U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A Means to What? A Rambling Discourse on the Ethics of History

Today we feature a guest post by Varad Mehta, who frequently comments here. Enjoy.
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All historians carry with them into the past a set of ethical assumptions about the nature of their endeavor. These assumptions permeate every facet of their work, from the choice of subject to the way in which they present it. Some historians are motivated almost entirely by such concerns; indeed, some become historians because of them. These concerns can stem from a sense of moral outrage, from the desire to advance a political agenda, or they can have some other origin. Where historians go astray is not in having these impulses but in prioritizing them over their professional obligations. One’s agenda should serve one’s scholarship, not the other way around. That the answer to the question “Can historians approach the past free of moral concerns?” is “No” is nothing to regret. Of course historians have moral concerns. They are human beings, and thus, moral agents. Whatever humans do will have some sort of moral basis. A better question to ask, then, is, What sort of ethical basis can and should history have, if any?

That is the question I will try to answer in this rambling discourse.

Does the past itself impose some sort of moral burden on historians? This is an important question, but I would answer that it is moot, because whether or not the past imposes such a burden, historians act as though it does. And it is the reasons for their actions that we are trying to understand.

The locus classicus of the attitude that history is a moral enterprise and that the historian has a moral obligation towards the past is the preface of E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963): “I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the ‘obsolete’ hand-loom weaver, the ‘utopian’ artisan, even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity.” Ever since, historians have been trying to rescue one group after another from the callous oblivion of time. Even the new bottles labeled “postcolonial” and “subaltern” (among others) contain more than a dram of Thompson’s old wine.

Thompson’s immortal words advance two distinct but related claims. The first is that these men and women deserve rescue from the enormous condescension of posterity. The second flows from the first: as they are worthy of rescue, one is obligated to rescue them. But we are immediately confronted with new questions: Who decides who deserves rescue? Why are they deserving of rescue? And can they actually be rescued?

Is there any criterion beyond the observer’s own subjective opinion that the object in question is worthy of her attention? If there is not, then someone else would be perfectly justified in maintaining posterity’s condescension inviolate. Thompson himself did not attempt to conceal his ulterior motives. These originated in his political aspirations and his conviction that history’s losers the first go round, need not be its losers the next time. Industrialization in England had produced a certain outcome. A proper understanding of history could forestall its recurrence: “Causes which were lost in England might, in Asia or Africa, yet be won” (13).

Thompson sympathized with the “losers” of industrialization in England because he sympathized with those he imagined to be their contemporary counterparts. Is sympathy a sufficient grounds, though, for assuming a moral obligation? Sympathy was the core of Adam Smith’s ethical theory. He posited an “impartial spectator” via which humans could gauge the morality of their actions. The problem with sympathy for historians is that Smith envisioned it as something that would allow us to measure the rightness of our conduct towards our fellows. But in what sense is a Luddite cropper of the 1820s Thompson’s fellow? Sympathy requires one to place oneself in another’s shoes. We sympathize because we know how we would feel in their circumstances. It is hard enough to gain a modicum of insight into minds to which we have first-hand access. How are we to get into the minds of those long dead? Mind is not an artifact, and whatever understanding we have of our forebears, it is not through sympathy in this Smithian sense. Whatever sympathy operates must be of a passive rather than an active kind.

I don’t mean to imply sympathy has no place in the study of the past. Without it, it is probably impossible to understand it at all. The past at some irreducible level must be intelligible to us, especially the humans who lived their existences in it. We study the past because its matter is humanity. But this can’t be a criterion for determining what part of the past is worthy of our attention, let alone worthy of being rescued from posterity’s condescension, because it applies to any and every aspect of history.

We can’t study the past with regard to victors and losers because the past makes no distinction between them. The present alone decides who won and lost. Those are retrospective categories, not categories innate to historical experience itself. To impose them upon history is to subject it to our whims and desires, the very thing Thompson strove to redress. When Thompson wanted to rescue his historical losers from history, was he doing it for their sake, or his own?

