Tuesday, July 10, 2012

What kind of historian am I?

That's a question I am spending some time this summer thinking about.  I am reading a book on historiography - the study of writing about history.  It is Caroline Hoefferle's The Essential Historiographic Reader, in which the author describes the various "schools" of historigraphy by discussing their history and development.  She starts with the Greeks and Romans and moves forward right up to the 21st century.

Some of the schools of historiography do not impress me, and many of them have been discredited by time and historical events - so history affects itself.  However, I have found out that I am, for one thing, a "historicist."  This school tells us we must examine the past on its own terms.  I have long been critical of "presentism" - judging the past by the standards of the present.  I have felt that the only fair way to examine history is to examine it in terms of its times.  Sure, these days we are convinced (well, most of us . . . ) that slavery was and is an evil.  But when we are talking about ancient Rome and its system of slavery, when we are talking about the events before and during the Civil War and about the causes of that war, we need to put ourselves in the ethos of those time periods.  Unless we do that, we cannot understand what the concept of slavery meant to those people, or to certain segments of the people, at that time, which means we cannot have a firm understanding of how these conditions came to exist in the first place.

Or, take the case of Prohibition, the era of the Volstead Act (1919-1933) in the U.S.  Nowadays, we are convinced that the Volstead Act was a mistake, a stupid law that did nothing to curb or eliminate excessive drinking, drunkenness, and the social toll they exact, and did everything to give rise to the modern specter of organized crime.  But when we want to examine the roots of the Volstead Act, the conditions and social movements that led up to its passage, we have to place ourselves in that time period, using the social and emotional tools that they people of the time had available.  We cannot look at it through 21st century eyes and give an accurate and reliable account of how it came about.

I arrived at this viewpoint through reading and thinking about history, and about how I would go about doing it.  So, okay, I'm a historicist.  And schools of historiography are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

I have several other books on historiography that I am going to plow through in the next several months.  I will post again on my explorations into what kind of historian I am.

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