U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Company We Keep

Before I was a regular blogger here — before I had even left my first faltering comment as the far-more-mysterious-than-I-intended-to-be “LD” — I started a personal blog about the process of becoming a historian.  My blogospheric venture was hardly unique.  Lots of PhD students blog — it can be a way of finding your footing, getting your bearings, training your voice.  That’s how it worked for me, anyhow.

The very first post I wrote on that blog was a meditation on the uncanny experience of reading the scholarship of a now-deceased historian named, delightfully, Rising Lake Morrow.  I considered how it is possible that I as a reader can be “in conversation” with this author.

I wrote:

The term “conversation,” though, implies some degree of mutuality and perhaps intentionality.  So is it fair to apply it to my reading of Morrow?  After all, I can choose Morrow as a partner in dialogue; he cannot choose me.  Eighty years after his article was published, I doubt that he is around to make any more choices — just as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Madison were unavailable for comment when Morrow drew upon their writings for his article of 1936.

But even when those men were writing for the exigencies of the present, they knew they were writing for the future too.  And when Morrow published his article about their thinking, he was writing not only for his contemporaries but also for the generations of scholars who he expected to succeed him, as scholars do.  In a way, then, Morrow did choose to converse with me.  As the writer to the Hebrews put it, “By faith he, though dead, yet speaketh.”

This is the faith of scholarship:  believing that our work might speak not only to the questions of the moment but also to those questioners whose time is yet to come.  And upon this faith is built the secular ekklesia of the academy — not the communion of saints, but the communion of sages.  We converse with each other, and with scholars of generations past, for the benefit not only of ourselves but for all the scholars who will follow us. We respond to living texts and dead authors, not to pass the time or fill the world with words, but to say something worth our own and others’ time right now that might still have value later.

I have been thinking a great deal lately about the value of history, the value of being — or becoming — a historian.

As I mentioned in a comment on Andrew’s post of earlier this week, I have spent the past several days working through the historiography/theory section of my exam list for U.S. Intellectual and Cultural History

Yes, I’m overly concerned that I must master this material well enough to give a good account of myself during my written and oral qualifying exams.  Yes, I’m unreasonably annoyed with myself for not having acquired such mastery yet.  How can I be so patient with my students, yet so impatient with myself? (Don’t answer that! It’s a rhetorical question, not an invitation for armchair analysis.)   Yet despite my angst about my (in)sufficient command of these texts after a whole week of reading (!), despite the impostor syndrome that flares up every time I come across an untranslated German phrase (“How can I be a Real Historian unless I read German?!”) — despite all that, beneath all that, runs a deep, broad current of contentment.

As I read these historians, as I try to understand the sense they have made of the work and worth and wisdom of history, I am filled with an overwhelming sense of gratitude.  I am thankful for them, for their life’s work, thankful that they have written what I am reading.  Whatever ideas or insights or arguments I take from their pages, I am at the last simply grateful for their company. 

So far I have read Lovejoy, Collingwood, Mink, Fritz Stern’s marvelous anthology of historical writing from Voltaire to C. Vann Woodward, the proceedings of the Wingspread Conference, Joan Scott, and Hayden White.  Right now I’m making my way (again) through Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream, and enjoying every word of it.

I know, I know. I’m not expected to read every word of every text on my list — this is what my profs tell me, this is what my colleagues who have already passed their exams tell me.  Practically speaking, I just need to read enough to sound like I know what I’m talking about.  There are some texts I will need to read more closely than others; there are some texts I would do well to skim. 

But when it comes to this section of my list, I must confess to intransigent impracticality.  I will do no skimming here; I don’t want to miss a word. For me, reading what historians have had to say about what it means to think about history or write history, what it means to be a historian, is an absolute delight.  And if I cannot take delight in my work — well, then why the hell bother? 

