Thursday, June 16, 2016

Don't Know Much about Philosophy

Don't know much about philosophy. Wow... now, I have the tune from Sam Cooke's 1960 "Wonderful World" song (You can look it up) stuck in my head.

But, today I am risking thinking about philosophy because, on my flight home from SCGS Jamboree, I read Stephen Hatton's article about philosophy and genealogy in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly ("Thinking Philosophically About Genealogy," NGSQ, March 2016, 5-18).

Hatton argues that philosophy can do five things for genealogy:

  • Deepen understanding of genealogy and its key concepts and presuppositions,
  • Support genealogy's theoretical grounding,
  • Produce a more firm foundation for the Genealogical Proof Standard GPS),
  • Increase appreciation of research challenges and common errors, and
  • Improve relations with other disciplines, which might improve genealogy's standing in academia.
 Like I said, I don't know much about philosophy, but it does seems pretty important to me. Wikipedia tells me that classic philosophical questions include those of whether it is possible to know anything, or to prove its existence. As a genealogist, that sounds like a pretty core question to me. In fact, I often open genealogy lectures with a slide simply asking HDYKWYTYK? -- How do you know what you think you know?

Hatton's article explores the ontology of genealogy. "Ontology" is not I word I feel very comfortable with, but I understand it to mean something about the study of the nature of things that exist -- and therefore can be talked about and studied. Hatton suggests three ontological views of the human subjects (mostly dead) that genealogists study. They can be a "substance" with properties, a "lived being" with passions, or an entity (person) shaped by events. What I get out of the ensuing discussion is that people can be thought of as objects that have qualities, stand in relationship to each other, and both affect and are affected by events. This is a very generalized summary that very possibly does not do justice to Hatton's discussion. You need to read the article for yourself.

Hatton states that practitioners of genealogy and philosophy have yet to interact. That is probably mostly true, especially in the higher altitudes of academe. Yet, I would argue that genealogists who have contributed to the GPS and accompanying standards have done a good deal of philosophical thinking. In fact, I have known many genealogists who seem capable of thinking philosophically about genealogy without being in the same room with a philosopher. Hatton also contends that genealogy "has not sufficiently provided its own theoretical grounding," adding that "Ground refers to what is fundamental, from which other things derive and are understood, explained, and built" (p. 8). Again, I am certain genealogy can do better, but I do think we have made significant progress.

When Craig Scott and the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy issued a call for colloquium papers that would "advance the theory of genealogy," I stuck my neck and and submitted a paper that discussed genealogical education, evidence-based genealogy, and genealogy's place in the "knowledge world." I suggested that an important step toward making genealogy a credible discipline was to define core concepts. I suggested six: maternity and paternity, lineage, ancestry, kinship, heritage, and biography.
I don't think I said much that others hadn't already thought, but if you are interested in these kinds of ideas and the kinds of question that Hatton raises, you might want to check out my article ---"The GPS and Beyond: Challenges for a Genealogy Profession," Crossroads, Spring 2015, 18-25).

I am certain that other genealogists around the world are having lively discussions about the philosophy of genealogy, but I don't hear a lot about those discussions from where I sit. I hope those discussions continue and grow.

I don't think I have a lot more to say about this topic, so I might not return to it in this blog any time soon. Rather, I am thinking I will start in on the Tidball family saga -- which puts me in mind of Tim Conway's Mr. Tudball character on the Carol Burnett show! O.K., that should get "Wonderful World" out of my head.

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