U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Why History Matters

Yesterday, at the fourth annual Graduate Student Symposium at the University of Texas at Dallas, Ben Alpers give an incredible keynote address on “The Future of the Humanities.” I won’t summarize his talk here, but I will summarize the audience response:  Ben rocked the house.  

After Ben spoke, I presented my own paper as part of a panel addressing the theme, “Why the Humanities Matter.”  My colleagues Michele Rosen and Sara Keeth did an extraordinary job of explaining the cultural value of translation studies and literary studies.  Then it fell to me — because I had gladly if somewhat naively volunteered to do it — to make the case for “Why History Matters.”

The actual title of my talk was more elaborate, but it was no more ambitious than the daunting task I had before me:  to explain why the study of history matters to somebody besides me, and to do so while standing next to a particularly formidable American intellectual and cultural historian, Daniel Wickberg, who moderated our panel.

I have my reasons for valuing history as I do — and I spoke about some of those reasons yesterday.  But the argument that the study of history can enrich one’s life — and it certainly can, and it certainly has — is not sufficient to explain what history has to offer to those outside the ivied walls of the ivory tower.

What is the cultural value of being a historian?  Why should the academy continue to train historians?  Beyond the self-perpetuation of the profession, what does that get us?

Training scholars to think historically gets us people who can wade into the contentious conversations in the public sphere while retaining — and modeling — some sense of irony and perhaps the faintest bit of humility about the limits of one’s own understanding. We get, in other words, people who would (ideally) offer a different model of discourse besides the rhetoric of righteous indignation and moral or political absolutism that is constantly swirling around us.

That was the basic argument of my paper.  Keep in mind that I was explaining “thinking historically” to an audience of people who were coming from other disciplines in the humanities.  I used my own struggle to contextualize the radical abolitionism of William Lloyd Garrison as a way of framing my discussion.  So here’s a slightly revised version of part of my argument, which includes some references to discussions taking place on this blog:

This effort to suspend judgment in favor of understanding is part of what it means to “think historically.”  It’s hard to do.  But it is a disciplinary and self-disciplinary hallmark of historians.  This professional self-discipline, Thomas Haskell explains, “requires detachment”:  the ability to “suspend or bracket one’s own perceptions long enough to enter sympathetically into the alien and possibly repugnant perspectives of rival thinkers,…to achieve some distance from one’s own spontaneous perceptions and convictions, to imagine how the world appears in another’s eyes, to experimentally adopt perspectives that do not come naturally.”[1]  And, I would argue, the most unnatural perspective of all is to recognize that our own mental conception of the world — whether it’s the idea that slavery is wrong, or the idea that historians ought to approach their subjects with some measure of detachment — is not a timeless truth; our moral and mental conceptions are ideas, and they too have a history of their own.

Keeping the history of our own mental framework in mind even as we write history practically forces us to embrace some sense of disciplinary humility.  We do our best work when we keep front and center “a conception of the limits of historical knowledge.”[2] Instead of a totalizing grand narrative, or grandiose explanatory claims, historians attentive to the limitations of our own discipline would (ideally) write, Allan Megill suggests, with a “greater humility and reflexiveness with regard to the interpretation of the past” — a “self-ironic style.”[3]  This is the practice of history as a sort of tonic of humility — an ironic self-awareness that we must not be self-righteous in our own certainties.   

Irony. Humility. Detachment.  This is what history has to offer. 

This is what history has to offer?  Oh, how the mighty have fallen!  But it is, I would argue, a fortunate fall — though not all historians have made the leap.  Indeed, one of my colleagues on the U.S. Intellectual History blog is concerned that I seem to have lost a sense of the heuristic purpose of doing history:  to draw from the particular circumstances of the past some generally applicable principles for the present.  “Isn’t that part of how we learn from history,” my colleague asked me in a recent blog comment, “learn to avoid the mistakes of the past? Or,” he continued, “are you a postmodernist such that you see these applications as overwrought with hazards? How do you talk truth with those who come to history seeking SOME limited universal truths? How do you sell historical thinking if you disallow present applications?”[4]  It’s a fair question.  After all, I had been saying there — and I am saying here — that “when history veers into a discussion of what is true in a transhistorical or ‘timeless’ sense, it ceases to be history.”[5]

Indeed, “timeless” and “historical” don’t really go together. 

