Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Why We Study History

This blog is going to talk a lot about history.  As a reenactor, freelance student and participant in public discourse, history comes up a lot in my thinking and my speech.  So I might as well start with why I bother with history in the first place.

To start with, more intelligent men than I have touched on the subject.

But here are a few reasons that resonate for me.  The first two are often discussed and are less interesting to me, so I'll dwell on the last.

1) Historical myth is the basis for our popular discourse.  Be it the absolute stupidity and cowardice of appeasement or the waste of the first world war or the tragedy of the civil war, history comes up all the time when we discuss current events or more general values.  Knowing what's a distortion and what's mostly true is useful.

2) "The past is never dead. It's not even past."  Seemingly long-dead institutions and attitudes shape the world around us, understanding them is important to understand the present.

Duh, right?  I don't think the last reason is as often talked about, though.

3) History is the science of the particular.  This both offers positive lessons about the importance of studying specifics and negative lessons about the dangers of universal statements.  This takes a bit more explaining by way of contrast to philosophy.

I studied a lot of philosophy in college, and when we had seminars we would easily lapse into universals about 'human nature' or the way things are.  Women love men like Mr Darcy, men like simpering creatures like Rosamund in Middlemarch, human beings thirst for freedom, whatever.  Philosophical study, particularly the sort that follows Plato's lead and seeks to define things in the abstract, tends towards this kind of univeralism -- justice is this, right and wrong are this, love is that.

History, on the hand, studies why particular events happen at particular times.  A good historian will not take a grand theory of human nature and then try to use it to explain why Hitler came to power or the civil war happened.  Rather he will study the specifics of early 20th century Germany or the 19th century United States and show how those led to the Reichstag Fire and Fort Sumter.  The quickest way to embarrass yourself when writing history is to make pithy universal statements*.  There are too many variables in historical events to reduce them to a few simple laws -- what may be true in one time and place might be false in another.

This sort of discipline teaches the student of history to look for the concrete details of the individual situation rather than immediately applying a more general rule.  Importantly, this is the exact sort of intellectual judgement that is needed in both everyday life and when trying to understand current events -- like historical events, the world of human action around us is too varied to be accurately and meaningfully described by a few first principals, even if they are 'properly applied.'  Learning to look for the details is necessary for good judgement.

Because of the usefulness and fruitfulness of this study of the particular, historical study also teaches us to be sceptical of universal statements themselves.  Knowing that human events are driven by specific causes that are unique to the situation, it is hard to aceept a single statement as definitive for all people everywhere.  For my part, this has restrained my dogmatic flights of fancy and made me humbler in viewing the world around me.  History has taught me that people are too complex for me to have all the answers.

For me, as someone who studied a lot of philosophy, history teaches me to tether my speculations and remember that they are not definitive, that coming up with clever definitions for X, Y and Z is not enough to understand being human.

*Thankfully, I'm not writing history here.

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