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On the Uses of History 14 June 2010

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Philosophy & Social Theory, Social Sciences.
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While I was thinking out loud about history, lately, and its role in creating meaning (not in a cheesy self-help way, but in the social-psychological or symbolic interactionist sense of Meaning (i.e., G.H. Mead or John Dewey)), a friend suggested to me that feeling connected to the past can be mere nostalgia or sentimentalism. I’m not sure that the experience of connection to the flow of time is necessarily ‘sentimental’ (although it surely can be). As an undergrad, learning history started a long process (unfinished) of breaking me open. History has the potential to humble on two important levels. First, it starts that process of tearing down any illusions one may have of one’s specialness or uniqueness. With the sweep of time, one begins that process of gaining perspective on the boundedness and smallness of one’s own experience and life and influence. Second, history has the potential of highlighting the humanness of us all, as we come to see the foibles, joys, and lives of the dead, it might have the power to break down the ethnocentric barriers that block us across time. What I’m talking about here is a particular kind of possible experience of history, one possible process of meaning-making that can come from the deep study of history.

Of course, as my friend pointed out, this runs the danger of becoming a new age, sentimental, kumbaya morass of meaninglessness. I would add to that that it runs the risk of hiding from sight the particularity of the past, in a specific time and place, of a particular people. If history (the thing itself, not the profession of researching and writing it) is indeed an emergent effect of the interaction among specific people in a particular context (which can itself include knowledge of the past, however that is defined), then a universalizing experience of history, where history is apprehended as the ‘human’ story or ‘eternal recurrence’ (sorry Nietzsche!) risks eliminating particularity.

On the other hand, my friend averred, if I understood her correctly, that history is now, in the material, lived, embodied world today. History actually has created the present. We are history, which never goes away.

But this framing of history presents problems of its own. History as the stories we tell each other about “how we arrived here” also have the danger of reifying a particular teleology, and by extension, a particular ethno-orientation to the past, or more accurately, to the narratives we create about the past. In each individual’s and each generation’s own, unavoidable temporal situatedness, I fear that history becomes the means to justify, to make Right, the present. This kind of interested history has the very powerful effect of connecting the present affect to a narrative that motivates the here-now to become something else or to maintain itself, history here becomes a means to a political end.

So on the third hand, there can be a disengaged history that seeks merely to describe as accurately as possible “what happened,” using what John Dewey called “scientific mindset” in the gathering and analysis of evidence (see also: German method of documentation of historical scholarship). As with all scientific endeavors, such a goal of evidentiated, objective history can never be more than an end-in-view, an un-achievable yet worthy goal for scholarship. This kind of history is opposed wishful, traditional, folk, identity, or other interested or undocumented histories (which abound in all contexts, both oral and literate). But such disinterested, scholarly history can present new problems. History for its own sake, as an end in itself, strikes me as renunciation of sorts, a refusal to engage in the meaning-making project, which is at its core, for me, what it means to be human.

As a scholar, I find a value in a disinterested, documented history that seeks to accurately and dispassionately describe the past, inasmuch as any meaning we make out of fiction is suspect from the beginning. Speaking normatively, such history should serve as the base from which we begin to have the meaning-arguments about the past, when the past can become meaning-ful to us here-now. When new knowledge is produced from the disinterested historical project (again acknowledging its impossibility yet worthiness), that careful, “scientific” history necessarily changes meaning we make from history.