Towards a Political and Introspective Historiography

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modern academia, the role of the historian takes on many shades of thought and varies in philosophical perspective and practice. Whether the vast differences within the discipline is “ethical” or not is to be determined by analyzing what historians define as “history.” While many may envisage history as a study of analyzing the past, or as a way to predict the future, it should be understood as a method aimed at keeping human consciousness of the political past enduring through the present and future. As Rosenzweig and Thelen have discovered in their extensive study of people’s personal histories, we are very much shaped and molded by our distinctive historical narrative.[4] These narratives are impacted by the external political environment. In order for humankind to progress naturally, it is imperative to remain introspective to our political reality so as to change when necessary and maintain what can be considered a transcendental good. This is the purpose of history.

On Impetus

Considering what motivates a historian to explore the past is a practical starting point in analyzing history’s purpose. There are bountiful reasons that drive one’s interest in a particular direction. However, when examining the world on a macro level, the historian should be most concerned with the organization of peoples. Since the beginning, humans have attempted to organize themselves into groups, as seen in the earliest ethnic varieties. What occurred in these organizational systems then led numerous implications that propelled them to take a political course of action; thus, changing their shape and identity based on collective deliberation. Without digressing into what should be the responsibility of cultural anthropologists, the importance is in seeing how humankind has transformed, advanced, and kept reasonable traditions through systematic organization.

Furthermore, transformations and traditions are typically advanced or protected by the structures put in place by particular groups people. As civilization aimed to improve conditions and enlighten their subjects, we see early forms of government take shape to uphold said traditions. Whether through authoritarian or democratic forms, political development is a centerpiece in what drives history, and what should direct historians.

Therefore, social and political change, and the institutionalization of those features, should emphasize transformations that alter the course of human existence. Thoughts such as, what caused state-formation, or cultural change; how did society react, or reform; were laws effective or ineffective regarding their intended purpose? These questions cannot help us predict the future. Nor can they give us an originalist understanding of the past. But they can provide a basis of philosophical and social consciousness in which humankind can self-examine, thereby, maintaining awareness of history in the present. As Carr references the importance of preserving facile knowledge of the French Revolution in order to recognize the enormous impact it had on the Russian Revolution points to the importance of viewing the past through our present eyes as a means to achieve a fruitful understanding of a historical instance, and the transformative effect placed on a society thereafter.[2]

One might ask, why take such a holistic, or perhaps even, altruistic view of the discipline? Conceivably, history has become obsessed with the individual view. Carr argues along the lines of Marxist criticism, in that, history has embraced the Thomas Paine model by separating the individual from society. This provides only a narrow view of history. It turns out, the individual relies heavily on the society in which he or she lives, and conversely, society relies on the individual to do their part. While it is important to be focused on individual instances, and individuals involved in particular moments, respectively, the state of consciousness must be attuned to the affected greater society, as it is in Lenin’s view, the masses that precipitate extensive change yield either growth or decline.[2]

It can be understood that contexts surrounding political change, social phenomena, and the implications of various law, charge a historian to be perceptive to the occurrences that mold society and those within it to advance or decline, to transform or to remain stagnant. This constant reassessment is what keeps historical consciousness alive and breathing.

On The Function of Time

Gaddis confers with his readers on just that. While discussing the reality that historians will likely never be in full agreement on the interpretation of history through the context of the past or the present, he invokes a somewhat existential awareness that can lead to some sense of unity within the discipline: “historical consciousness.” Rather than focusing on the dichotomy of past and present in configuring an authentic view of history, he encourages the historian to be vicarious in their application of inquiry and exploration. In fact, interpretation “is itself a vicarious enlargement of experience from which you can benefit.”[3] Introspection leads to curiosity in finding things out.

For example, in the Sonnets, Shakespeare personifies [T]ime and brings meaning to its effect on humankind. At first, he laments on Time’s misfortunes like decay, dotage, and ultimately, death. Yet, toward the end of the sonnets, he discovers transcendentalism through his writing. In other words, he can live forever through his writing. Moreover, in refraining from contextualizing the world he saw through the passage of time — which seemed to bring only superficial value, i.e., envy and lust — he realized his mere words are what live on forever, stripping away the temporal element from the picture altogether.

Here, Shakespeare consigns a resolution to his readers regarding the existential crisis in his mind. The point is to lend insight into what historical consciousness acrually is; moreover, its importance in taking the place of temporal constraints — how historians wrestle with past and present’s formidable dichotomy in formalizing a narrative. In that, historians can never alter the past since it is undeniably in the past, but they can employ a narrative that brings to life what was once already a lived experience.[3]

On Practice

As discussed, human history is very much shaped by the experience of social and political movements vis-à-vis political formulations and reformulations. Much the same families and individuals are shaped by their respective histories — and these histories are frequently reminisced to assess the change of preserved tradition — society, as a whole, does the same thing. It is the job of historians to be concerned with the causes and effects of these phenomena of change. Political history and the organization of peoples lend to better insight of these precise effects. The way historians’ frame the context of their narrative shouldn’t necessarily be committed to the past or the present but should be focused on self-examined rejuvenation of a particular event. This then brings our attention to the use of judgment and evidence. Although historians should be creative, they should also remain prudent in how they examine sources.

