History

08/08/2012

History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history that we make today.

Henry Ford

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

Karl Marx, Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (available on-line)

Or, as my Twitter feed gets bombarded with:

History is the study of the past. But it is more than that. It is an attempt to understand human behaviour by observing past events. Physicists use evidence from the past (the experiments they have observed) to draw conclusions about the universe, but this is not the same thing. Sociologists can also use past behaviour to explain how we behave, but this is also not history.

In my view, history is the study to understand the past because we want to understand the past. It does not attempt to explain how we “really” are in the present, though clearly its findings and data can be used to help us understand who we (or what they) are now. It is the historians job to constantly remind those who would use history to legitimise their behaviour that they cannot be selective about what they remember.

History is also a leech, stealing technology and ideas from other disciplines and incorporating it into its own method. Sociology, literature, anthropology, linguistics, paleontology, art – all brought into the toolbox with varying degrees of success.

But ultimately: history is awesome. Humanity has spent a long time doing amazing, horrifying, bizarre, funny, stupid and inspiring things. We can learn a lot from them – but it is never clear what we are supposed to learn.

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