Friday, May 20, 2005

I have been reading History and Theory: Studies in the Philosophy of History lately. There seems to be much consternation and nashing of teeth over why "ordinary" historians do not pay any attention to the theory of history, which the writers seem to think is vastly important to history itself. Well, I have a couple of observations from a practicing historian. First, you need to know nothing about the theory of history to do history. History as it is taught in the University is a process of gathering primary source material and arranging it such that you can understand what people in the past did. Second, because of the level of language used in the theory of history is so high, it precludes "ordinary" historians from understanding it. This is not to say that historians are stupid. They are not. They are probably the most intelligent of the humanities but the philosophers of history go out of their way to make things impenetrable. Third, postmodernism must die a horrible, ugly, death. Hopefully of the slow and painful variety. Postmodernists are openly hostile to history and often try to mock historians and their work. This is hardly a way to make friends and influence people.

I want to propose my own modest theory of history that I hope is easier to understand and to appreciate. First, a definition of History. History is the context within which we live our lives. Next a definition of Historians. Historians are the people who enrich this context by using the physical and literary remains of the past to explicate the past. As you can see, this is an easy to grasp definition of both history and historians. It explains what we do and why we do it. It is also rich enough to hang philosophical debates upon if you so desire.

What I really wanted to do here is get through the clutter of philosophy and get right to the heart of the matter. I am not married to this idea and it is more of a working philosophy rather than a tried and true one. Basically, it helps me get through my day as a practicing historian.

posted by Chris  #2:00 PM | 0 comments |