Now and then as I have made my way through this reading, I have tweeted a snippet of a sentence or a part of a phrase that struck me as wise or funny or challenging.  But it is rare indeed to come across a historical aphorism of 140 characters or less.  It takes Hayden White twice that long to get to his first comma.  So I have been able to quote only sparingly from texts that are anything but spare.  Rich, bracing, brilliant, daunting, deep — that’s what this reading has been so far. 

Allow me, reader, to share some of these delights with you, before returning to the question of the value of studying history.

From Lovejoy:

“It is the beliefs which are so much a matter of course that they are rather tacitly presupposed than formally expressed and argued for, the ways of thinking which seem so natural and inevitable that they are not scrutinized with the eye of logical self-consciousness, that often are most decisive of the character of a philosopher’s doctrine.” (7)

“The adequate record of even the confusions of our forebears, may help, not only to clarify those confusions, but to engender a salutary doubt whether we are wholly immune from different but equally great confusions.” (23)

From Collingwood:

“The historian’s business is to know the past, not to know the future, and whenever historians claim to be able to determine the future in advance of its happening, we may know with certainty that something has gone wrong with their fundamental conception of history.” (49)

“Passion and ignorance have certainly done their work, and an important work, in past history, but they have never been mere passion and mere ignorance; they have been rather a blind and blundering will for good and a dim and deluded wisdom.” (104)

“History is thus the self-knowledge of the living mind.  For even when the events which the historian studies are events that happened in the distant past, the condition of their being historically known is that they should ‘vibrate in the historian’s mind’, that is to say, that the evidence for them should be here and now before him and intelligible to him.  For history is not contained in books or documents; it lives only, as a present interest and pursuit, in the mind of the historian when he criticizes and interprets those documents, and by so doing relives for himself the states of mind into which he inquires.” (202)

“All history is the history of thought: and when an historian says that a man is in a certain situation this is the same as saying that he thinks he is in this situation….The historian thinks it a wrong way; but wrong ways of thinking are just as much historical facts as right ones, and, no less than they, determine the situation (always a thought-situation) in which the man who shares them is placed.” (317)

From Stern:

“The historian himself cannot escape this pressure for synthesis and meaning; it is heard within the profession as well as outside….The historian cannot escape these challenges; he broods, alone or in groups, over the presuppositions of his discipline, the logic and the method of his work, the place it should occupy among other, newer pursuits.” (23) 

“…the writing of history inflicts on every historian choices for which neither his method nor his material provides a ready answer.  Some answers only the historian himself can give, and this has kept history a live, changing pursuit….History springs from a live concern, deals with life, serves life.  A discipline so close to life cannot remain fixed; it changes with time, with the impact of new hopes, thoughts, and fears.  The history of historiography records the interaction between the fixed elements in history–the critical, systematic method and the sources — and the time-bound elements embodied in the historian.” (24)

“As I said at the beginning, the historian must serve two masters, the past and the present.  And while his obligation to the past, his complete, unassailable fidelity to it, must always claim his first loyalty, he must accept the fact that the choices he makes as a historian are not of consequence to him alone, but will affect the moral sense, perhaps the wisdom, of his generation.  And since he knows that his own being, his intellectual capabilities and his critical faculties as well as his deeper sense of righteousness and love, are engaged in the writing of history, he knows that his work, too, is a moral act.” (32)

From Niebuhr (in Stern):

“What Pyrrhus said to his Epirots — ye are my wings — expresses the feelings of the zealous teacher towards his listeners, whom he loves and who take part in his lectures with all their hearts.  His own work is promoted not only by the desire to be clear, to present nothing as a truth which might admit of a doubt, but the sight of his audience and his immediate relation to it awaken a thousand thoughts while he is speaking.” (53)

“When a historian is reviving former times, his interest in them and sympathy with them will be the deeper, the greater the events he has witnessed with a bleeding or a rejoicing heart.” (53)

From Macaulay (in Stern):

