What is the Purpose of History?

2020 marks an inflexion point in the annals of history. Joseph Haynes considers the place of the past to inform a better future.

There are two dogmas currently influencing how the general public see history. The first is that history is a long chain of progress, with the most virtuous and enlightened individuals living in the present, and the most archaic and immoral in the past. The second is that history is full of lessons we must learn if we do not want to repeat the mistakes of the past. I am here today to say that although there are grains of truth in both these propositions, neither is really an apt substitute for history’s real purpose. History as a discipline is far more complex than just learning about what people did wrong long ago in an effort to know exactly what to do in the future. If that were the historian’s modus operandi, I’m afraid history would be an even more self-contradicting and inconsistent subject than it already is.

In actuality, history is both a scientific and artistic pursuit with distinct research and writing phases, culminating in the creation of something poetic and comprehendible out of something chaotic and distant. Like many subjects it revolves around a dynamic between an observer and an observed with multiple theories on how the former interrelates with the latter. It truly is a majestic subject, and if in writing this I can improve its standing in the eyes of Australia’s youth by just an iota, I will be satisfied.

…most faculties seem to agree that they exist to understand the world and universe even if it means uncovering the odd inconvenient truth

History is in many ways a self-conscious subject. I can think of no other discipline, apart from psychology, that has had as much written in an attempt to justify its purpose. The sciences for instance, while having debates on methodology and ethics, are aware of their unique objective. Even though there may be dissenters from the post-normal tribe, most faculties seem to agree that they exist to understand the world and universe even if it means uncovering the odd inconvenient truth, leaving it to the philosophers and politicians to debate what to do with these truths. Even literary criticism is aware of its unique purpose within the humanities: to understand literature. This purpose is admittedly broad, but critics embrace that broadness. Of course, there are squabbles and divisions within literary criticism, such as over the preferencing of canonical or non-canonical texts, but it doesn’t appear to have the same need to prove itself as necessary or worthwhile that history does.

Most literary critics are drawn to their field because they have a love of books and enjoy reading them; the same cannot be said about a historian’s relationship with the past. In fact, a historian who aggrandises the past or worships past figures is likely to be a hinderance to the subject as they will never be able to see the past objectively, instead seeing it as more romantic or virtuous than their present. So why does a historian choose to study the past? Well, I cannot speak for all, but I would postulate that a historian has a love for making sense of the past rather than a love for the past itself – there is a distinct difference between the two.

History is about submitting to the reality of the past and having a genuine desire to understand it

This is the first proposition that must be recognised by a historian or a society that wishes to read history effectively: history is about submitting to the reality of the past and having a genuine desire to understand it. Yes, we are uncertain about how the past really unfolded, but this doesn’t mean that the past didn’t unfold in a particular way. Take your day for instance; you likely remember it in a highly refracted way to how it actually happened, but that doesn’t mean that it happened in a very exact way in the moment. If it didn’t happen in a precise way you wouldn’t be precisely where you are mentally and physically right now. By retracing your steps and looking at all the evidence of your actions and inactions throughout the day, you will give yourself a much more accurate idea of how your day actually unfolded. 

Blow this process up to the entire continuum of time, and this is basically the methodological foundation of history; obviously it’s more complicated than a day in the life of one individual, but the principles underpinning its research phase in the study of history are much the same. 

History’s research phase comprises of the historian submerging themselves in the past through all available relevant evidence. Relevant evidence can come in many forms and can initially seem disconnected from the subject at hand. Obviously, the historian is limited by their own biases (it is unlikely that we will ever be able to eliminate all of them from the process), their language, and the inherent limitations of the evidence itself, such as the lack thereof or the uncertainties surrounding particular sources. But the historian persists nonetheless, admitting what they do not know and admitting where they speculate or hypothesise according to what they do know. This phase is not about projecting moral judgement onto the past or seeking to edit the past to fit a historian’s preferred theory. This phase bears similarities to the sciences, with the observer attempting to understand the observed without influencing the latter in the process. Of course, just as in the sciences, that which is observed can change depending on the observer, but the historian or faculty accepts this and attempts to put multiple historians into the role of observer to see if a pattern or consensus emerges. Consensus may indicate fact or may simply indicate a likeminded approach throughout the batch of historians that have observed the same source.

They may also attempt to use their history as an exploration into the conceptual, using the past as a springboard to explore human behaviour and philosophy

The second phase is the writing. It is in this section that the historian is a poet, using language and storytelling to make sense of the past for their audience. The historian can be an artist in this phase, using aesthetic as long as it reinforces something that is ultimately truthful. For instance, if a historian, while describing the D-Day landings, uses emotive prose to describe the effects of the weather on the troops involved, and their description is supported by evidence, then no violation of the historian’s agreement to discern the truth has been made. But if the historian speculates too much, inventing whole flocks of birds flying across the sky as a metaphor for the presence of nature in one of mankind’s bloodiest moments, then the historian’s commitment to truth is questionable and they are probably severing our ability to properly understand the past.

In my opinion, a good historian attempts to reflect the facts they see as most useful to understanding the past, while admitting to the reader that they have preferenced some facts over others and are therefore not purporting to tell the whole truth. After all, the historian is limited by the volume of pages they can realistically expect their audience to read, and the audience should appreciate that sacrifices will have been made in how much the historian can actually report. If the historian so chooses, they may also attempt to use their history as an exploration into the conceptual, using the past as a springboard to explore human behaviour and philosophy. Of course, to edit history selectively in this process is problematic, but if the historian can be honest about their conceptual tendencies while nonetheless appreciating what is historically true then it is a perfectly valid and interesting use of history. However, the audience should appreciate it as one historian’s perspective and not indicative of what is objectively true. 

