If we can’t nail down historical “facts,” we can’t presume to convey best practices

An interview of the eminent historian John Lukacs by Historically Speaking, Vol. 10, Sept. 2009 at 14, makes two observations about historical knowledge that apply to legal department knowledge about management practices.

Lukacs points out that “we think in words, which have their own histories. Words are not finite categories but meanings – what they mean for us, to us.” The words someone uses to describe a management practice in a law department are not clinically precise, clearly communicatable. Rather, words are to varying degrees subjective, amorphous, fluidly changeable, and laden with connotations. They are unreliable in many ways when we try to describe a practice.

Lukacs then makes a second point: “Our historical knowledge is inevitably participant. There cannot be any antiseptic separation of the knower from the known.” Given the distortions that inevitably accompany any memory or description by someone who was involved, “We cannot nail down a so-called historical ‘fact’ for good.” Nor can we ever fully understand what a law department did to create or improve a process because those who can best describe what happened were part of it and therefore cannot be objective.

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