“The effect of historical reading is analogous, in many respects, to that produced by foreign travel…But men may travel far, and return with minds as contracted as if they had never stirred from their own market-town.  In the same manner, men may know the dates of many battles and the genealogies of many royal houses, and yet be no wiser.” (85)

From Michelet (in Stern):

“Teaching did me good service.  The fierce trial at colleges had altered my character…Those young people, amiable and confiding, who believed in me, reconciled me to mankind….They had done me, without knowing it, an immense service.  If I had, as an historian, any special merit to sustain me on a level with my illustrious predecessors, I should owe it to teaching, which for me was friendship.  Those great historians have been brilliant, judicious, and profound; as for me, I have loved more.” (115)

“Let it be my part in the future to have not attained, but marked, the aim of history, to have called it by a name that nobody had given it.  Thierry called it narration, and M. Guizot analysis.  I have named it resurrection, and this name will remain.” (117)

From Droysen (in Stern):

“History is Humanity’s knowledge of itself, its certainty about itself.  It is not ‘the light and the truth,’ but a search therefor, a sermon thereupon, a consecration thereto.  It is like John the Baptist, ‘not that Light but sent to bear witness of that Light.'” (144)

From Trevelyan (in Stern):

“What is easy to read has been difficult to write.  The labour of writing and rewriting, correcting and recorrecting, is the due exacted by every good book from its author, even if he knows from the beginning exactly what he wants to say.  A limpid style is invariably the result of hard labour, and the easily flowing connection of sentence with sentence and paragraph with paragraph has always been won by the sweat of the brow.” (240)

From Hayden White:

“If one is going to ‘go to history,’ one had better have an address in mind rather than go wandering around the streets of the past like a flaneur.  Historical flaneurisme is undeniably enjoyable, but the history we are living today is no place for tourists.  If you are going to ‘go to history,’ you had better have a clear idea of which history, and you had better have a pretty good notion as to whether it is hospitable to the values you carry into it.” (164)

This whole blog post may be an exercise in flaneurisme.  But I hope it testifies not only to the values I carry to history, but to the value I find in it — although, if I have understood Hayden White correctly, perhaps there is no difference.

Nevertheless, the value of history is not exhausted by the uses we can make of it.  There is value  (and perhaps not a little danger, not a little risk) in what history makes of us, how the study of history can shape us, how the company we keep as historians might help to make us more fit company for those who walk along with us, and for those who follow after.

10 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Nice! On Hayden White, I think he was specifically talking about folks who “go to history” with a mission in mind about taking a lesson forward. He is imploring us (dilettantes and historians) to be clear about our values, the values of the past (in a carefully selected spot and time), and how they may or may not share something. But yes, you’re meanderings here may have a taint of flaneurisme, but you’re using these texts to affirm and elevate, somewhat, the fact that we are historical animals—that looking for good company via texts is part and parcel to the human condition. I applaud that. – TL

  2. Yeah, that’s me, inveterate flaneur.

    Although I’m not a historian I share the pleasure of reading and thinking about ideas and history and really appreciate the joy/enthusiasm you have for the task. I envy your future students.

  3. Ooh, I love playing “Name That Quotation”! It’s one of my favorite games.

    I’ll start my turn with this goody from David Hume’s essay, “Of the Study of History” (1741). He recommends history especially “to my female readers.” But it’s suitable for everyone because when we study the past we:

    “see all [the] human race, from the beginning of time, pass, as it were, in review before us; appearing in their true colors, without any of those disguises, which, during their life-time, so much perplexed the judgment of the beholders. What spectacle can be imagined, so magnificent, so various, so interesting? […]

    […] And indeed, if we consider the shortness of human life, and our limited knowledge, even of what passes in our own time, we must be sensible that we should be for ever children in understanding, were it not for this invention, which extends our experience to all past ages, and to the most distant nations; making them contribute as much to our improvement in wisdom, as if they had actually lain under our observation. A man acquainted with history may, in some respect, be said to have lived from the beginning of the world, and to have been making continual additions to his stock of knowledge in every century.” (566-7)

    Next up is this one from Herder I quite like, from a fragmentary writing entitled “Of the Changes in the Tastes of the Nations through the Ages” (1766). The whole thing is only a couple pages long and well worth reading. Among its notable features is that it articulates one of the first definitions of historicism. I could reproduce the whole thing if I were really inclined, but won’t.

