Aspiring philosopher-kings in the history department

David Reynolds reviews The History Manifesto by a couple of history professors who want their field to overcome its current overspecialization so that generalist historians are able to lecture politicians to give them the “historical perspective” on issues of contemporary concern.  They single out “climate change, international governance and socio-economic inequality” as three issues in particular where historians could fruitfully reframe the debates, trapped as they now supposedly are in short-term thinking.  (I haven’t read the book, but hopefully the authors acknowledge that in terms of sheer quantitative timescale, climatologists are capable of taking longer-term views than historians.)  Details are not provided, but somehow even an unlearned man like me can guess what the long-term/historically-informed views on these topics are going to turn out to be when the professors’ lessons are through.

Reynolds recognizes that The History Manifesto doesn’t go into nearly enough detail about how this might actually work.  Gestures toward “big data” are insufficient.  Reynolds recommends instead another book on the historical perspective, Thinking in Time by Richard Neustadt and Ernest May, which I agree does sound like a more interesting work, although I don’t think it can do the sort of work historian philosopher kings would want.  Exhorting people to think in terms of historical narratives is pointless, because both sides of every issue are already doing this.  Every faction has a sense of the great arc of contemporary history, of what is a key battle and what is background noise.  Reynolds writes

Actually, that is not such an alien idea: it’s what we do every evening, constructing a narrative of what has happened during the day by highlighting some events and downplaying others within an arc of what seems, with hindsight, to be significant. Thinking in Time essentially urged policymakers to apply the same narrative mode of thinking more systematically when making decisions that relate to government…

One of these new frameworks for understanding contemporary history is the cultural “clash of civilisations”, attractive to many American conservatives preoccupied with Islamic fundamentalism and the rise of China. Another framework is the emergence of supranational structures such as the European Union, intended to break out of the cycle of ruinous nationalist wars between France and Germany and to escape the perpetual “bloodlands” of eastern Europe. If European integration is indeed the trajectory of our own time, it implies a very different way of telling modern history from the conventional narratives about territorial nation states.

This approach is, of course, unlikely to have much appeal in our dis-United Kingdom. A political class trapped between the erosion of a once-solid state based on shared Britishness and a Continental behemoth depicted as the embodiment of alien “European” values does not seem in any mood to venture beyond territoriality. However, for those who are inclined to escape the bunker of Britishness, asking “What’s the story?” has utility in this larger sense. It invites us to interrogate the grand narratives we tell ourselves as a country about where we have come from and where we might be going.

You see the problem.  Having a grand narrative about one’s country, perhaps involving the erosion of the national culture or a foreign Continental behemoth, seems to satisfy the Neustadt/May model of narrative thinking perfectly well.  People who don’t want England absorbed into the European Union/Eurabia certainly have an answer to “What’s the story?”, one that probably goes farther back in time than the grand story of EU apologists, whose opinions of European civilization are shaped almost entirely by Nazi Germany.  (Hence, the reason for nations to be in the EU sound like reasons for incarcerating dangerous criminals:  protection of wider society, rehabilitation of offenders,…)  Nationalists tend to be quite good at the mystic chords of memory thing.  Reynolds may not agree with the story they’re telling, but the problem is certainly not that they don’t have one.

7 Responses

  1. Sounds like another liberal making the same old “it’s inevitable, so get used to it” argument this time couched in pseudo-academic prose.

  2. As a schoolboy in the 1950s, I was taught history in terms of what was still a generally accepted framework – The Fall of the Western Empire and the loss of the ancient learning; the christening of the new nations in the Dark Ages; the recovery of the ancient learning and the Reformation of religion in the 15th and 16th centuries. These landmarks were seen, for good or ill, as unique and irreversible events that had produced the Modern Age.

    That narrative, all but universally accepted from 1700 to 1900 has broken down completely. We no longer believe in “unique and irreversible” events; only that

    “The flesh will grieve on other bones than ours
    Soon, and the soul will mourn in other breasts.
    The troubles of our proud and angry dust
    Are from eternity, and shall not fail.”

  3. As Eric Voegelin pointed out, speculation by historians/l>on the basic plot of history is rash, because historical documents do not tell us if we are presently in the first or the last chapter. We might still be in what our posterity will consider a sort of prologue, in which nothing of significance has yet happened. We might be in an epilogue, a sort of anticlimax in which there are only odd loose ends to be gathered up. If one wishes to speculate on the basic plot of history, one has to do this as a philosopher or as a theologian.

  4. “history professors who want their field to overcome its current overspecialization so that generalist historians are able to lecture politicians to give them the “historical perspective” on issues of contemporary concern”
    HA! Most historians are already being lectured by today’s politicians any way so we’ve just created an educational loop!

  5. newenglandsun

    Most historians are, consciously or unconsciously, disciples of Turgot. As Lord Acotn notes, “he taught mankind to expect that the future would be unlike the past, that it would be better, and that the experience of ages may instruct and warn, but cannot guide or control. He is eminently a benefactor to historical study; but he forged a weapon charged with power to abolish the product of history and the existing order. By the hypothesis of progress, the new is always gaining on the old; history is the embodiment of imperfection, and escape from history became the watchword of the coming day. Condorcet, the master’s pupil, thought that the world might be emancipated by burning its records.”

    It was he who influenced Lessing and Hegel and, from them, it has become the received wisdom.

  6. Regretfully. History is my own field of study.

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