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  • On History

    Posted by Zenpundit on January 23rd, 2007 (All posts by )

    You have reckoned that history ought to judge the past and to instruct the contemporary world as to the future. The present attempt does not yield to that high office. It will merely tell how it really was.
    – Leopold von Ranke

    “History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon.”
    – Napoleon Bonaparte

    History is less a science or an art than it is a craft; and like most craftsmen, historians have favored techniques that they tend to pass on to their students, rather than formulas. Moreover, what differentiates good history from bad is, to an extent, a matter of opinion. Even (or especially) among professional historians, there can be heated dispute on this point. Truly great history, though, tends to be like obscenity – we all recognize it when we see it.

    In part, historians are like detectives because there is no substitute for a rigorous examination of archival sources with the intention of bringing something new about your subject to light. Finding the overlooked document is a coup but being an archive rat is not enough. To be useful to the larger society requires effectively communicating a meaningful analysis.

    When historians produce great interpretations of historical events, narratives that have generational staying power, they begin with an implicit historicity, or at least an overarching theme, to act as a guide. Connecting small events to the largest picture gives a work of history great explanatory power, which is why that in 500 years from now, odds are that people will still be reading Gibbon, Herodotus and Thucydides but historians from the 20th century may be entirely forgotten (as the modern, doctorate-wielding, historical profession is only little over a century old, our best historians probably have yet to be born).

    One of the great questions is whether to view history in a linear or cyclical fashion. Many of the ancients, like Polybius, tended to see history as a recurring pattern. This not as common today, though some historians, like the Vietnam era specialist David Kaiser, have embraced cyclicalism, an attractive concept intellectually, because it offers the hope of anticipating future events while mitigating the moral responsibility of causation. It is hard to make headway against the zeitgeist, after all.

    Linear paradigms in history, while offering a tidy, chronological sequence that is familiar to anyone who, as a child, was required to draw a timeline in school, present their own analytical problems. On an ideological level, the view of history as unidirectional “progress” tends to breed a spirit of determinism that inclines the historian to ignore contrary evidence. Much has been made about leftist MESA scholars in academia who were blind to the rise of Islamism before 9/11; much the same could be said of conservative scholars in the West who ignored the potential barbarism of Fascism and National Socialism. It is possible for history to move backwards, metaphorically speaking. Or backwards and forwards at the same time, as in the case of the Nazis, who championed both atavistic racialism and modern technology.

    The second problem with a rigidly linear approach, is that it is tempting to ascribe causation to prior events that are merely correlative in sequence but are weakly connected in substance.This fallacy appears glaringly among conspiracy theorists who offer seemingly impressive but isolated, data points that purport to show that “FDR knew about Pearl Harbor” or “the CIA killed Kennedy“. This tendency can easily affect legitimate works of history, if to a lesser degree though the process of robust, merciless and at times, gleeful, criticism that historians hurl at one another’s writings helps to keep this error in check.

    Framing history is an analytical tool and like carpenters, historians are best served using a variety of tools instead approaching all historical questions with nothing but a hammer.


    12 Responses to “On History”

    1. Jonathan Says:

      Excellent. Welcome, and thanks for sharing.

    2. John Says:

      Excellent post. Welcome.

      “It is possible for history to move backwards, metaphorically speaking. Or backwards and forwards at the same time, as in the case of the Nazis, who championed both atavistic racialism and modern technology.”

      I think perhaps that the best model is a synthesis that convolves a model of linear technological progress with a cyclical model of human psychology.

    3. Mitch Says:

      History is a catalog of blunders. Conspiracy theorists do us too much credit by ascribing to malice what is more convincingly attributed to mere stupidity and folly.

    4. Lex Says:

      Linear rather than cyclic history need not be about “progress”, but does not rule out free choice and contingency and real consequences flowing from those choices and that contingency. You only get one try.

      Judeao-Christian revelation freed us from the “great wheel” of an ultimately pointless cyclic universe, in which men were mere slaves of fate. It also imposed the burden of responsibility on individuals and communities for their actions.

      My two historian heroes are Lord Acton and F.W. Maitland, both late Victorians, an era that currently does not get the respect it deserves. I think they will be read in the future, perhaps more than they were in the 20th Century.