Instead, what history can offer is a careful, attentive, thick if not thorough interpretation of a particular past context.  The point of such interpretation is not to distill some lesson that will help us “avoid the mistakes of the past”; because time is on the move, the mistakes of the past are unrepeatable.  That’s one of the implications of contingency:  each present moment is the product of innumerable choices made and chances taken by others.  So history can’t repeat itself; we are wonderfully free to make new mistakes now.  How’s that for a liberated future? 

That’s a very liberated future.  In his famous — and much assigned — essay, “The Burden of History,” Hayden White describes how foregrounding contingency frees up the future.  History has the “special task” of bringing people to “an awareness that their present condition was always in part a product of specifically human choices, which could therefore be changed or altered by further human action.”[6]  As George Cotkin affirms, “we are born into structures of power and culture that constrain us.  But, at the same time,” he continues, “we retain a degree of agency that may assimilate or change those structures to varying degrees.”[7]  Intellectual history in particular foregrounds the way that such structuring ideas shape not only the world that people are born into but also the very conceptual limits of how they can imagine reacting against that world.  Grasping this dynamic — getting some sense of the sheer weight of what people have to wade through to ever think differently about anything — makes it easier to view individual people, past and present, with less judgment and more understanding.

So our job as historians is to speak to our time, to speak to our culture, by speaking faithfully about the past.

The historian’s task is simple:  to reconstruct a moment, or a series of moments, from the past, and to hold that past up to view not so that we might commend or condemn it, but so that we might understand it.  That exercise — the demonstration of how to suspend judgment in favor of understanding — repeated again and again, defines both the process and the product of history faithfully practiced.  Leading others through that exercise with us is the pedagogical, the scholarly, and — in a certain sense — the pastoral work of  secular historians.  We must leave to our historical subjects the harsh and uncompromising and proudly immoderate rhetoric of moral absolutism.  Let Garrison thunder like a prophet, and let us hear him in the context of his time.  Ironically, in the context of our time, to demonstrate ironic detachment and some sense of humility about our own habitual [historical?] certainties is, in its own way, profoundly prophetic.

——————–
[1]Thomas L. Haskell, “Objectivity is not Neutrality: Rhetoric vs. Practice in Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream,” History and Theory, Vol. 29 No. 2 (May, 1990), 132.
[2]Allan Megill, Historical Knowledge, Historical Error: A Contemporary Guide to Practice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 56.
[3]Megill 186.
[4]Tim Lacy, March 15, 2012 (10:35 a.m.), comment on Tim Lacy, “Tim’s Light Reading (3-15-2012): Gretel Adorno, Richard Theodore Greener, Ontics, Defending First Principles, and Tony Judt via Jennifer Homans,” U.S. Intellectual History, March 15, 2012, http://us-intellectual-history.blogspot.com/2012/03/tims-light-reading-3-15-2012-gretel.html.
[5]L.D. Burnett, March 15, 2012 (9:15 a.m.), comment on Lacy, “Light Reading (3-15-2012).”
[6]Hayden White, “The Burden of History,” History and Theory, Vol. 5, No. 2 (1966), 133.
[7]George Cotkin, “History’s Moral Turn,” Journal of the History of Ideas, Volume 69, No. 2 (April 2008), 305.

14 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Two addenda:

    1) I can’t think of a better current demonstration of how historical thinking can turn down the heat while turning up the light on public discourse than Nell Irvin Painter’s brilliant op-ed in today’s New York Times, When Poverty Was White

    2) Meanwhile, in the twittersphere, I chimed in on a conversation between Yoni Appelbaum and Ta-Nehisi Coates regarding writing thoughtfully v. writing polemically. I agreed with Coates and Appelbaum, and I suggested that historical thinking models a kind of “passionate detachment.”