Moreover, we should be extremely chary of making “loserdom” any kind of criterion for establishing a group’s worthiness for historical succor. Some historical losers, and this is but common sense, have earned their oblivion and opprobrium. Some lost causes deserve to remain lost. The great German historian, Hans-Ulrich Wehler, made just this point when he accused the practitioners of Alltagsgeschicthe (“the history of everyday life”) of succumbing to naivety in their infatuation with the masses. So what if the losers lost? Given the basic rottenness of portions of the German past, so much the better. Hence his scathing judgment: “Fortunately the losers, who among so many historians of every day life occupy the centre of the stage, were not the historical victors.”

“Causes which were lost in England might, in Asia or Africa, yet be won.” How? If they are won in Asia or Africa, that will not do anything to change what happened in England; defeat remains defeat, loss remains loss. Remembering them now will do nothing for them then. They will not even know that they have been rescued, for they were unaware they needed rescuing. To believe they did is to take the past on our terms, not its own. And this is all before we pose the even more loaded question of why history’s losers should be accorded as much respect as its victors, or even more.

“History to the defeated / May say alas, but cannot help or pardon.” Every historian must bear in mind Auden’s words from his poem, “Spain, 1937,” for they express in poignant terms the existential limits of the historian’s reach. It redounds to our credit as moral beings that we not only can, but do desire to help and pardon. But we can do neither. Alas is the best we can do because it is all we can do. The impulse is ineradicable as it is understandable. The historian’s duty is not to deny it but to understand its sources and recognize its influence.

The past cannot impose a moral obligation upon the historian (or any human being) because there is no one to whom she can discharge this obligation. What debt is to be paid by someone living today to someone dead three centuries? How is that debt even incurred? Now we must ask an even more elementary question: Is it even possible for history to have a moral basis?

It is hard to will a universal moral law or legislate for a kingdom of ends when studying the past, but even then it is surely possible to treat others not merely as means but also as ends. But how is it possible? At first blush the answer seems obvious. After all, what is history about if it isn’t about humans? (Recall my earlier remark about the intelligibility of history.) If the subject of history is humanity, then historians only have to treat the humans of the past as ends the same way they would treat humans of the present. But this view, too, breaks down on closer scrutiny.

I write about Rousseau. He remains a seminal figure in the history of political thought and early modern intellectual history, two fields in which I do a good deal of grazing. His writings, his thought, his life, his ideas – these are what make it possible for me to write about the past because he addressed issues I’m interested in. Rousseau allows me to do what I do. Clearly, he is my means. Is there any way he can also be my end? I suppose one could say that I treat him as an end by according him the respect he deserves, by taking his ideas seriously, by attempting to understand his concerns from the perspective through which he perceived them, and so forth. That is all well and good, but once that much is conceded we immediately stumble over the same obstacle which ensnared Thompson.

It was never clear with Thompson whether he could rescue his subjects from posterity’s condescension for their own sake or only his own. The same is true here. When I say I shall take Rousseau’s ideas seriously, it is not to treat him as an end; it is only to facilitate my treating him as a means. I have to do that, because if I don’t I’ll only be making my job harder. I can use my means poorly or well, but using it well is not the same as treating it as an end. The end is always on me; it has nothing to do with Rousseau. My end is my book or my article or my better understanding of Rousseau. But my better understanding has no impact whatever on Rousseau. The relationship flows only one way, so cannot be considered mutual. Historians aren’t guilty of violating the Second Formulation because Kant says we must not treat only as a means that which may also be treated as an end. The past can never be an end, only a means.

