Some Philosophies of Histories

In a couple hours I will be taking what is called the oral component of the comprehensive exams. This is the business of academia, what I sometimes think of as the codification of intellect (everyone is sharp, or has potential to be sharp, and universities are designed with a goal of proofing and validating that sharpness). In that case, I am engaged in my morning ritual of visiting, revisiting and reading through some broad conceptual thinkers in final preparation for this upcoming, mid-morning fun.

A potential railroad metaphor for the various and competing tracks of time cultures and societies are hurtling along. This, we historians argue, is why world history is increasingly important in our increasingly global age.

The railroad as metaphor for the various and competing tracks of time cultures and societies are hurtling along. This, we historians argue, is why the study of history and the philosophies of histories is increasingly important to study in our increasingly global age.

In the largest scheme of things, these big-picture thinkers — from R.G. Collingwood to E.H. Carr to John Lewis Gaddis to Michael Shanks — force a reader to contemplate not just the technical hows of a discipline, but also the philosophical whys: for example, why would anyone be engaged in the efforts of history or archaeology or, more broadly, any discipline or trade for that matter? To contemplate this provides a variety of conceptual frameworks in which to filter data through, and these are the substructures of any discipline and trade. While keeping this in mind, it is also important to keep in mind that the disciplines and trades are by and for an infinite variety of culture and subculture and subaltern culture (and so on). Whether conscious of it or not, the collective memory within these groups influences to varying degrees the ways the substructures are built (if looking at the archaeology of language, for example, it quickly becomes apparent that languages are built out of previously established bodies of presumptions and assumptions).

With that said, in revisiting R.G. Collingwood, The Idea of History, (1946) R.G. says in his introduction that “Philosophy is never concerned with thought by itself; it is always concerned with its relation to its object, and is therefore concerned with the object just as much as with the thought.” This entire idea pertains to developing philosophies that disciplinarian doctors (which, to be pedantic, is Greek for “teacher”) train cadets and recruits with, so the latter understands that two thinkers can take the same body of evidence and can arrive at completely disparate conclusions. In the case of history, this is what 18th century Voltaire called a “philosophy of history,” and what 20th century E.H. Carr referred to as a dialog with the past. This philosophy and dialog is important — at least I’ll make the argument here — since the world has and always will be in a perpetual state of crisis. If met with crisis, we have to get used to the idea of re-calibrating and re-adjusting. This is not necessarily to accept the crisis, but to figure out ways through and around it. In some of Carr’s concluding remarks in chapter 5 of What Is History? (1961), he identifies three types of history (using the Royal “You” to bring his case home):

[1] You can, if you please, turn history into theology by making the meaning of the past depend on some extra-historical and super-rational power. [2] You can, if you please, turn it into literature — a collection of stories and legends about the past without meaning or significance. [and 3, which is where Carr is at his best, a proper definition of the historian.] History properly so-called can be written only by those who find and accept a sense of direction in history itself. [and in the copy on my shelf, the following is what I underlined] The belief that we have come from somewhere is closely linked with the belief that we are going somewhere. A society which has lost belief in its capacity to progress in the future will quickly cease to concern itself with its progress in the past.

Thus, for Carr (and myself), to engage in history proper is to engage in the faith of the future of society, and the discipline of history itself. This as well is why history is never “complete.” If history was complete, society would be complete, and both that society and history would be finished and at an end with itself. This, of course, is only theoretically possible, since nothing is ever truly at end. Rather, we humans impose the boundaries and limitations, demarcating a beginning and end for what is otherwise quite gradual and transitionary. This is why in the first two decades of the 21st-century we are having conversations about how we humans engage 2- and 3-dimensional objects. In the words of Michael Shanks, “the past has to be worked at,” (Hunter Thompson sometimes referred to journalism as analogous to chopping wood) and it is just as important to look at the past as it is to look at the way historians have sought to make sense of the past.

I keep thinking that, to use metaphor, as we stand on the 21st century dock and watch the 20th century Cold War — that barge of history — drift further and farther away from us, a host of new crises will continuously arise. Our ability to react to them will be predicated on not just how we know the past, but also of how and why those before us knew the past. And how and why they understood the past is also filtered through the ways in which we remember and know the past, and so on, ad infinitum. 


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