    What you see in my post above is a foregrounding of the “detachment” part of my understanding of “thinking historically” — or, in other words, the “objectivity” part of Haskell’s assertion that “objectivity is not neutrality.” The “not neutrality” part of my argument I will save for another day.

    However, I will say that to insist on disciplinary humility in the face of competing truth claims is not a neutral stance, but stakes out a moral position that values pluralism over dogmatism.

  2. Thank you for this post. As a student starting study for a Doctorate in History this fall, I and other prospective historians have been asking ourselves the same question. What’s the purpose of studying history in a post-modern society? Especially when there’s so much mis-information forming white noise in our national discourse.

    • RG2, you are welcome. I’m glad you found it helpful.

      If you are asking yourself this question before starting your doctoral studies, you’re farther along than a lot of us were/are. I have been asking myself this question for the better part of a year, and am just now able to articulate this (provisional) answer.

  3. A long time ago (but in this galaxy, not one far, far away) I attended a lecture by William McNeill. Regrettably, I no longer remember the subject of the lecture. But most likely it included some musings in this historical philosophical vein, because the question I asked was, simply: “So why should anyone care what historians think?” Given the thrust of the question, it seems likely that whatever he was saying, I was of the opinion that he offered no grounds to answer that question in an affirmative sense, and plenty to answer it negatively. In other words, the opposite of what you’re saying here. I was irritated, especially since I held (and still hold) McNeill in considerable esteem. But even an eminence grise can have an off day, and McNeill is certainly one of our most eminent grises. (Wait, that didn’t come out right . . .) Anyway, I agree that people should care what historians think, and that historians are compelled to give them reason to care what they think.

    Which is why I’d like you to elucidate one of your central concepts here: detachment. What is detachment? And detachment from what? I ask because whenever I hear historians talking about “detachment” I always wonder if in so doing they’re not merely recapitulating the Rankean ideal that “Jede Epoche ist unmittelbar zu Gott.” We would all like to achieve such an Olympian perspective, but it’s difficult for us mere mortals to scale such heights. Especially when we also believe that “our job as historians is to speak to our time, to speak to our culture, by speaking faithfully about the past.” There’s not much detachment going on there.

    Nor can there be, because all historians exist in spacetime, all must adhere to the consequences of the proposition “I here now.” All of which is to say that I’m skeptical of the notion of detachment. It might be going too far to say it’s antithetical to the idea of history itself, but I do think an undue emphasis on it distorts both the historian’s self-awareness of his purpose as well as the broader public’s understanding of his role. This isn’t to say that a detached “view from nowhere” isn’t a valid perspective on the world. But that’s not how historians perceive the world; they can’t, nor should they try to.

    If history is to matter, historians can’t be detached. The more detached history is, the less it matters. For if it is detached, whom is it speaking to, and what is it speaking for? Far better for historians to admit that they aren’t detached, can’t be, and to go from there. That would be more honest for themselves and for those they would have listen to them.

  4. It seems to me that Thomas Haskell’s definition for detachment (quoted above) works pretty well. So for my talk, I used “detachment” in the sense that Haskell described it in “Objectivity is Not Neutrality,” a review essay which every historian of any stripe — Americanist, Europeanist, you name it — should read, mark, and inwardly digest. Rice University, where Haskell is an emeritus Professor of History, has kindly provided a .pdf here: Objectivity is Not Neutrality: Rhetoric vs. Practice in Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream.

    But on the subject of “detachment” more generally…

    There’s a difference between “detachment” and “disinterestedness.” Historical detachment implies an ability (or at least an attempt) to look fairly at the past. It doesn’t imply that one looks indifferently at the past.

    In terms of “detachment” in the present — I am talking, at the very least, about that modicum of critical self-distance on which irony depends. So detachment doesn’t describe a fixed position — it’s not an epistemic “place” that historians somehow attain, and from which we can view our own time or any other disinterestedly or even dispassionately. It’s an epistemic habit, though.