A means to what, though? Certainly towards no end it can propose or dispose. Ineluctably I’ve been heading towards the conclusion that the past can make no moral claim on us. So to state that one shall study the past for its own sake is to utter a non sequitur. As though the past has a sake! The past suffers no harm by our not studying it, nor enjoys any benefit if we do. That’s why it’s the past. But this is not an impasse. I said at the beginning that it doesn’t matter whether or not the past actually imposes any moral claims upon historians because they act as though it does. That is the key. The past makes no claim on us, but we make all sorts of claims on the past. But these are really claims on ourselves. The past is a means – to what? Suddenly, the baby has reappeared in the basinet.

Historians are moral agents, and moral agents act in the present. It stands to reason, then, that moral agents’ obligations and duties and rights would arise and be discharged in the present. This is where the idea that the past has some moral claim on us originates. The past has a distinct ontological status; it exists. But as we study it here and now it exists in and is part of the present. To rescue anything from posterity, is really to rescue it from ourselves, for we are its posterity. If we study the past for anyone’s sake, it is our own.

It cannot be otherwise. Study the past for our own sake we must. It is innate in our nature as human beings. The German philosopher of history Reinhart Koselleck put it this way: “The compulsion to coordinate past and future so as to be able to live at all is inherent in any human being.” If we are obliged by dint of our humanity to contemplate our place in time, then history cannot be the special province of historians. It belongs to all human beings.

If there be any kind of ethical or moral obligation in our study of the past, this then must be its source, the imperative we have as humans to be the historians of our own lives as we daily live them. It is an obligation we incur not as historians, but as humans. No one expounded this idea with greater intellectual or moral force than the great English philosopher R. G. Collingwood. For Collingwood, man’s pursuit of the past was a characteristic of being human because it was an activity that originates within man’s mind. He defined the philosophy of history as “the exposition of the transcendental concept of history, the study of history as a universal and necessary form of mental activity.” As he saw it, the philosophy of history is what allows us to comprehend history as “a necessary form of human experience” (432), something which is “the common property of all minds” (422).

This mental activity takes place in the present. The past itself is to a certain extent the product of the mind’s activity. This is the inevitable result of Collingwood’s philosophical commitments, for he regarded the past as entirely ideal, that is, as having no ontological validity. For him, only the present existed. Whether one agrees with the Collingwood’s metaphysics, he is surely right that this presentism shapes history and historical practice in fundamental ways, the chief of which is that history can only exist in the present because that is where the mental activity which creates it takes place. All history must be in the present, and is in some ineffable, insuperable way about the present, for the simple reason that we are in the present.

“All history is an attempt to understand the present by reconstructing its determining conditions” (420). We sense intuitively that the past made the present. After all, we have lived through the past which made the present of our own lives. Looked at from another angle, the present is but the continual accumulation of past upon past upon past. But all these pasts exist only in the present. “To speak, therefore, of traces of the past in the present is to speak of the present and nothing but the present” (483). If I gaze upon the Pyramids, I do so now; if I read Plato, I do so now; if I consult a medieval town charter, I do so now; if I try to reconstruct the movements of the combatants in a battle, I do so now. “In this sense history is the study of the present and not of the past at all” (485).

Some might surrender to despair at this point, so futile seems the possibility that we can gain knowledge of the past. But that is to misunderstand Collingwood’s meaning. History is about the present not because that is its subject but because that is when it is realized. History exists in the present because we do. And we want to know the past because doing so allows us to live: “The purpose of history is to enable us to know (and therefore act relatively to) the present” (406). There is no prospect of acting towards the past. To think with Thompson that one can and therefore has sanction to pass moral judgments upon the past, sorting out the wicked from the just, is to succumb to the fallacy that the past is real in the sense that it is a proper arena for our intervention. As though we can walk into it and stop a massacre, or slavery, or what have you.

When we say with Tacitus that we shall apprehend the past sine ira et studio, we do so not for its sake but our own, because it is to ourselves that we owe the fullest understanding of the past we can attain. Our moral obligation is to ourselves, because it is only to each other that we can discharge it. Whatever moral basis upon which we hope to establish history, it must adhere to this one rule, that it emanate from ourselves. For it is only to and for ourselves that we may be responsible; we can be responsible neither to nor for the past.

