Historical Reasonings…

2 04 2008

Following my thoughts yesterday about the actual act of studying history, I thought I would elaborate further on this point. I would therefore like to question just what the role of the historian is in todays society.

The final qualification to that is important, I feel that to some degree the role of the historian has changed over time, and as a consequence todays historians (of which I think I am part) are entirely different creatures to those who were involved in recording history 100, 200  or 1000 years ago.

For me, I see a clear difference between ‘recording history’ which, to my mind was the job of those employed by the victors, of whom I was talking yesterday; and actually being a historian.

This though opens up a whole new avenue of questions. The most obvious one to ask is what does the historian do if not record history? To this, I feel the answer is simple. Historians (from a modern perspective) offer a comment on historical events. The historian in this case does not simply recite facts, but instead offers justifications for these ‘facts’. History therefore, simply put, is opinion. No historian can, by this logic, be wrong. They have their own interpretations of different events and they have considered the evidence to form a conclusion.

Except we all know that historians can be wrong. Naturally my thoughts turn to David Irving, the well known Holocaust denier. I am not going to try and justify him, or his thoughts, that is beyond me. Society has dictated that his thoughts about the Holocaust are wrong, and (shock horror) I agree with what society says here.

So, if historians can be wrong, there must be something which says that they are wrong. This limiter, as already intimated, is social values. There are topics which are taboo in all societies, and this necessarily means that they are not ‘open’ for discussion from anyone, except to conform to the already outlined social values. The issue of social values is another interesting one, but will not be explored further here.

To return then to the issue of what the historian does. If the historian does not simply record facts, then what do they do? There is the oft churned out line that historians are there to ensure that the mistakes of the past are never repeated. However, this flies in the face of my other premise, that is, history is cyclical. If we just run with this for a moment, the logical implication that it makes is that the historian is somehow failing to to do their job because the history keeps repeating itself under new guises. If therefore the historian is failing, what is their role in a world which will keep playing out similar scenarios dressed up in different clothing for the rest of time?

Of course these latter musings work on one very big premise, that is, is history cyclical. I think it is. I think broad general patterns have thus far emerged in history which serve to indicate this: a technical revolution (iron age, industial revolution) followed by war seems to a generalisation that can be made I feel. Dictatorial leaders emerging (Hussein, Stalin, Hitler, Napoleon, back to Caesar) getting too big for their own good, and being destroyed. Human growth followed by a natural disaster to check it.

The trouble with the cyclical history idea is that it is broad, sweeping, and vague. When the details are explored further there seems little which unites the two comparative periods. Nonetheless, I maintain that history does indeed act in cycles, albeit very large cycles.

In which case, does that mean that the role of the historian is a redundant one? If history is repeating, the same mistakes are being made, and the historians are thereby failing the the assumed task which I stated earlier. Such a claim though ignores the point that cyclical history does not stop the world developing, it merely suggests that the same basic patterns of human behaviour are mapped out onto varying circumstances, as dictated by the time. Therefore, in essence, the historian still very much has a role to play, regardless of whether cyclical history is something which is happening.

What then is this role? For the first time in a while, I am drawing a blank. I’m not sure what the historians role actually is, and whether this is different to what it should be. Should historians be there to open the eyes of the people to varying understandings of events? Should historians by very much like political parties, you declare yourself as agreeing with one about something, and stick to that? Such thinking presumes the role of the historian is a public one. What about the personal aspect of studying history? Surely some people are historians due to a thirst for knowledge about the subject in hand? Should historians only want to further enlighten themselves, or should their concerns lie with educating more people?

The point of all this is that I remain unclear what the role of the historian is. Perhaps historians are just there to be yet another voice in the crowd offering opinions about something. The real question that must be asked is should it matter what the role of the historian is in modern society? Is it not enough to know that there are historians and they do contribute to the wider understanding of any given period, whether this is for their gain, or for someone elses. If then I cannot work out what the role of the historian is, perhaps we should consider where we would be today without historians. For starters we wouldn’t have Gordon Brown as Prime Minister (he has a PhD in history).  Nor would we have had John Prescott or David Blunkett. It is also questionable how far Jonathan Ross, Sacha Baron Cohen or Louis Theroux would have got without their degrees in history.  Considering that list, some may say we would be better off without historians…




2 responses

5 04 2008
Nachum Meyers

Hi Luke,

At the risk of sounding like a pedant, I here describe my habit for finding explanations and meanings. The first place I look for explanations (definitions) is the dictionary. The editors choose the definitions, by agreement, from contemporary writings of all kinds, and place them in dictionaries in order of frequency of appearance in those writings. There are exceptions, of course, and they are so marked. O.E. – Old English is one such common marking for non-contemporary meanings when words are still in use or adapted to contemporary usage.

So – out with my trusty Merriam Webster, “Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary” of 1980. (I do use other specialized dictionaries as needed.)

HIS-TO-RY\ Latin Historia. Greek, inquiry, history. French, knowing, learned; akin to Greek eidenai to know: 1: TALE, STORY 2 a: a chronological record of significant events (as affecting a nation or institution) usuqlly including an explanation of their causes. b: a treatise presenting sysematically related natural phenomena c: an account of a sick person’s medical background 3: a branch of knowledge that records and explains past events (medieval~) 4: a: events that form the subject matter of history b: past events c: previous treatment, handling, or experience (as of a metal)
syn: HISTORY, CHRONICLE, ANNALS – shared meaning element : a written record of events

A Historian is 1: a student or writer of history esp. one that produces a scholarly synthesis 2: a writer or complier of a chronicle

My comment is that it really doesn’t matter what one calls oneself or how one wishes to be called. What does matter is what one thinks of oneself and what one does. We are not engaged in a contest to choose the best, the brightest, the most truthful or most faithful to the facts as they occur rather than as the historian sees them. I compare the historian to a mechanic. Both use the tools of their trade to produce a useful product. Some are more accurate or produce a better product than others. Some want the product to be shiny while other prefer the raw metal to show its true self. I think each historian must be true to him/her self, and it shall follow, as the night the day, they cannot be false to any man. (Plagiarism will get you everywhere.)

Frankly, I am more concerned with the historian who HAS a prejudice that is obvious. Then we can deal with it. It is the subtle, careful, thoroughly researched product that leads to sure conclusions, that one must take care to inspect well. There is no absolute truth other than for those who believe in the unprovable.

So Historian – leave your mark on the face of the world for others to follow. That’s your role. It will be a combination of what you saw, heard, thought, and most assuredly, what you think you saw, heard, and thought as events unfolded before your eyes or as you researched them or saw them in your breathing moments on this earth. Do not fear inaccuracies. Yours will be as good as the next man’s. Stand firm for what you believe you saw. And stand firm for what you believe the meaning of events to be!

Nachum Meyers

30 04 2008

The rest of Nachum’s post relating to this subject can be read here:
Check it out, it is an interesting read.

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