U.S. Intellectual History Blog

History as What Actually Happened.

A certain approach to the work of history tells us that in order to do history well, one must not be “presentist” – one must not read the realities and assumptions of the present back into the past. Last week, Eran discussed some of the problems with that approach in his post, and argued that actually, any attempt to understand the past objectively must actively take into consideration how our present relates to that past and, therefore, necessitates a critical assessment of the past in light of the present, as well as the other way around. Bouncing off this idea, I would like to add a footnote of sorts.

Early in graduate school, I began to encounter on a frequent basis both the idea (discussed in seminars) and the argument (articulated in many introductions) that we often make assumptions about the past based on the trajectory any development ultimately took. This is most commonly expressed in the form of warning us not to assume that this or that was inevitable, that it was, indeed, a historical process, which means that its future course was contingent on a number of factors that could have been variable. Insofar as this leads us to seek out those contingent factors and learn about how they operated and impacted the ultimate outcome, this is all to the good.

However, to place too much emphasis on what could have theoretically happened without dealing with what did happen puzzles me exceedingly, and always has. For insofar as history has some elements of science to it, or limits on its subjectivity, I would think that it is a “science” grounded in, as Paul Krugman once adorably put it, “what actually happened.” And other than helping us to explain what actually happened, I’m not sure what the value of simply noting it didn’t have to be that way is.

Of course, if we want to be cynical, we could write this entirely off as the product of careerism. It is important to recognize that minority group X was not necessarily doomed to fail as they ultimately did because well, that’s what I’m doing my project on so, I want you to think it is important. Of course, some of this goes on.

However, I don’t think it is that simple, for we can in fact learn about the conditions of the present from the failures, inevitable or not, of the past. Yet notice that it is how far I bring us into the future – indeed, all the way into the present! (following me here, Marty?) – that justifies, to me, the significance of such an approach. It is my impression that this is not what all historians would necessary stipulate – indeed, the nightmare version of regarding the past as unknowable (and also not terribly important) unless we also understand it in light of the present might run something like Ellen F. Fitzpatrick’s concern about the past becoming “little more than a hunting ground for a shard of glass that reflects who we are today.”

Of course, I’m of the mind that this is what the past always has been, and always will be, and to say so is not to necessarily leave it open to endless distortion or abuse, but simply to argue that even historians, in positing the value of the pastness of the past, are fighting as well for those fragments to constitute something (perhaps a “neutral” understanding of the past, or “complexity,” for example) of value in the present.

But then the question becomes, when does the past end and the present begin? If you are studying the civil rights movement, the answers to that are easier, for the issues remain painfully and evidently alive and with us today. It might be different, but it is not very, very different. It is harder, however, if you go back further – but even something as relatively distant as say, the Protestant Reformation, seems to hold its relevance because of its continued reverberations (even though much more subtle than the previous example) into the present. So imagine someone saying, well, it didn’t have to turn out that way – Luther could have been burned at the stake and his heresies crushed. Well, maybe or maybe not, but regardless, it’s not a very compelling point. Why? Because that’s not what happened. And that, to me, has an overriding significance. You can’t deal with the ideas, culture, politics, and texts of the past while disregarding the course they ultimately took – to do so is to believe the only past that matters is the past that is contained, trapped within the confines of a date span indicated in a subtitle, and, once again, we’re reduced to antiquarians. (Poor antiquarians, I beat up on them so much – and this from someone who enjoys the Antique Road Show!)

Consider that some of the best of historical debate comes in answering why this in fact happened instead of that. Yet when the point of simple possibility is brought up in objection, it seems to suggest that what actually happened, and continues to happen, in reality, is of less significance than we assume – and honestly, this strikes me as a very odd position for an historian to take. The past is very useful for imagining alternative possibilities – but alternative possibilities in the here and now, and in the future. And in trying to imagine how that might work out, it is flirting with great folly, I would suggest, to ignore the immediate and enduring consequences of how it actually did work out in the one and only laboratory we have – the context of a given society as it was, and, as it is. And the significance of the past depends, precisely, upon that relationship.

Note: I will be out of range of reliable internet until Monday, so please excuse any tardiness in responding to any comments.