The Pie Plate Theory of History

george w. stocking, jr. & the “opacity of pie plates.”

Gerrit Willemsz Heda, Still Life with a Nautilus Cup, a Meat Pie, a Bunch of Grapes, Some Pewter Plates and a Partly-Peeled Lemon, All Arranged on a Partly-Draped Table, 1646.

…history can be viewed as a series of pie plates stacked somewhat irregularly one upon another. The irregularity is important, for the pie plates themselves have thickness in time—what we are in fact investigating as intellectual historians are ‘contexts of assumption’ which exist through time in complex interrelation with each other. At this point, visual representation breaks down, but the pie-plate metaphor perhaps does serve to emphasize the element of discontinuity in history, the importance of synchronic or horizontal contextual analysis, and the somewhat problematic character of diachronic relationships. Furthermore, the opacity of pie plates may help to remind us of the problems inherent in historical perception from the top of the pile.

— George W. Stocking, Jr., h/t Rosemary Lévy Zumwalt

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