History’s Chequered History
Historical studies have had a chequered history, a history of development and of problems, problems arising from perceptions within its development and problems attested to historical explanation from critics outside the discipline. Two questions I investigate here are: ‘What were some of the problems in History’s chequered history that needed to be addressed if historical explanation merited study?’ and ‘ Is History, today, a discipline worth pursuing?’
For history to be viewed as a study of human interacting with our world, a study presenting rational evidence and explanation of specific past events, certain misconceptions concerning history’s ‘purpose’ and historical explanation had to be overcome. Historian, R.G. Collingwood, while drawing his own conclusions about historical explanation that are also open to criticism, analyses in his book, ‘The Idea of History,’ (1) the steps and stages by which a modern European idea of history research came into being, the idea that the study of history is a rational attempt to look for and interpret evidence about human past actions. He concludes that, as such, history is an appropriate study of human action by humans, and as a source of knowledge, is of value in itself, requiring no other purpose.
History as Defender of the Faith
Collingwood examines chronologically, many early historical narratives that emphasise religious or political purpose rather than seeking to accurately describe human action. If we look at myths, the early Sumerian and Egyptian chronicles and most of the histiography up to the seventeenth century, events are attributed to divine purpose or the actions of humans largely as instruments of that divine purpose.
The Palermo Stone of the Egyptians, about 2,500BC, depicts the achievements of the Pharaohs, together with the record of the yearly flooding of the Nile River, an event of vital importance. The authority of the past is being used to enhance the status of the Pharaohs. The Hebrew Book of Chronicles, establishing distant relationships of the Patriarchs is a similar ploy. The Roman historian Tacitus, (ca 56AD-117AD) regarded as an historian who paid careful attention to his sources, also uses history to teach a lesson, to offer examples of vice and virtue.
In the Middle Ages, history was regarded in a providential light, God’s purpose over ruling human action. In attempting to discover God’s plan, the details of human action were not too important, what was important was the purpose for which the past was being studied.
But Not All the Time.
The earliest documented historians, Greek writers, Herodotus, (c480-c429 ) and Thucydides, (c460-c395 ) had two different approaches to history. Herodotus writing a history of the Persian Wars, was writing to entertain his readers, sensationalising his narratives with gossip and myth to make them more interesting, and changing facts to show a moral or teach a lesson. Thucydides is credited with attempting the first rational historical investigation. He studied events in the Peloponnesian Wars between Athens and Sparta, writing as they occurred and with the expressed intention of investigating with the greatest possible accuracy, checking information and trying to make sense of what happened. The long speeches by leaders, that Thucydides included in his narrative, have been criticized as perhaps fictional, but in all likelihood Thucydides would have been present on many of these occasions like Pericles Funeral Oration, (p255) and as Greek dramatist Aristophanes revealed in his play, ‘The Wasps,’ it was common practice for onlookers to take notes of speeches by leaders or sophists while they spoke, and it is likely that Thucydides also did this. Thucydides’ histiography was in advance of later works in the Middle Ages where history was once again viewed in a providential light.
During the Renaissance, as the theological system of the Middle Ages became less important, a more critical attitude to the study of the past developed. In the seventeenth century, Francis Bacon expressed the view that history’s essential task was to recall and record the past in its actual facts as they had happened. He didn’t overcome the problem of how the historian could supplement the deficiencies of memory, but he made the point that history should be interest in, and study of the past for its own sake. But historians like Grotius and the Bollandist scholars, activated by a desire for truth, in this period began to treat the testimony of written authorities more critically.
History’s Subject Matter?
The Italian historian, Giambattista Vico, (1668-1744) advanced the critical method of the day by showing how critical thought could be constructive as well as critical, by extracting from exaggerated data through analysis, truths which had been forgotten. Vico presents for the first time the modern idea of what is history’s subject matter. He argues that the condition of being able to know something is that the knower himself should have created it. Thus, as man has himself created history and the societies which are its study, man, is especially adapted to be an object of human knowledge. (http://www.i-c-r.org.uk/publications/monographarchive/Monograph1.pdf ) Vico’s views on historical study, however, were too advanced to have much impact at the time, but became more influential by the nineteenth century.
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there were advances and retreats in the development of the historical process. An apocalyptic approach to history during the Enlightenment was a set back, in rebelling against religion, historians acquired a polemic attitude towards an irrational past. An advance was made by Hegel in recognising that history is men’s thoughts expressed outwardly in action but Hegel succumbed to ‘historicism’ or ‘scientism,’ the belief in laws of human and political destiny, laws conceived as a property of nature itself and giving history a predictive function.
