One of the standard characteristics of contemporary historiography is its object: the past. Yet, as most historians are aware, this “object” has been notoriously difficult to grasp. Consider the reflections of the historian Marc Bloch and the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty.
In The Historian’s Craft Bloch observes that “the very idea that the past as such can be the object of science is ridiculous. How, without preliminary distillation, can one make of phenomena, having no other common character than that of being not contemporary with us, the matter of rational knowledge?” In the Phenomenology of Perception Merleau-Ponty argues that “reflection does not itself grasp its full significance unless it refers to the unreflective fund of experience which it presupposes, upon which it draws, and which constitutes for it a kind of original past, a past which has never been present.” Both writers, then, find a gap between the past as such and the mediation of the past in the present. To Michel de Certeau in The Writing of History, modern western historiography “begins with the differentiation between the present and the past.” Continue reading “The past and history: Bloch and Merleau-Ponty”
Consider the brief “history” of atheism as outlined in a recent post by a member of an atheist group in Tucson, Arizona. Here history is construed as the presentation of facts across time; to tell the history of atheism quickly all that is required are the names, dates, and arguments of various figures presented in chronological form. Although the post raises questions about the certainty with which we can establish certain historical facts, what we get is a straightforward chronology and a series of minimally interpretive bullet-points. The purpose of the sketch seems to be to trace doubts about the divine throughout the whole of human history. Continue reading “History, atheism, community”
Recently there has been some controversy over the work of historian Gordon Wood, one of the more famous of Bernard Bailyn’s students. Wood’s Radicalism of the American Revolution won a Pulitzer and his Creation of the American Republic exercised an important role in shaping our understandings of the Founding Fathers. A recent post over at The Junto blog, and a follow-up post (Arguing about Gordon Wood) by John Fea, will give you some sense of where things stand among historians in relation to Wood’s achievements as a whole. Continue reading “Gordon Wood and the writing of history”
In a recent post at Big Questions Online entitled A Not-So-Distant Mirror, Alan Jacobs suggests that the 18th-century might be a mirror to our own by drawing on the work of Roy Porter. This is, actually, quite a contentious claim. Some of the more important debates about English/British history in the last 50 years—indeed, history-writing generally—have been about whether or not we should understand the early modern period as a kind of road leading to modernity. Porter certainly leans that way—his book on the Enlightenment was titled The Creation of the Modern World—while other notable historians, such as Linda Colley, would likely express serious reservations about any such linear analogy. Indeed I suspect Porter himself, in his more tentative, reflective moments would hesitate as well. In his review of Porter’s work on the British Enlightenment, “Highway to Modernity,” Colin Kidd specifically identifies these contrasting movements—liberal whig progressivism and scholarly reticence—in Porter’s own thinking. And then we have the important work of Jonathan Clark as a contrasting voice. Continue reading “Is the past a mirror?”