Monday, May 17, 2010

John Tosh on the History of History

One of my current reads is Historians on History: Readings Edited and Introduced, by John Tosh, 2nd Edition (Harlow, England: Pearson Education Limited, 2009).

As the titles indicates, this book is an anthology. Tosh lets us listen to various historians as they "reflect in public on the nature of their craft" (p. 1). The "Introduction" provides an overview of the entire book. Tosh begins by discussing "four longstanding and influential aspirations of historians." To get a handle on them, I've given these four aspirations the following titles:

1. History for its Own Sake

Some historians simply want "to discover what happened in the past and what it was like to live in the past" (2). History is interesting. So why not pursue it for its own sake? The author explains that a rigorous, single-minded application of this approach is what has come to be known as "historicism." This method prizes above all the mastery of primary texts, the relevant documents. Secondarily, historicism relies on the ability of the interpreter's "powers of imagination." The historicist sees himself "stepping into the shoes of people in the past." However, this second aspect of what a historicist does often gets downplayed. Otherwise, we're more likely to wind up with eccentric, idiosyncratic presentations. Again, for writers in this tradition, "knowledge of the past is an end in itself, and they have a lofty indifference to the claims of social utility." They see the value of their work in its ability to provide "a storehouse of accumulated human experience for our contemplation and delight" (3).

2. History as a Map of Time

Next are those for whom history is a way of "uncovering the shape of human destiny." Christian writers of the Middle Ages, for example, believed that human history "was a passage from Creation to the Last Judgment" and that a knowledge of history would "inevitably bear witness to this grand theme" (4). (One of the old approaches to the Book of Revelation was to see it as a description of world history from beginning to end). In modern times this progressivist view of history is best exemplified by the thought of Karl Marx. He divided "all history into the successive phases of ancient, feudal, capitalist and socialist, each more 'progressive' than the last" (5). As we now know, the 20th century saw plenty of giant steps backward. Two World Wars, the Great Depression, the Holocaust, and the Cold War weren't exactly hopeful. Together, events like these effectively brought discredit to the progressivist view. Nonetheless, no one since Marx has offered such a comprehensive and persuasive set of answers to the questions with which he was grappling.

3. History as a Political Tool

Then there are historians who subordinate "historical writing to immediate political objectives." In this case, writing history is useful for nation building, or for giving a group of down-trodden people a new sense of self-respect. Remarking on this tendency, Tosh offers an acknowledgement: "No society can sustain an identity or a common sense of purpose without 'social memory' -- that is, an agreed picture of a shared past, which in most cases will be positive, if not inspiring" (6). But, he adds, this sort of story telling almost always wants to go too far, leading to things like American exceptionalism, or to new African nation-states whose historians exaggerate the glories of Africa's past (7).

4. History as Prophecy

Finally, there is the claim "that history offers insights and lessons which arise from the historical record itself, and which historians alone are qualified to teach" (7). According to this outlook, historians are among the most important academics because, after all, they alone can decipher where the world is going based on what has happened in the past. But this approach, which promises something more like prophecy than perspective, begins with a misguided assumption: it assumes that the world and human life and society are more less static. This is the stated rationale for why we can supposedly judge the immediate future based on a knowledge of the past. But it's hardly ever as simple as that. As Tosh remarks, "the future is always open and we need to cultivate a readiness for all contingencies" (8).

Thinking about these four reasons for studying and writing history, it's easy to see why the first one, historicism, has been so attractive in modern times. It's the only one that is not overtly an aspect of power. It makes me wonder, though, if historicism might be some sort of Trojan Horse. "Innocent" history? On the other hand, do historians and the rest of us really want for history to be so innocuous (read: useless)?

So then what are the proper or legitimate reasons for someone writing history? What does this discipline uniquely give us? I wonder. Whaddaya think?

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