    “Detachment” is the shorthand term for the particular habit of epistemic humility that historians develop and strengthen by historicizing everything, including historical thinking itself — including the idea that historical thinking needs to be historicized.

    I re-wrote the conclusion of my paper about four hours before I gave it — and I think it made for a better talk. However, one key point that ended up on the cutting-room floor was an insight from Cotkin’s essay on “History’s Moral Turn”:

    “Morality becomes a process of thinking rather than a predigested set of answers. In a time when our politicians and students rest too comfortably in certitude, history’s moral turn may help create productive confusion, a willingness to recognize that behind all of our moral choices — not to mention choices made in the past — lurks paradox, tragedy, and irony.”

    In a similar way, it seems to me that “detachment” is the willingness to recognize that beyond all of our historical insights — and beneath them, in the epistemic ground on which we stand to build them — lurk paradox, tragedy, and irony.

    A recognition that there might be more than one way to look at something hardly seems to me to imperil a historian’s ability to ask questions of the past or provide answers that might be of interest for the present.

  5. Fair enough about detachment. So on to irony. Where does irony in the study of the past come from? Is it in the past itself or does it originate from our perspective on it? And what is ironic about the past, anyway? If it’s that things didn’t turn out as expected at the time, well, that’s a truism; they never do. If the irony is that we’re stuck dealing with the consequences of what happened back then and can do nothing about it because it happened back then, well, that’s a truism too. Moreover, I’d like to suggest that if irony is construed as something available to us because of our perspective on the past (in that we see the whole of it in ways our subjects didn’t or couldn’t), then irony in that mode is the opposite of humility, because it derives from our sense, however modest, of superiority over the past.

    Now that’s not to say irony is unnecessary or inappropriate to the study of the past. Historical writing is replete with irony from the very beginning. It was pretty much the major key of Enlightenment historiography, which put it on the path towards its development into a distinct mode of inquiry in the way we recognize it now. But this literary irony was a means, not an end; it was a way of deriving and propagating a deeper meaning which could not always be stated plainly. It was the opposite – or at least quite distinct from – this mode of ironic detachment that you are advocating. This irony seems to be an en end in itself, the way we should think about the past when we start to think about the past.

    “History to the defeated / May say Alas but cannot help nor pardon.” Quite so, no matter how many historians have railed against the injustice of this verity. To treat the past ironically is an admission not so much of detachment but of resignation, an acknowledgment that there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. That’s a white flag, a tribute to diminished expectations.

    I’m likely being unclear, and I’m not sure I’ve articulated the nature of my discontent with irony as a necessary component of studying the past. I’ll say only that there are many, many ways of approaching the past, and I’ve always found irony to be one of the least interesting and productive of them. Or maybe irony has simply become the bottle into which the wine of skepticism has been poured. That could be. And I’ve always been for skepticism.

  6. LD – I really appreciate your perspective on the professional historian.

    “Irony. Humility. Detachment. This is what history has to offer.” And Thomas Haskell’s observation “professional discipline”…requires detachment and the ability to “suspend or bracket one’s own perceptions long enough to enter sympathetically into the alien and possibly repugnant perspectives of rival thinkers,…

    Is judgment in the purview of the historian and after judgment wither goes detachment? Is judgment an act of hubris and beyond the scope of the historian? Can one judge and still remained detached? Is it the historian’s job to metaphorically unfold history as one unfolds a map and leave it for others to judge?

  7. @Varad, I am pondering the irony of being asked to explain irony to you, because a healthy sense of irony depends very much on not taking oneself too seriously.

    So I’m going to resist the urge to be extraordinarily offended that my remarks could possibly be misconstrued as advocating or celebrating some sense of “superiority over the past.”

    @Paul, what do you mean by judgment? Do you mean moral judgment? It seems to me that the historian has about all s/he can handle in judging the quality and kind of evidence needed to advance a sound argument. The critical evaluation of such sources as we have, knowing full well that “all the evidence” is never going to come in, is precisely the kind of judgment that historical thinking requires. But pronouncing moral judgment on the past? What purpose would that serve for historians?