Historians are not scientists. But historians do have to practice a sense of pragmatism that is reminiscent of the sciences. Not necessarily with regard to issues of morality or philosophy, but with issues of empirical judgment. It is important for the historian to generate a unique narrative. This narrative can stand as a hypothesis — the historian’s theory or argument on the subject at hand. Scientists embrace the method of hypothesis to then lead to “verification, modification, or refutation.” [2] The sources related to the historian’s subject should always follow analogously with verification, modification, or refutation. What is meant by “modification,” is to reinterpret the past in the present, and by “refutation,” intends to argue in support or opposition of what the historian discovered. This requires an extensive and comprehensive practice of the discipline. Unlike what was discussed earlier, that which employs a rather relativist method of inquiry, this latter step of historical methodology requires a more orthodox and diligent agency.

It can be said that every piece of historical research contains some strain of suggestive interpretation, no matter the relativist imposition of the historian. No source can truly be objective, as the essence of “truth” is something of great controversy in the field. This premise gives historians the ability to detect some bias along their investigative research. It should be the job of the historian to interrogate claims but apply methodological continuity within the context of the subject in question, so as to bring meaning to the source. The somewhat scientific method explained in the former can be a practical reference point.

Banner asserts, “historians cannot claim their authority simply because they are scholars.” [1] Everyone should certainly have access to understanding history and being well versed in it. However, his message is quite problematic. Not everyone is a historian. As stated, historians should certainly be practicing a sense of pragmatism akin to what is practiced in the sciences. Banner believes individual historians not belonging to institutions of the academy invent ways to apply historical knowledge in practical sorts. By “individual historians,” Banner is referring to individuals who display a great curiosity for learning history, teachers of social studies, or anyone involved in dealing with the past in some fashion.

While he is correct that historians can’t just say anything they desire and claim authority just because of scholarly accolades, his assumption of who is considered a “historian” is disparate and undefined. His overarching desire to bridge the gap between the community and academia is admirable and an idea worthwhile. There certainly exists a gap, for instance, between secondary and higher education, and this needs to be fixed. However, he wants historians to be prudent in how exacting their judgment materializes historical knowledge. Therefore, methodology and comprehensive practice is key. And that comes with experience within the discipline itself. That how we determine the context, inform ideas in question, deliberate source material, engage the literature, etc., is what brings regimentation to the practice.

But as discussed earlier, the importance of bringing historical consciousness to the forefront is what keeps us looking introspectively, preserving an enduring vision of history through the generations. This part of the historical method must always come first. Historians should be, as Gaddis says, “dispassionate chroniclers of events.” But if we don’t allow the desire to reexamine our history guide the creativity of our work, then we are missing a significant component that the field centers on, our humanity.

Conclusion

Today, historiography takes on many forms and approaches. However, this discussion aims for a more politically conscious historiographical approach that emphasizes social and political inquiry. This approach lends to the crucial point to which political discourse promotes social identity and progress of humankind or lack thereof. Carr states, “to enable man to understand society of the past and to increase his mastery over the society of the present is the dual function of history.” This methodology hopefully aims to help historians achieve just that. History is a living and breathing structure. Although it is undoubtedly past tense, the struggle for the historian is to be in keeping with the existentialism seen in Shakespeare’s sonnets — attempting to achieve a locus of transcendence. Augmenting prudent judgment on the way we conduct research and sift through sources helps bring the historian to a place of greater control over their excursions into illuminating the past.

For those reasons, we can hopefully begin to understand societal and political formations in greater depth and its relationship to the struggle for human identity. The historian’s endeavor is set in keeping historical consciousness imminent. If this is how we understand ourselves as human beings, then this is how we should understand history.

Further Reading

[1] Banner, James M. Being a Historian: An Introduction to the Professional World of History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

[2] Carr, Edward Hallett. What Is History?. New York: Vintage, 1961.

[3] Gaddis, John Lewis. The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

[4] Rosenzweig, Roy, and David P. Thelen. The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

M. A. Iasilli is receiving his doctorate in history at St. John’s University in Queens, NY, where he also teaches World History. His research investigates state-formation in the Soviet Union and the intricacies of revolutionary socialism.

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Vi veri universum vivus vici: politics, history, and the occasional pop-culture.

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