    “When philosophy is guided by history and history is enlivened by philosophy, then it is doubly entertaining and useful.” (102)

    Naturally I’d like that since I’ve tried to enliven my history with philosophy. In keeping with that, here’s another one from a German, the philosopher Reinhart Koselleck:

    “The compulsion to coordinate past and future so as to be able to live at all is inherent in any human being.” (111)

    To think about the past is to be human, and to be human is to think about the past. I’ve always been convinced of this, and Collingwood offers one of the strongest statements of this proposition that I’ve encountered.

    “History is one of the necessary and transcendental modes of mind’s activity, and the common property of all minds.”

    Collingwood, too, sees philosophy as indispensable to the study of history. So he adds, immediately after the preceding statement, a paragraph that begins:

    “In conclusion, I may be expected to say something of the relation, between history and philosophy. In a very real sense they are and must be the same. For their problem is the same. There is and can be only one problem for any conceivable kind of thought – the problem of understanding reality, of discovering what the world is.” 422)

    And later in the same section:

    “But of all other forms of thought, history is that which stands nearest to philosophy and most shares its spirit.” (424)

    My favorite Collingwood passage, though, is one which explains just why it is we bother trying to have some knowledge of the past, instead of simply marching into the future unencumbered by any awareness whence we came:

    “This understanding of the system we set out to supersede is a thing which we must retain throughout the work of superseding it, as a knowledge of the past conditioning our creation of the future.” (334)

    • There’s no future without the past. And without either there’s no historian, wedged into that evanescent eternity between them known as the present. Which brings me to finally to Herbert Butterfield, that indispensable, but far from infallible guide, whose The Whig Interpretation of History (1931) has always struck me as a kind of “mirror for historians.”

      “It has been said that the historian is the avenger, and that standing as a judge between the parties and rivalries and causes of bygone generations he can lift up the fallen and beat down the proud, and by his exposures and his verdicts, his satire and his moral indignation, can punish unrighteousness, avenge the injured or reward the innocent.” (1)


      “[I]f the historian can rear himself up like a god and judge, or stand as the official avenger of the crimes of the past, then one can require that he shall be still more godlike and regard himself rather as the reconciler than as the avenger; taking it that his aim is to achieve the understanding of the men and parties and causes of the past, and that in this understanding, if it can be complete, all things will ultimately be reconciled.” (2)

      Another thesis:

      “The primary assumption of all attempts to understand the men of the past must be the belief that we can in some degree enter into minds that are unlike our own. If this belief were unfounded it would seem that men must be for ever locked away from one another, and all generations must be regarded as a world and a law unto themselves . . . In reality the historian postulates that the world of today is in some sense always the same world and that even the men most dissimilar are never absolutely unlike.” (9)

      Another antithesis:

      “[T]he chief aim of the historian is the elucidation of the unlikeness between past and present and his chief function is to act in this way as the mediator between other generations and our own. It is not for him to stress and magnify the similarities between one age and another . . . Rather it is his work to destroy those very analogies which we have imagined to exist.” (10)

      The chief disagreement between Collingwood and Butterfield is likely their incompatible views on the historian’s relationship to the present. Collingwood’s position was that the historian must never answer to or for the present:

      “Real historical understanding is not achieved by the subordination of the past to the present, but rather by our making the past our present and attempting to see life with the eyes of another century than our own.” (16)

      Collingwood, on the other hand, claimed that

      “All history is an attempt to understand the present by reconstructing its determining conditions.” (420)

      He did this not because he was a whig historian, but because his philosophy of history compelled him to reach this conclusion. We can only know the present because the present alone is real (the past and future being ideal). Moreover, all we can know of the past is what we know of it in the present. Needless to say, I think Collingwood is right on this and that all history is by its very nature presentist in this sense. I won’t say Butterfield is naïve; he had his reasons for scorning presentism, and they are good ones (Collingwood, too, repudiates the notion of the historian as an “avenger” or judge). But Collingwood’s view is both more sound and more sophisticated.