    And I hope it’s clear that when I say “historical thinking,” I do not pretend to claim that all historians at all times — or “all historians worthy of the name,” or any other similar flattening, foolish formulation — have thought in this way. Talk about unhistorical thinking! I am not about to argue for some kind of transhistorical principle of Thinking Historically. I am praising a particular kind of historical thinking that has a history of its own. I am speaking the language of pluralism and pragmatism — but not, as far as I can tell, “postmodernism.” If that’s even a thing.

  8. “@Varad, I am pondering the irony of being asked to explain irony to you, because a healthy sense of irony depends very much on not taking oneself too seriously.”

    I’m not asking you to explain irony to me; I know what it is. I’m asking you to explain what its role is in the study of the past is, or at least what you think its role therein is. Or, to put it another way, to explain why it belongs in the historian’s toolkit. Lots of historians argue for its necessity, even suggesting it has some a priori value for being a historian. But why? What’s irony do for us in studying the past that we couldn’t do without it? To put it in the simplest terms: Why is history ironic? and should it be?

    At any rate, I disagree that “a healthy sense of irony depends very much on not taking oneself too seriously.” Irony is often one of the surest signs of moral seriousness and commitment. Or at least it was.

  9. I said quite plainly that irony is among the things that history has to offer us. A sense of irony is a perspective we gain through detachment, through a good faith effort to think historically — a self-awareness of our own limits as knowers that might allow us to make room for the possibility that there are other valid ways to understand a situation.

    But you already know what irony is, so I’ll just stop there.

  10. “I said quite plainly that irony is among the things that history has to offer us. A sense of irony is a perspective we gain through detachment, through a good faith effort to think historically — a self-awareness of our own limits as knowers that might allow us to make room for the possibility that there are other valid ways to understand a situation.”

    Okay. I just don’t see such a notion of “self-awareness” as being irony, or think we need irony to recognize that “there are other valid ways to understand a situation.” Regardless, I don’t think it tells us much about the past, but it does tell us a lot about how you think historians should go about studying it. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I espy Rorty lurking in the background here. As I’ve never had much truck with him, I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise that I’m skeptical of your embrace of irony, too.

  11. “The historian’s task is simple: to reconstruct a moment, or a series of moments, from the past, and to hold that past up to view not so that we might commend or condemn it, but so that we might understand it. That exercise — the demonstration of how to suspend judgment in favor of understanding — repeated again and again, defines both the process and the product of history faithfully practiced. Leading others through that exercise with us is the pedagogical, the scholarly, and — in a certain sense — the pastoral work of secular historians.”
    I suspect anyone in the sciences could assert the above statement with equal (and likely greater honesty) than academics in the humanities. I suspect the reason is that in order to understand most of the objects scientists are concerned with one has to conform both ones ideas and behavior to the object (through theory and experiment) to gain understanding. An added benefit to the scientific endeavor is that not only does the individual gain traits of irony, humility, and detachment, but they (and humanity) are left with useful knowledge about an object or force that human beings can (and often must) continue to interact with at some level. This understanding can then be put to use to help the scientific community gain understanding about other objects or create material artifacts and technology (such as further experiments).
    The sciences seem to have the upper hand on both sides of the argument. Since the objects of scientific enquiry exist outside of the social and cultural contexts, scientists have to at least unconsciously be humble and detached in order to understand them. And in relation to irony, what could be more ironic than the assertion by physicists that photons and atoms have the properties of both particles and waves. In addition scientists and engineers can create objects that nearly all human beings (and many other plants and animals) now depend upon for our continued survival. In comparison what do the humanities as they are currently practiced have to offer in return for the substantial social cost of sustaining their existence?

  12. Talk about irony or maybe serendipity,as your post arrived so did James Livingston response to the review of his book. I think his response is a perfect answer to your question. The subject is intensely provocative and hugely relevant to our existence.

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