Essentialists and Destiny.
Hegel’s historicism, analysed by Karl Popper in ‘The Open Society and Its Enemies,’ Vol11, had its roots in Plato’s philosophy of ultimate explanations in terms of essences, his theory of forms, Plato’s defence against Heraclitean flux. Plato thought that a bulwark against historical decline could only be achieved by establishing a state so perfect that it would not participate in the general trend of decay from a golden age of essences or forms which lay in the past.
A direct follower of Heraclitus and of Plato and Aristotle, Hegel was the source of contemporary historicism in human historical studies. In Hegel’s philosophy everything is in flux, but this flux is not decay, as in Plato’s philosophy. Like Aristotle’s essences, Hegel’s ‘World Spirit’ or ‘Destiny,’ operating through the State, emerges within the historic process and in the direction of Aristotles ‘final cause’. Hegel says: ‘The Universal is to be found in the State.’ ‘The State must be comprehended as an organism,’ ‘To the complete State belongs essentially, consciousness and thought.’ ( Cited in Popper P31)
Hegel’s influence and the development of his philosophy began with his call to Berlin in 1818, when he was appointed official philosopher of Prussia in the feudal restoration after the Napoleonic Wars. His discovery of a law of destiny operating within history and the glorification of the great man in history as its instrument, is realized in the ‘now,’ each new stage surpassing each past stage in perfection.
As the servant of Frederick William’s totalitarian State, Hegel developed a process of argument called the dialectic, a debasement of reason that contemporary philosopher, Schopenhaur described as corrupting a whole generation. (P P32). By means of this dialectical process Hegel was able to twist arguments for freedom of thought and the concept of ‘liberty’ into their opposite. Adapting to his dialectical process the antimonies arising from pure speculation of Kant in ‘Critique of Pure Reason’, Hegel argues that Kant is wrong to worry about contradictions. While critical discussion and science proceed on the basis that contradictions are not permitted, in the Hegelian doctrine they are to be welcomed. Significantly, finding there’s no need to eliminate error or contradiction means corruption of rational argument and scientific method. Hegelian historicists put on the powerful cloak of science as the discoverer of ‘laws’ but discard the discipline of testing and eliminating error.
Hmm, seems like, fer Hegel, history is an open book, in which providence is pursuin’ the perfection of the world via a struggle of world spirits, and hey, the present expression of the world spirit jest happens ter be Frederick William’s feudal Prussia. Coincidence, that!
In the historical contest of various States ascendency, periods of harmony are viewed as stagnation in the process. What is significant for Hegel is the battle between competing world spirits, for Otto Spengler in ‘The Decline of the West’ the battle is cultural zeitgeist. Human freedom does not exist for Spengler, his men and women are not real men and women, what is real is the life and death inexorable destiny of the social organism.
THROW OFF YER CHAINS!
For Karl Marx an historicist struggle involves economic classes. Marx’s historicism is more optimistic and rational than Hegel’s. In opposition ter Hegel, Marx contended that the clue to history, even to the history of ideas, is to be found in man’s relationship ter the material world. Popper, in his ‘Open Society,’ recognises the value of Marx’s contribution ter historical studies, insights into the economism and economic class interest that operate within human history and change with changing conditions of production, for example, from hand mill to invention of the steam engine.
Popper is critical of what he argue are mis-readings of Marx doctrine of human materialism inferring psychological motives like greed for example. Instead Popper argues that Marx ‘looked upon human actors on the stage of history as mere puppets, irresistibly pulled by economic wires – by historical forces over which they have no control.’ Each stage of history, he taught, is set in a social system which binds us all; it is set in ‘the kingdom of necessity.’ ( P p101.)
The class relations that characterize the social system are also independent of the individual man’s will. The social system acts like a vast machine in which are caught up, rulers as well as ruled. Marxian ‘necessity,’ however, unlike Hegel’s relentless ‘destiny,’ allows a possibility for human freedom when the human puppets are able to destroy this system. ‘The kingdom of freedom begins actually begins only where drudgery, enforced by hardship and by external purposes, ends;’ The fundamental pre-requisite for this will be the shortening of the labour day. (Das Kapital, Vol 111, ch14.)
While recognising the value of Marx’s economism and class interest as a useful generalization fer historians studying the logic of the situation of specific events, Popper criticizes his historicism. Marx’s institutional analysis is valuable, but none of his historicist predictions of inexorable laws of development and stages of history which cannot be leaped over, has been successful.