    • I’ll let Butterfield have the last word anyway, with the admonition to all historians with which he concludes his little book. These are words of warning we should all heed. For if the historian goes astray, often it is he himself who has led him off the path.

      “Finally, against Acton’s view that history is the arbiter of controversy, the monarch of all she surveys, it may be suggested that she is the very servant of the servants of God, the drudge of all the drudges. She ministers to the economist, the politician, the diplomat, the musician; he is equally at the service of the strategist and the administrator. He must learn a great deal from all of these before he can begin even his own work of historical explanation; and he never has the right to dictate to any one of them. He is neither judge nor jury, he is in the position of a man called upon to give evidence; and even so he may abuse his office and he requires the closest cross-examination for he is one of those ‘expert witnesses’ who persist in offering opinions concealed within their evidence. Perhaps all history books hold a danger for those who do not know a great deal of history already. In any case, it is never safe to forget the truth which really underlies historical research: the truth that all history perpetually requires to be corrected by more history.” (130-131)

      With those last words we must none of us disagree; otherwise, we would all of us be out of business.

    • Sources:

      David Hume, Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary, ed. Eugene Miller (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1987).

      Johann Gottfried Herder, Another Philosophy of History and Selected Political Writings, ed. and trans. Ioannis D. Evrigenis and Daniel Pellerin (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2004).

      Reinhart Koselleck, The Practice of Conceptual History: Timing History, Spacing Concepts, trans. Todd Presner et al. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002).

      R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History, ed. Jan van der Dussen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).

      Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History (New York: W. W. Norton, 1965).

  4. Sources:

    David Hume, Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary, ed. Eugene Miller (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1987).

    Johann Gottfried Herder, Another Philosophy of History and Selected Political Writings, ed. and trans. Ioannis D. Evrigenis and Daniel Pellerin (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2004).

    Reinhart Koselleck, The Practice of Conceptual History: Timing History, Spacing Concepts, trans. Todd Presner et al. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002).

    R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History, ed. Jan van der Dussen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).

    Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History (New York: W. W. Norton, 1965).

    • Oh, good grief. Could one of the blog lords erase this entire post? It posted twice in different locations, and the other one is the right one.

  5. Varad-

    “In any case, it is never safe to forget the truth which really underlies historical research: the truth that all history perpetually requires to be corrected by more history.”

    Does Butterfield mean that all history research/study perpetually requires to be corrected by more history research/study, or does he mean it as stated “the truth that all history perpetually requires to be corrected by more history”???

    If he means the later then it is clearly contradictory because of course, the statement itself is historical and consequently must be corrected. Is this irony, imprecision or just literary license?

    It strikes me as ironic because, as you say, he’s warning historians about veering off the path and he’s gone into a relativist ditch.

    It strikes me as imprecise because it undermines the value of historical pursuit. If all historical reportage is so unreliable that it consistently needs correcting why trust it in the first place or the hundredth? The ambiguity gives equal weight to historical observation by the likes of Michelle Bachman and C.Vann Woodward. A good lawyer, continuing Butterfield’s analogy, would highlight the testimony of the historian as evidence of the capricious nature of the history record itself.

    My main objection is the absoluteness of the statement. Historical periods, events, epochs need to be re-examined and sometimes revised but not always revised! All areas are subject to review, no “sacred cows” but some historical record has to be incontrovertibly substantiated otherwise it’s all a fool’s pursuit.

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