    5. zenpundit Says:

      And thank you, Jonathan, for having me here!

      Lex, you are correct about the ” great wheel” phenomena – cultural cyclicalism induces fatalism.

    6. Ginny Says:

      Welcome Zenpundit. This tension between the cyclic and the linear is interesting. Glad you are joining the fun.

    7. Don Says:

      I thought one of the best presentations on history was done by James Burke with his program and book title Connections, to be followed by The Day the Universe Changed. While focused upon technology that underlies our modern civilization, it showed that unlike the historical model in school of clean lines of progression, advances where made in spurts, from cross discipline influences, and ‘at the right time, at the right place’ happenstance where a confluence of inspiration put the pieces together. One of his points in his production is that for most of history the idea of ‘inventing’ the future was not part of the cultural environment. This is not the philosophical grand Utopian concept, rather the means of improving our daily lives. It is a concept that in implementation is barely a hundred years old. It appears that the technologist have been on a better roll in the base understanding of what pasted before in order to carrying through to we were are going. Certainly better than a gaggle of tenured tea leaf readers that inhabit our Schools of Arts.

    8. joseangel Says:

      In my opinion, Thucydides will always be read out of pleasure, and even though Thucydides can be thrown into the linear lot, hardly a demanding history reader, I could not judge or even stop to analyze the great ancient historian, but rather thank the lord, or some cosmic body, for being able to glance into this great Greek mind.
      It’s not fair for the Cyclical side.
      I believe Cyclical history also presupposes that the number of human experiences is limited.
      Now that I think of it I guess I have based my entire life in a dozen, or perhaps even less cyclical beliefs, I reuse them here and there as I see fit. I even evince them in my possession.

    9. Chris Says:

      As far as a current historian who might be read centuries from now, my vote is for Phillip Bobbit’s “The Shield of Achilles.” For anyone who has not read it, it is possibly the most masterful account of the rise of the state and its evolution throught various forms. Just my two cents.

    10. zenpundit Says:

      Hi John, Ginny – thank you!

      John -you wrote:
      “I think perhaps that the best model is a synthesis that convolves a model of linear technological progress with a cyclical model of human psychology”

      Interesting. Tech progress remains linear so long as a field can continuously “tweak” and have it’s practitioners interact. Gaps or periods of stagnation seem to occur when that process is interrupted by social disruption ( fall of Rome) or oppressive political authority (Ming and Q’ing dynasties, modern totalitarianism). And speeds up with new, constructive, influences which gets to Don’s point:

      “While focused upon technology that underlies our modern civilization, it showed that unlike the historical model in school of clean lines of progression, advances where made in spurts, from cross discipline influences, and ‘at the right time, at the right place’ happenstance where a confluence of inspiration put the pieces together.”

      This would be in line with the thinking of Nissam Nicholas Taleb’s explanations of extreme anamolies like Black Swans or that which is produced by stochastic tinkering.

    11. John Says:

      I agree that linear technological progress is predecated upon a certain material infrastructure that allows for the exchange of ideas. I was thinking strictly of the post Renaissance world in that context. Prior to the Renaissance, the slope of the plot of linear progress was pretty low, and post-Renaissance, the curve hit a dogleg, and now we are sitting on a steeper curve.

      I love Connections except for the very point that Don made: Burke picks and chooses toics to make it look as if there were bursts, when in fact the pace is slower and steadier. It’s just that the technological applications of scientific discoveries tend to come in bursts, because engineering ideas need a certain infrastructure in order to take off, but once that happens several pent-up dams burst at once. It’s no cooincidence that automobiles and aviation took off at about the same time. Both were waiting on engine technology (and indirectly metallurgy, as with the Al / Cu alloy engine block of the Wrights) to get to the point where it could be used practically.

    12. David Kaiser Says:

      Thanks for the mention–I would like to explain what kind of cyclism I favor. It was developed by William Strauss and Neil Howe, and its critical finding is that the life of a social and political order is about 80 years, culminating in a crisis that creates a new one. The crises in US National history are roughly 1774-1794, 1857-65 (longer in the South), and 1929-45; we are due for the next one. What is critical, however, is to understand that the theory doesn’t tell us how the crises will turn out; that’s up to us, with a great deal of luck involved. For more on all this see

      David Kaiser

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