History, it turns out, does not sanction a moral philosophy; it is a moral philosophy. “Know thyself” commanded the Delphic oracle. Without history, those words would form not an aspiration but a nullity. Man seeks to know himself and his world so that he may live. As long as the past is part of that world and he is part of the past, he will seek to understand history. Of all possible moral foundations for history, surely this is the strongest and soundest. For it accords both with history’s nature, as well as our own.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Varad–
    Very interesting post! As a neo-Collingwoodian myself, I largely agree with what you’ve said here (and Carl Becker probably said it as well in his famous AHA presidential address from the 30s, “Everyman His Own Historian”.) I would add, however, that there is another dimension to the ethics of historians that has, to my mind, never adequately been addressed by historians, but which work in ancillary disciplines such as anthropology raises. Historians are, in some respects, the moral equivalents of grave robbers–like the nineteenth-century thieves who dug up cadavers in the name of science, they have not recognized the claims of communities for respect for the dead. The assumption has been that dead people have no right to claim protection for the remains they have left, and that no possible ethical issue is raised by a whole sale conversion of those remains to the ends of the present. If somebody wrote a private journal of their thoughts and experiences, with absolutely no intention that it should be seen by the public, historians have not even raised the issue of what respect is owed to those wishes. Rather, they have suggested, in the Thompson vein, that they are doing a favor to that past actor by bringing her subjectivity into the broad light of day and subjecting it to analysis. But we live in an age in which museums have been compelled to return “artifacts” to peoples, including physical remains and culturally sacred objects, and it is widely recognized that the human sciences of the West essentially denigrated the human reality of the “uncivilized” by treating them as objects of scientific investigation. We know that the “subaltern” don’t speak; but what about the dead? Can we have a responsibility, if not to the dead themselves, some notion of a common humanity or a cultural tradition that they represent? We have never been troubled by using sources produced by the most horrendous tyranny, nor the most private reflection.

  2. Like Dan, I want to say thanks for this meditation on the ethics and philosophy of history. I like thinking about these issues.

    Like Collingwood and Becker, as well as Dan and Varad (!), I do not deny that history exists in the present. Indeed, I believe in that axiom with all my heart. But I think terms like losers, winners, sympathy, and rescue muddy the waters too much.

    We study the past not simply from internal, primal drives (e.g. moral or spiritual reasons), nor even from philosophically abstract ones (i.e. wissenschaft, or knowledge for knowledge’s sake). We often study history because other humans use the past for nefarious ends. As such, we are then compelled to historical study to correct the errors of others, or at least to nuance their interpretations. Why is this of consequence?

    Often those erroneous or real arguments about the past involve politics and/or power. Those powers may involve my life or death at worst (in the case of war), or my pursuit of the good life (power over circumstances affecting our quality of life). Either way, tradition and precedent form the basis for law and politics, and both involve historical thinking to some degree.

    If others are going to force me to think historically, I may as well learn to do it to the best of my ability. I do this not to win a game, rescue others, or empathize with past actors. I do it because my survival depends on it. Because man is an “historical animal” we are all caught in the game—whether by environment or genetics. – TL

  3. The analogy between 19th century grave-robbers and historians strikes me as very apt Historians are in a double sense “resurrection men,” not just unearthing the dead for the use of the living, but in a way bringing the dead back to life. This is indeed a kind of “rescue,” a response to the problem of mortality. Of course, mortality is no problem for the dead — they’re quite good at it. So if some of us — for instance, me — undertake the work of recovering the voices of the dead, it is not only or even primarily for their sake, but for our own.

    Does piety demand that we let them keep their secrets? Or do we do well to bring them back from oblivion, even if it means we must transgress the boundary line they drew in life between concealment and disclosure? If we violate the wishes of the dead, we might do so only because the needs of the present, the needs of the living, are more pressing. And perhaps one thing we need, historical animals that we are, is to know that lives long past still matter.

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