoherent, perhaps unconscious, often contagious. I have called these attitudes ‘doubts’ and tried to explain how different they are to disbelief, as well as to belief.

It’s an attempt to ground a theoretical insight of wider importance in the specific evidence that puzzled me. It led me down some relatively familiar paths – such as anthropology – and down some that felt riskier – philosophy, and especially Tamar Gendler’s theories of ‘aliefs’, and the psychological research that inspired those ideas.

If all origin stories are excuses, what am I trying to excuse?

Well, to write about incoherence is to risk obscurantism. When I look back at it now, I can see how dense and tortuous the piece ended up being. It’s not easy going.

When I try to recall the argument in my head, it is something quite simple: instead of ‘beliefs’, let us think about doubts. But on the page, that simplicity is so hard to pin down and spell out with any precision. It’s not an easy piece to read. But I could not find simpler ways to make the arguments the piece makes, to show the consequences of thinking about doubts rather than beliefs.

There is a sterile argument that resurfaces periodically that laments the inaccessibility of most academic historical writing, as if all history must be written for a general reader.

I am very sympathetic to the ideal of writing for broad publics. But not all history. Sometimes historians need to make difficult arguments, with specialist terminologies, or that challenge the concepts that are taken for granted. Sometimes, to return to the Wild on Collective’s call for theoretically grounded history, historians need to go to ‘the obscure navel of the dream, the place where narratives and interpretation stop making conventional sense’.

The challenge is coming back, to try to make it make sense.

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