Why Do We Think Learning About History Can Make Us Better?

tags: historiography

We take history to be an essentially worldly, secular, materialist, empirical discipline. We presume that the factors, human acts, and dynamic forces that we invoke to explain why the world is as it is are of this Earth and objectively discernible. And yet the discipline emerged from a search for meaning that adopted the eschatological structure of religious belief. It was built to endow morally questionable events with purpose and meaning revealed in the narrative end of history.

How did we come to think of history as a guide to conscience? By the middle of the 18th century, the association was increasingly secure. In his Letters on the Study and Use of History (written in 1735 and published in 1752), the Tory politician and man of letters Lord Bolingbroke explained history’s uses as a guide to morality: “These are certain general principles, and rules of life and conduct, which always must be true, because they are conformable to the invariable nature of things. He who studies history as he would study philosophy, will soon distinguish and collect them, and by doing so will soon form to himself a general system of ethics and politics on the surest foundations, on the trial of these principles and rules in all ages, and on the confirmation of them by universal experience.”

From Bolingbroke’s period, we inherited the idea that the worldly narrative of history can guide the exercise of agency. It emerged from the Enlightenment search for a universal system of ethical evaluation based on reason that might exist apart from both organized religious belief and the internal impulses that signal the workings of conscience — a more worldly, if not secular, ethics.

Before this time, “history” had connoted a story or narrative, such as an account of a battle or journey. The idea of history as “something that equally comprises past and future as states of a continuous subject, so that we may speak of history as such” (as the philosopher Eckart Förster puts it), emerged only in the second half of the 18th century. In 1784, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant described history’s potential as a guide to moral action in his “Idea for a Universal History With a Cosmopolitan Point of View.” He explicitly intended this philosophy of history to help history reach the cosmopolitan end it theorized. It would guide history’s unfolding along the very lines it described: Among Kant’s avowed motives was that it might “direct the ambitions of sovereigns and their agents” toward contributing to the goal of world citizenship as “the only means by which their fame can be spread to later ages.” In short, rulers might better serve history with an eye toward history’s judgment of them. Kant anticipated that their own encounter with historical accounts of earlier governments’ contributions toward the goal would nurture rulers’ awareness of history’s prospective judgment of themselves. And his very narrating of this “idea” would help it come to pass.

How did history come to acquire this power?

It was the Reformation that began a retrospective search for meaning in past events, according to the historian Euan Cameron. Protestant theologian-historians looked for and found God’s hand in history. The very rupture of Reformation fueled the notion that they were at an epochal turning point. Martin Luther’s perception that the Church had departed over time from its scriptural foundations was an argument about history framed within biblical time.

Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Education

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