History is where the historian turns the mystery of the past into something tangible

Ultimately, the historian is attempting to unite fact, aesthetic and the conceptual in the writing phase. They are giving the audience an opportunity to understand a particular aspect of the past or the past in a particular way. History is where the historian turns the mystery of the past into something tangible, or just plainly admits that our past is a mystery and discusses the consequences of such an observation.

If this process is misaligned, if the conceptual theorising precedes the research phase, if the historian abandons the need for their narrative to lean towards the factual, if the historian asserts their perspective as the only valid perspective, if the historian sees their purpose not as understanding the past but instead using it as a mechanism to push us towards their preferred future, then we should expect history to become totally politicised and devolve into nothing more than a proxy for people to exert power over others. We will no longer understand our past and begin to live in disparate realities. For decades postmodernists have asserted that objectivity and truth have been the tools for oppression by one group over another, and within their particular context they were in some ways correct, but what they fail to appreciate is that objectivity and truth, when applied correctly, create the complete opposite outcome. These tools are actually democratic and seek only to understand what we are working with when we design our society, not to project a blueprint for how that society should be designed. History is just one of many tools to help us in this process.

…by learning about the past we suddenly make present events much more explainable

Like other humanities, at the core of history is an assumption; in history’s case this assumption is that the study of the past in some way helps us better understand the present. This is done in a variety of ways. For instance, by studying past events we understand why present society thinks about ideas, institutions, behaviours, and personalities the way it does. 

An example of this is Brexit. By studying the history of the British public and the events that have solidified its distinct collective character, we start to draw a picture of why a majority voted to leave the EU in 2016. Britain’s history of patriotism and populism stretching as far back as the Country Party or even the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 is perhaps an historical explanation for why the British public felt suspicious of the Westminster establishment and thus voted directly against its preferred outcome. The fact Britain twice stood against individuals that sought to unite Europe in a Commonwealth – the first-time being Napoleon, the second Hitler – is perhaps an explanation for its suspicion towards the concept of a united Europe. And the fact Britain has profoundly different institutions to major European countries that stretch further back than their European equivalents, such as its House of Lords and Commons, its monarchy, and its implementation of the first nationalised and equal legal system in Europe (the Common Law), are all reasons why the British public perhaps did not feel at home in a union of European nations, choosing instead to identify much more with the ideal of souverainism. And that’s not even mentioning the fact England has had its own Church for five centuries, an even older language, a much older written literature and history than France or Germany, and historically has far more reasons to see itself as ‘one of the good guys’ with regards to the Second World War. Thus, by learning about the past we suddenly make present events much more explainable.

History encourages us to respect the past by making us recognise that most individuals of most ages were acting within the reference points of what was normal

Another purpose of history is to clarify why our society has certain institutions and customs. Indeed, when we study the origins of institutions and customs, we better understand their purpose in our world. For instance, the Supreme Court of the United States has a distinct role within the US Government as laid out by the Constitution and the Federalist Papers. If we can learn about this institution from the very people that designed it, we give ourselves a better chance of imagining what the world would be like if we did not have a Supreme Court the way its founders envisioned. To allocate these men and their ideas to a dustbin because we believe we are more progressed and enlightened would be a mistake. By accurately understanding the origins of our society, we start to appreciate the wisdom of our ancestors and appreciate how their inventions, now commonplace, once had to be thought up and developed for our good. Thus, history is in many ways prone to gradualism and is about keeping us in a world that attempts to venerate those that changed our society for the better, while also encouraging us to understand behaviours and customs in their full context before we do away with them. History encourages us to respect the past by making us recognise that most individuals of most ages were acting within the reference points of what was normal within their context. We expect the same empathy from future generations towards our actions in the present. Thus, history inclines us to see society as transferring from one age to another; it encourages us to leave society in a better state for the next generation, or at the very least to conserve the best parts of our society for posterity, as our ancestors did for us.

History is also a brilliant indicator of a society’s trends and inclinations. Indeed, the periods and events a society focuses on say a lot about that society’s beliefs, ideals, fears, and passions. For instance, the most popular show on Netflix in 2020 being a period-piece drama about a German family that through a series of ancient customs has come to sit on the throne of England, probably the most culturally and politically influential country in the Western world of last four-hundred years, – I’m talking about The Crown – is not an insignificant event; it says a great deal about what we crave, believe in, and are interested in as a society. 

Ultimately, history should be an inspiration

At the beginning of this article I criticised the assertion that we can learn from the past for being sketchy. This is because saying the lessons from one age apply to another does not recognise that every event in history is so unique and dependant on its unique circumstances that we can’t say the lessons from one age with certainty apply to another. But I do concede that by studying the past we can learn how human beings acted under a certain set of circumstances; therefore, it would follow that human beings under the same circumstances in a different age should still produce similar results. However, this argument relies on a belief that there is a quality enduring in humans throughout all ages, something akin to human nature. This may be the case, but we will have to wait for what neuroscience has to say on the matter.

Ultimately, history should be an inspiration. It contains stories of people and countries that defied the odds. There are examples in history for people of every kind of religion, politics and belief to find a stimulation. Sure, an exam is hard, but it’s not as hard as Scott’s second voyage to Antarctica. Sure, America is divided, but so was it after the Civil War. Sure, China’s rise proposes a deep threat to freedom of many countries in its region, but so was Napoleon to Europe.

To conclude, I encourage readers not to expect history to abide by any preconception or to thrust any moral judgement onto the past, it really isn’t useful. History is not a movie we can edit into the something we would rather watch; it is a reality we all really should pay attention to even if it makes us uncomfortable. I would encourage people to want to understand the past in its chaotic entirety and think about what it reveals about the present.

Go forth and preach the gospel.

Joseph is currently completing his gap year, pursuing all things literary. He plans to study Arts/Law at the University of Melbourne.

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