Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Uses for History 2: Proving You Were Always Right

People seem to like to think of history as one immutable thing, a truth we can dig to (while dodging giant boulders in the case of the archaeologists) if we only try hard enough. The thing is, history mostly involves organising information about the past, stringing it together into some sort of coherent whole, an overall story if you like.

One side effect of this is that you very often get out of history what you go in looking for, even if you're not actually trying to distort the facts. You ask particular questions of the evidence, or get interested in particular topics, and naturally that's what you get answers to. It gets even worse if you go in having decided what the story ought to be anyway, presumably because it's what you think the story of the world as a whole is. Someone who didn't hate jargon quite so much would be talking about metanarratives at this point.

The obvious examples here are the (now rather obsolete) whig and marxist approaches to history. Both saw history as an inevitable progression, but the first saw it as towards British parliamentary democracy, while the second thought that a historical progression towards communism was inevitable.

The thing is, while we can laugh at that, we probably have our own stories for the universe. Maybe it's the inevitable spread of our particular values (though I get quite grumpy about the word progress.) Maybe it's seeing the whole of the past in light of our perceived sense of who we are. What's your story? When you look at history, what are you looking for? The odds are, if you look hard enough, you'll find it somewhere.

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