"The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there." – LP Hartley
"The past is a foreign country. They do things just like us there." – Douglas Adams
What is history? Is it a science, or an art? Does it produce objective truths, or subjective interpretations? Who qualifies as a historian, what types of evidence do they use, and how do they reason? How can we tell when we’re being told the truth about the past, and how do we know when we’re being deceived?
Historians study these questions under the heading “historiography” – the theory, practice, and history of historical writing. What I would like to do, in this series, is tell a history of history. In other words, look at the works and ideas of some of the most famous historians of the Western intellectual tradition, and see how these questions have been addressed in the past – or, indeed, where they come from at all. Along the way we’ll pick up perspective and concepts that will help us gain some clarity on those questions. Once we’ve followed that history up to the present, I’ll propose some general principles for understanding and evaluating ideas about the past.
In addition to answering some rather technical questions about philosophy and history, I also hope that by exploring the ideas of past historians we will be able to gain some new perspective on the human condition, for, as we will see, many of the concepts that seem obvious to us are of comparatively recent origin: especially the opposition between science and art, and democracy and totalitarianism, which saturates so much of our present discussion. Indeed, I hope to convince you, if you are not already convinced, that our present views are no given facts of the universe, but rather historically conditioned, contingent, and transient phenomena – the reflections of a moment, as it were, certain to be replaced in due course by ideas we cannot imagine.
For the moment, though, I would like to offer some provisional definitions, which will ground the rest of the series. History is the study of continuity and change, in human societies, across the dimensions of time, space, and ideas. It is based primarily (though not exclusively) on the analysis of written documents, and therefor begins at about the time writing was first invented, and ends at or near the present. The value of history is that it locates us in time just as a map or GPS locates us in space – without either, we would be lost. More specifically, without history our ability to evaluate our present circumstances, to form stable individual or collective identities, or to cooperate with one another in the pursuit of common goals would be gravely impaired. Put bluntly, the world we live in would make considerably less sense, and we would be gravely impaired in our efforts to navigate it.
Further, by helping us to appreciate the variety of human experience, history helps us to make sense out of the world we live in – for it is filled with people who are very different from us, who have very strange ideas indeed, and yet who we need to respond intelligently to. If we want to do that, we need to understand them, and that means we need to get into the habit of taking them and their strange ideas seriously. History is an excellent way to do this, for it removes us from our present hopes and fears, and transports us to a world that is both very different from ours, and yet also familiar. After considering the people, ideas, and events of another time, we may find ourselves equipped with new habits of thought and perspectives, which we can then bring to bear on the problems of our own time. History is not, then, simply a means of communicating useful information – like philosophy, which it closely resembles, it is a method for training the mind.
More than anything else, I hope to share some of my excitement for this field, for it has a rich intellectual tradition that is hardly known outside of the academy, but which addresses some of the most important questions we can ask about our place in the universe.
SEP: Philosophy of: History
(Part of a Series on Philosophy of History I of XXXV)