[Humanist] 23.575 why history

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sun Jan 17 10:44:14 CET 2010

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 575.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sat, 16 Jan 2010 11:46:46 -0500
        From: Haines Brown KB1GRM ET1 <brownh at historicalmaterialism.info>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.567 why history
        In-Reply-To: <20100114061442.2F00346780 at woodward.joyent.us>

Russell Jacoby in The Last Intellectuals (1987) makes a strong case 
that the post WWII expansion of the university in the U.S. killed 
much of any public intellectual life. An implication might be that 
once historiography was securely embedded in academia, it no longer 
required justification, such as any possible utility of historic 
consciousness. Is this the reason why what one would think would be 
the most important issue in historiography is largely ignored these 
days? So perhaps a cynical response to the original query is that a 
justification for the study of history is either no longer needed or
is impossible. 

Does historiography come down to just showing and saying, to a 
narcistic establishing of one's relation to something else and 
an objectification of self?  

Not persuaded of this, I here offer a comment or two because there was 
not the outpouring of replies one would expect when the justification 
of what we do is brought into question. Am I to conclude from the 
thinness of this response that the question is best ignored?  

It seems difficult not to address it in Western (Eurocentric) terms, 
perhaps because the West couched the issue in such a contradictory 
way that it has remained problematic. For example, one might argue, 
following a hint of Georg Iggers, that the inheritance of the 
Enlightenment was a contradiction between a French (rationalist) 
conception of history and the German (historicist) conception. 

The former sees history as governed by necessity in the sense of 
a coherence or regularity, and so historic consciousness 
conveys knowledge of the necessities to which we must trim our sails. 
Santayana's aphorism about not forgetting the past presumes the 
historical process is governed by rules that should inform action in 
the present.

Iggers nicely defines the "historicist" conception that prevailed in 
Germany until WWII, but it seems clear that behind it is the 
assumption that history is an emergent process rather than the 
closed system of the French conception. Here historical outcomes are 
the effect of contingencies rather than of the past, and so they 
cannot be explained by reference to rules or laws, but only intuited 
as something that transcends the determination of circumstance.

It strikes me that neither pole can be defended on its own, and we 
must somehow transcend the Enlightenment conceptual contradiction. 
This is probably what is involved in the concern of contemporary 
science for the "explanation" of emergent processes. There is a 
hint in the literature that a reductionist explanation must include in 
the definition of an initial state non-local factors 
("unobservables"). For example, Arthur Koestler's "holon" and David 
Bohm's "implicate order". A more recent example is Jaegon Kim's 
studies of the relation of mind and world. The usual approach in the 
social sciences has been a functionalist explanation, but people now 
tend to reject it as implicitly teleological. 

Another approach is the suggestion that historic consciousness 
refers to a way to see things as processes. For example, Theodor 
Schieder, "The Role of Historical Consciousness in Political Action", 
History and Theory 17 (1978), 1-18. Unfortunately, neither Schieder 
nor anyone else that I am aware of has provided a cogent argument as 
to just what this means. I made a very preliminary stab at it in 
_Critical Studies in History_
(http://sites.google.com/site/historytheory/02Brown120308.pdf). I have 
the feeling that historic consciousness is a project yet to be 

Haines Brown   
Central Connecticut State University, Emeritus

More information about the Humanist mailing list