Tuesday, February 28, 2012
I like to read history. I was a history major in college and considered becoming a professional historian, but was dissuaded by the I believe accurate belief on my part that I would not be very good at it, as I read slowly, have trouble remembering what I read, and if I take notes, read more slowly still. If you want somebody to go through an archive and come back in one lifetime, I'm probably not your man. But I figure I'm more qualified than most to be a consumer of what historians produce. Presumably they enjoy occasionally being read by somebody other than each other.
If you read history at all, you will find nothing is more common than to read of the horrors of looking for the seeds of the present in the past. For example, this missive. This idea that the past somehow led to the present, and that the past was as it were getting ready to become the present, is often called Whig history. Whig historians, especially of the English constitution, saw history as leading inevitably toward the more classically liberal and enlightened present, namely Gladstone's England. This is supposed to have been a very silly thing for them to have thought, something we are fortunate in having grown out of, but presumably not inevitably.
But the problem is supposed to be much broader than mere Whiggish historiography would suggest. Any sort of reading back of the present into the past is supposed to be a kind of ultimate historian's crime that undoes the whole point of doing history, sort of like cheating at chess.
This is where I begin to cease to understand what is going on. What exactly is so bad about seeing in the past the origins of the present? Somewhere or other some of the people of northern Spain and Southern France, to wit, the Basques, got good at herding sheep and various sheep related activities. Sheep entrepreneurs in nineteenth century Idaho and Nevada needed people who knew sheep to herd them. They brought over Basques. They prospered, multiplied and now many people of Basque heritage are to be found in that region of the US. What would be so wrong about trying find out why this happened and concluding, well, had the Basques not gotten so good with sheep (for reasons you could investigate further) you would not find so many of them in Idaho and Nevada today. If you were interested in why representative institutions, what we quaintly think of as republican forms of government, are much to be found in countries that were settled (which much injustice, etc. etc.) by northern Europeans, what exactly is so wrong about looking into the history of these peoples and their ways of doing things to (help) find out? In short, the idea that that there is something illegitimate or unhistorical about wanting to use history to help understand the present has about it the sort of bizarre counter-intuitiveness that is usually a symptom of some peculiar academic stance like the notion that the last thing science or mathematics should do is somehow improve the lot of humans on this planet.
There is also something just logically incoherent about the view. Presumably it would be difficult to do history of any sort if one took the view that nothing that happened in 1200 could shed any light on what was the case in 1201. But if you can't really understand 1201 without understanding 1200, might it also be the case that 1648 sheds a lot of light on 1787? If the present didn't come out of the past, where precisely did it come from? I would be the first to admit that our current plight refutes the notion that all moves ineluctably toward enlightenment and liberality, but the prejudice against looking to the past to try to understand the present goes far beyond that, as if one were going to church to meet eligible women, another unjustly criticized practice.
I suspect it is like so much else, just another strange manifestation of the loopy politics that infests so much contemporary academic inquiry outside of the hard sciences. Whig history is bad not because its unscientific, but because it is whiggish, and whiggery is bad because it is inconsistent with X, where X is a point of view expressible only in terms that are lofty, inpenetrable and perfectly opaque, and so, like absolute monarchs, beyond criticism by the mere likes of us.