In both the Russian and the French Revolution, ideas acted as important catalysts. Robespierre was influenced by the ideas of Rousseau, while Lenin and other revolutionaries down ter the eve of the Russian Revolution were significantly influenced by Marx’s slogan, ‘Workers of the world unite.’ After that, Lenin formulated his own slogan as a catalyst and a guide to practical action ‘Socialism is the dictatorship of the proletariat, plus the widest introduction of the most modern electrical machinery.’ Popper argues that, contrary to Marx’s historicist view that history ‘itself’ determines by its laws which path humanity is destined ter walk, enthusiasm for an idea, during the Russian Revolution, became the driving force of a development that changed the economic and political life of one sixth of the world. (Pp108)
Historicists are incorrect in arguing that there is only one history of the past as it actually happened. The realm of facts about human history is ‘infinitely rich’ and those studying the past must make a selection. According to our interests we might, like Ernst Gombrich, write a history of art, or like H Zinsser, write a history of typhus fever. As a universal history, the theme of power has been favoured, perhaps, as Karl Popper says, because power affects us all, but also because those in power wanted to be worshipped and were able ter enforce their wishes.(P p271) Many historians, Hegel is an example, wrote under the supervision of emperors, generals and dictators.
Whither Without Historicism?
So if we rid ourselves of prediction in history what ‘s left and, minus prediction, can we say studying the past is worthwhile? Fer those of you still reading me serf essay, ) here’s a brief questionnaire allowing fer some interaction.
Is a study of the past (a) Okay? (b) A waste of time? (c) Tentatively possible? (d) A futile endeavour?
Should we complete me serf study with (y) a/b followed by c/d? or (z) c/d followed by a/b? …
Well okay, I agree, (z) it is. We go with the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ dramatic finale.
Likely a Futile Endeavour.
Proponents of the above, Frederick Nietzsche and Michel Foucault, have reservations about our access ter understanding past events, recognising that as there is no direct relationship between reality and historical texts, texts can’t simply be used as a means of refreshing man’s memory about the past. Nietzsche’s contribution ter the problem of representation is his recognition that reality is not simple and language not a transparent medium capable of representing this complex reality. Man constructs his world, and in so doing is bound by the verbal structures at his disposal. (N p36.) This is summed up by Nietzsche’s mordant comment on the claims of realism in painting, which also expresses his attitude to historical practice:
‘All nature faithfully! – But by what feint
Can Nature be subdued to art’s constraint?
Her smallest fragment is still infinite!
And so he paints but what he likes in it.
What does he like? He likes what he can paint.’
(Reproduced in E Gombrich ‘Art & Illusuon 1972. p75)
Underlying Nietzsche’s criticism of historical practice, in his essay, ‘ The Uses and Abuses of History’ (Thoughts Out of Season, 1874) are radical assumptions about language. For Nietzsche, conceptual language is an aberration, supplanting the true expressive function of language, the function of metaphor and without, itself, being able to represent the truth. He thinks that if we rely on conceptual language, which is reductive, as in monumental and antiquarian studies of the past, we create inhibiting illusions, or relying on critical language, strip ourselves of illusions altogether. Whichever of these ways we approach our study of history, the past becomes a deadening influence upon us as we seek to respond ter the present.
Like Nietzsche, Foucault argues that words have been perverted from their original function of signification and given the impossible task of realistically representing and neutrally referring to their objects . But if words are mere things alongside other things this task is exposed for what it is, the construction of objects by word things. ( Ref Hayden White ‘Foucault Decoded, Notes From The Underground’ History & Theory X11 1972 p32). Foucault also views language as opaque and historians limited in what they can say about phenomena by the verbal structures they can use, not simply preferences for monumental, antiquarian or critical histories but determined by the prevailing linguistic structure of the epoch which taught them ter speak. Foucault argues the extent to which different epochs are the unwitting captives of a specific linguistic protocol while the meaning of words like ‘life,’ ‘labour’ and ‘language,’ across time are purported to represent the same unchanging reality. (HW pp 34-36)
Foucault argues that since men in different eras have constructed different verbal models of reality, the historian must recognise the futility of approaching a text literally and of rendering it familiar by common sense, making the past resemble the present. Such a conception of historical enquiry poses a challenge which Foucault sees as better dealt with if a historian is able to become liberated from a chronological framework in the manner of modern poets like Yeats or Joyce, and seek illuminating metaphors for organizing this elusive and illusive reality. As Hayden White argues, though himself viewing history as captive to linguistic modes, while Foucault’s suggested approach may fruitfully unearth mysteries which usually get lost in translation, it carries within it the danger of sectarianism, of a secret wisdom hidden from the profane eyes of the uninitiated.( HWp53)
Hmm, in that approach, seems ter me yer headin’ back ter Hegel’s unsupported mystic identifying of what ever … So let’s see what those less pessimistic about historical studies have ter say regardin’ the fuchur of historical studies.
