Wednesday, December 7, 2016

random thoughts on the importance of unsettling history


I came across an interesting quote a couple of days ago. As invariably happens in such cases I now can’t find the damned thing but the gist of it was as follows. Getting an education should make you uncomfortable, and even at times horrified. If your education makes you feel safe and secure then whatever it is you’re getting it isn’t an education. I find myself strongly agreeing with this. 

I’m sure it applies to every subject but I think it’s particularly applicable in the case of history. If an historian is doing his job then reading his work should make you feel unsettled and it should challenge your assumptions. You might find yourself disagreeing with the historian but if that’s the case then at least you’re being challenged to think about why you disagree.

Napoleon once described history as “a set of lies agreed upon” and there’s much to be said for this view. Every historian has an axe to grind. An historian without an axe to grind wouldn’t be worth reading - his history would be merely a list of events without any logical connection. In most cases we know what happened in history. Knowing what happened isn’t very interesting or informative. We want to know why the events occurred. And knowing why the events occurred involves not so much collecting evidence as interpreting it. To a certain extent every good historian is a revisionist historian, because a good historian has to be prepared to look at the evidence and ask himself - does this mean what other historians have assumed it to mean? Are there other possible interpretations?

Of course this does not mean that all revisionist history is good history, nor does it mean that we can interpret historical evidence in whatever manner we choose. We do not need to go down the rabbit hole into complete subjectivity and relativism. Historical evidence can often be interpreted in different ways but if you’re going to offer a fresh interpretation you’d better be able to demonstrate that your new fresh approach actually makes sense and actually fits the evidence, and does so at least as well as (and preferably better than) the existing consensus. If it fails to fulfill these criteria then it’s merely another conspiracy theory for the tin-foil hat brigade.

The mere fact that a particular interpretation of history is unsettling does not disqualify it from consideration, although in the world of modern academia it seems that anything that is even mildly unsettling is out of bounds. History is not supposed to be a safe space. It is not supposed to offer us reassurance. 

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