- The Meaning of “Quaker History”
I. Introduction: The “what” and the “why”
My presence here today, this exciting but intimidating opportunity to address the Friends Historical Association, comes in response to a challenge, which read as follows:
Friends Historical Association is at an interesting junction in its life. We are looking to emphasize how we might see beneath Quaker history to the lived experience that makes the history. We are wondering whether you might be able to help us articulate this and encourage other Quaker historians to look for the “why” behind the “what.”2
Now, I speak with no false humility when I confess that I am not at all sure that I can help. In the first place, I am not an historian. I am, by inclination, training, and trade, a philosopher, and so am a bit of an interloper here, at an Association meeting where there are professional historians, along with so many amateurs (which means “lovers”) with a passion for Quaker history.3 Indeed, I probably know less Quaker history than anyone in the room—thus the intimidation. Nevertheless, as a lifelong Friend, and as someone with a genuine commitment to being in the Quaker tradition in a faithful way, I have benefitted greatly from the work of Quaker historians, whose books I can often be found reading when my dean is not looking. As a philosopher, I am consistently fascinated by fundamental questions and the ways in which we frame them, and the implications of framing them in one way rather than in another, and perhaps no questions capture the philosophical imagination more perennially and urgently than the questions “why” and “what,” and the relationship between them. So, despite the fact that I am not sure that I can help, and despite the fact that I speak here as an outsider to the discipline of historical study, and thus with some genuine fear and trembling, [End Page 1] I am at least willing to give it a try. And if all goes wrong, I can always quietly retreat back across the border into Canada, and into the safety of my disciplinary boundaries, and pretend this never happened.
“We are looking to emphasize how we might see beneath Quaker history to the lived experience that makes the history. We are wondering whether you might be able to help us articulate this and encourage other Quaker historians to look for the ‘why’ behind the ‘what.’” Now, what interests me, in the first place, as a Friend, and a philosopher, is why this has become an issue at all, as it certainly has, or else I would not be being asked to address it. That is, what is it about how we configure our understanding of, and our approach to, Quaker history such that the question of its “meaning” (the “why”) has, at least in the perception of some, been eclipsed by a focus on “the facts” (the “what”), and at least some feel the need to “retrieve” its “meaning,” and allow that meaning to play a more significant role in the work of Quaker historians than perhaps it typically does at present? Reading between the lines, I suspect that this concern expresses a tension among practitioners within the FHA itself, between those for whom this “why” is of essential significance to a right understanding of Quaker history, and those for whom the “why” is irrelevant to such a right understanding. That is, I suspect that more is at stake here than a purely “academic” discussion. That, of course, is when things get really interesting, . . . and when they get really scary, because that usually means that a brouhaha is brewing. But, perhaps this tension can be a productive one, so let us soldier on, . . . in, as Quakers, as pacific a manner as possible, of course.
So, the way I am understanding this issue, at least on a first approximation (open to revision or rejection), is to see the “what” question, which I am associating with “the facts” of Quaker history, on one side, and the “why” question, which I am associating with “the meaning” of Quaker history, on the other, and asking after the interrelationship...