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  • No Rest for the Weary - or:A Historian's Work is Never Done - or: One Damned Thing Always Leads Dubiously to Another
  • Joseph C. Miller (bio)
Jan Vansina , "The Power of Systematic Doubt in Historical Enquiry," History in Africa 1 (1974), 109-127,

Jan Vansina helped to launch a thinnish (by subsequent standards) History in Africa in 1974 with an essay on his own early - and ongoing - work on possible Kuba pasts. Vansina's artful conversion of a potential confession of error to a memorable reflection on what are, in effect, the historical dynamics of the profession of history itself, challenged his successors in the marginally documented mists of Africa's nineteenth-century past, and earlier, at the highest levels of the historian's craft. Twenty years later, the half-way point to the present occasion, David Henige chose a different forum to lament the essay's apparent descent into obscurity, implicitly including the by-then very ample pages of his own "journal of [End Page s19] method."1 As a somewhat less directly active co-conspirator in this journal, but always committed to the potential of thinking systematically about history in Africa as inspiration for the profession as a whole,2 this reflective anniversary issue seems an instance appropriate for further thoughts on method, not as a technical manual but as a frame of mind.

Vansina in 1974 was in the process of revising his early (1963) history of the Kuba (in Flemish) toward what was becoming The Children of Woot.3 Woot was a much more nuanced "tour de force" of historical reconstruction from the diverse academic disciplines of what he had contributed mightily to creating as "the decathlon of the social sciences," as Wyatt MacGaffey put it in another memorable moment from this journal.4 The specific historical conclusions about the Kuba were significantly revised - population antecedents to the north rather than the west, the possible implications of maize cultivation replacing sorghum as the agricultural base, and other aspects of the social and economic contexts of the earlier version's emphasis on the Kuba political dynasty, as the centering of the "children" in the title of the subsequent monograph consolidated.

But these specifics aren't my concern here. Nor is Vansina's unpretentious ability to define a field, then to continue to watch and think it through further as colleagues and students struggled to come to terms with his lead, and eventually return to destroy his own original delineation with new characterizations synthesizing it all, as he was doing there. His practice of what he preached in this essay has revised himself on "kingdoms" in general, and on the Tyo, Rwanda, and the Kuba in particular. Rather, the inspiration that has guided me, and that I trust History in Africa's new editors to inspire in their contributors, is the epistemological argument central to the essay, to which I allude in my own sequence of titles above.

What I have taken from Vansina's demonstration of the intellectual power of "systematic doubt" is humility as a historian. The operational lesson is the productivity of refusing, ever, to concede a level of certainty beyond provisional to any "conclusion" that a historian might suspect. Uncertainty is motivating. It opens us to anomalies and inconsistencies in the evidence we have and drives us to imagine possible associations between what we're confidently aware that we don't know and the random input that comes [End Page s20] along in the course of teaching or working on other projects or in our ongoing daily experiences. Every hypothesis is only a working one, a heuristic convenience, and every solution - provided that it's treated as tentative - generates new questions to answer and provokes a quest for new methods or evidence to fill the ongoing gaps that it reveals. The examples on which Vansina reflected from his own experience with the Kuba started with oral traditions, led to historical linguistics and archaeology, and on through sociological modeling and biology. Recall the titles I have provided for this essay.

As for myself, sociological modeling has become a principal focus of my own doubts. Sociological models - and that...


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