All History is RevisionistRoundup
tags: historiography, ancient Greece, Herodotus, Thucydides, Revisionist History, classics
A cofounder of the National History Center of the American Historical Association, James M. Banner Jr. is the author most recently of The Ever-Changing Past: Why All History Is Revisionist History (Yale University Press, 2021).
The collective noun for a group of historians is an “argumentation,” and for good reason. At the very dawn of historical inquiry in the West, historians were already wrestling over the past, attacking each other, debating the purposes and uses of historical knowledge, choosing different subjects to pursue, and arguing about how to pursue them. That is, in the infancy of their intellectual pursuit, historians were engaged in what we know as “revisionist history”—writing coexisting, diverse, and sometimes sharply clashing accounts of various subjects, accounts that challenged and sought to alter what had been written about them before. Accordingly, historians take it as indisputable that interpretive contests are inherent in all of their efforts to advance historical understanding. What’s more, historians are of the abiding conviction that robust, free arguments about the realities, significance, and meaning of the past should be cherished as an integral element of an open society like the one ours strives to be. Let me explain.
A fundamental feature of historical thought is the distinction between “the past” and “history.” What we call “the past” is just that: It’s what happened at some point before now. Once it occurs, “the past” is gone forever—beyond repeating, beyond reliving, beyond replicating. It’s recoverable only by the evidence, almost never complete, that it leaves behind; and that evidence must be interpreted by individual humans—historians principally, but archaeologists, anthropologists, and others, all of whom differ in all sorts of ways.
Distinct from “the past” are the narratives and analyses that historians offer about earlier times. That’s what we call “history.” History is what people make of the forever-gone past out of surviving documents and artifacts, human recall, and such items as photographs, films, and sound recordings. Indeed, history is created by the application of human thought and imagination to what’s left behind. And because each historian is an individual human being—differing by sex and gender; origin, nationality, ethnicity, and community; nurture, education, and culture; wealth and occupation; politics and ideology; mind, disposition, sensibility, and interest, each living at a distinct time in a distinct place—as a community of professionals, they come to hold different views, have different purposes, create different interpretations, and put forth their own distinctive understandings of “the past.”
A second fundamental fact regarding historical knowledge is that those who commit themselves professionally to writing and teaching history are normal individuals who just happen to be historians. And as the world in which they live changes, historians change as well. Historical interpretations tend to grow and adjust in some synchrony with the times into which human existence has moved so that previous historians’ interpretations are likely to yield to ones more comprehensible, compelling, and relevant to those who are alive. As time passes, new evidence and new methods for examining old evidence emerge, and new subjects of historical inquiry make their appearance. Consequently, historians’ histories change. Works that don’t speak to the times in which they’re created are likely to have short shelf lives.
It’s therefore a mistake to think that historians can fully isolate themselves in majestic, objective, intellectual solitude from the world around them.