Clifford Geertz, in his book, ‘The Interpretation of Culture’ sees the danger of divorcing a reading of what has happened from what specific people say and do, which is to render it vacant. Although Geertz is not an historian but an anthropologist, the approach he offers has value for the reflective historian. Sharing Max Weber’s view of culture (Ref CG p6) as ‘the web of significance’ that man spins for himself and in which he is suspended, Geertz describes the activity of the ethnographer as the attempt to probe man’s actions in relation to this web, a venture into what he calls ‘thick description (G p6.) to illustrate what he means by thick description Geertz describes the different meanings which may be attributed to a simple eye movement like eye blinking. Is it a ‘twitch’ or a ‘wink’ or a ‘parody of a twitch?
The concluding chapter in ‘Interpretation of Culture entitled ‘Deep Play, Notes on the Balinese Cockfight’ gives an illuminating example of the depth of meaning Geertz extracts from his material. By analysing the cockfight within the context of language, issues of male rivalry, complex rules of the game and gambling alliances, behavior of victor and vanquished, Geertz reveals the cockfight as an art form, a symbolic rendering of the Balinese social order and shows the value of a contextual approach in which the symbolic nature of behavior, as an added dimension to the usual contextual approach, is also taken into account. Such an approach makes it difficult for the reflective historian to generalise boldly across space, to reify doctrines or to seek that specious familiarity which Nietzsche and Foucault rightly criticize.
While language also constitutes a problem for historian of ideas, John Dunn, the problem of historical perspective maybe overcome by understanding the biographical or social experience a past argument was designed to meet.
Dunn considers that documentary evidence provides no open sesame for explaining the past. (J.Dunn, ‘The Identity of the History of Ideas.’ in Plilosophy 43 1968.) Dunn’s attitude to language influences his methodology. He argues that in studying a past intellectual enterprise, it is a mistake to try to choose between historical or philosophical explanations, for while the latter is necessary if we are to satisfy the truth status of an argument, it cannot be achieved without historical specificity. It must be studied in context. To abstract an argument from the criteria which it was designed to meet is to convert it into a different argument. If we wish to understand the argument of a past thinker we need to understand the biographical or social experience it was designed to meet, ‘to substitute the closure of the context provided by the biography of the speaker for that provided by the biography of the historian.’ (JDp98)
This approach is similar to Karl Popper’s ‘logic of the situation’ argument. Like Dunn, Popper recognizes that our response to events of the past are necessarily theory impregnated, as also is the historian’s approach to the past. For Popper, this is no cause for alarm since this the way humans learn, every observation we make is the result of a tentative hypothesis we ask nature, that is, a ‘search light theory’ of learning, not a ‘bucket theory’ of passively absorbing ‘facts.’ Popper considers induction is a myth. For Popper, the deductive method of explanation, involving formulating theories that may be corroborated or refuted by experience is the only legitimate form of explanation for history as well as science. Unlike Hegel or Marx, however, Popper does not appeal to general laws other than as truisms, stimuli but not integral to historical explanation.
Popper argues that deductive inference is objective, a view dependent on Popper’s view of language, Tarski’s correspondence theory of language, that is, that a statement is true, if, and only if it corresponds to the facts, a theory underlying what every judge in a court of law assumes. Thus truth becomes a property of theories that are open to refutation, rather than a matter of subjective belief. Popper distinguishes between two different kinds of ‘knowledge.’ The world of our subjective experiences he calls ‘world 2,’ the physical world, ‘world 1,’ and the world of objective knowledge, consisting of the logical content of our libraries, he calls ‘world 3.’ Popper argues that world 3 is not a fiction but exists in reality. Consider its impact on world 1, mediated through the second world like theories in science that transcend and become independent of their makers. For our theories can create unforeseen new problems and generate new theories. (Popper “Objective Knowledge’ pp112-119)
Popper argues that the development of language beyond the self-expressive and signalling functions it shares with animal language allows us objective knowledge of our world, including historical events. Only with the descriptive function of human language can the regulative idea of truth emerge, that is, of a description that fits the facts. And only with the development of an exsomative descriptive language, a language which, like a tool, develops outside the body, (a linguistic world 3,) can problems and standards of rational criticism evolve. (in OK p73/4 0 p120.)
