U.S. Intellectual History Blog

How I feel today

“Who can even claim to master a subject that is forever receding from our sight? In a wrenchingly honest appraisal of a life doing history, Oscar Handlin wrote of knowing about the past as one knew the way to a mountain’s top. ‘We know now that no simple journey will bring us to the summit. Indeed, we cannot be sure where the summit lies, or in fact whether it exists at all, for our valley is high enough to reveal the complexity of the surrounding ranges.”

Peter Charles Hoffer, The Historian’s Paradox, p1.

Hoffer’s paradox is that history is both impossible and necessary. I’m reading the book to see if I want to assign it and so far I’m intrigued! And grateful to know I’m not alone in my my writing growing pains.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I thought the historian’s paradox is that the past can only be studied in the present, indeed only exists in the present. Kudos, though, for thinking about the philosophical aspects of history. Most historians don’t go there, not even intellectual historians. Even more kudos for considering assigning a book about it. What kind of class would it be for? Lowenthal seems to be the standard for that when one is assigned. Which wasn’t all that often, my hazy recollection tells me.

  2. I think this is the Historian’s Paradox as Hoffer sees it, rather than a kind of universal paradox that existed before the book.

    I’m thinking about it for the senior seminar I’m teaching in the fall. It is a methods course, but I want to introduce a little bit of historical theory/historiography as well. Hoffer’s book is aimed at a general audience and I think that undergrads might like it (based upon just the introduction). As I read more, I’ll let you know.

    I’m also thinking about using the intro for the first week of my US Intellectual Survey in the spring. I had a prof in African American history who always spent the first class period asking what history was. I’ve continued that tradition in several of my classes. I’ll probably do another post on some of the things I’m thinking about suggesting to students that it is.

  3. “I had a prof in African American history who always spent the first class period asking what history was.”

    One thumb up.

    “I’ve continued that tradition in several of my classes.”

    The other thumb up.

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