Popper argues that it is the reluctance to accept the existence of this world 3 that constitutes the central problem of the humanities. For example, Popper and Collingwood share the view that to understand past events, it is necessary to understand the problems of the proponents. Collingwood adopts a subjective approach, however, arguing that the historian must try to identify with the past actor, re-enacting past experience in his own mind. Popper relies on world 3 language, not an act of identification, but attempting to produce a reasoned reconstruction by locating the decisive elements in the actor’s problem situation. By the critical method of studying the logic of the situation involving context, and marshalling objective arguments for and against the conjectural situational analysis, the historian has a good chance of understanding and explaining past events.
Serf Sum Up
Well we’ve jest run through histories chequered history as defender of the faith or morality and whether history can discover underlying laws, let alone interpret past events. Historicism, I’d say is discredited, human action’s not constricted by laws of inexorable destiny. And seems ter me, while some of the ‘likely-it’s-futile’ critics of history had somethin’ fruitful ter say regardin’ reconstructin’ a complex past reality via tricky language, guess I agree with the contextualists here, when they say, ahem, …
Context’s the thing whereby
we may unearth the problem
situation of the king (and troops.)
Situation analysis is able ter
transcend the myopia
of point of view and the
opacity of time and space
Which brings me ter the issue of ‘what’s it for?’ It’s been revealed we can’t predict, that history gives us no repeat performances, so what’s the good of it? Historians EH Carr* and JH Plumb* put in their sixpenneth worth on this claiming that the gaining of historical knowledge is valuable in itself. No need fer pragmatism, we’ve seen what happens when knowledge is not pursued fer its own sake but ter justify, instruct or predict the fuchur. We start selectin’ facts fer the right reason, or considerin’ the criterion fer a correct interpretation appropriate ter some present purpose.
The study of history is valuable fer its own sake. ‘The proper study of mankind is man’ said someone, and I agree. History revealing us in all our variety is a rich and chastening experience , like reading great literature. If even the papery whisperings of fictional characters mimicking real life, extend our understanding of human jealousy, pride, pomposity, heroism, even altruism, characters created, admittedly by real men and women, how valuable, then, the actions of real protagonists and observers of events, filling in gaps, that without this illumination, would be a vacuum in the record.
I think of the chilling scene in Orwell”s novel. ’1984,’ where, in the distopia of Oceana, at the Ministry of Truth, the records are shredded and cast down the memory hole so that myth may prevail … ‘So now you will be told, about the past, that which you need ter know.’ Then there’s another against-the-record alternative, life with no record. ‘Let’s clean-slate inter a fuchur without regret, without memory.’ Say … nothing ter compare to, as though new born, and jest as unaware!
I conclude with a response from a well known wit at Judith Curry’s web-site ter my comment that those who can’t remember the past can jest make it up.
‘Thanks, those who remember the past can jest it up.’ H/t kim. ‘Open Thread.’ 01/09/13.
* E.H. Carr. ‘What is History?’ Pelican 1973. * J.H. Plumb. ‘The Death of the Past.’ Macmillan 1969.
That civilization may not sink,
It’s great battle lost,
Quiet the dog, tether the pony
To a distant post;
Our master Caesar is in his tent
Where the maps are spread,
His eyes fixed upon nothing,
A hand under his head.
Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence
That the topless towers be burnt
And men recall that face,
Move most gently if move you must
In this lonely place.
She thinks part woman and three parts a child,
That nobody looks; her feet
Practise a tinker shuffle
Picked up on a street.
Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
Her mind moves upon silence.
That girls at puberty may find
The first Adam in their thought,
Shut the door of the Pope’s chapel,
Keep those children out.
There on that scaffolding reclines
With no more sound than the mice make
His hand moves to and fro.
Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.
(Heh, if yer never managed ter read the history, at least read the haku …)
Go tell the spartans -
the Persian hordes are fierce and
wear funny slippers.
Substance has essence.
Form adds whatness to thatness.
Whatsits have thinghood.
Phenomenology of Spirit
Thesis: A whole pig.
Antithesis: Butcher shop.
Love is a thoughtcrime.
The thought police make Winston
H/t David Bader ’100 Great Books in Haku.’ (Penguin.)