On History 2/3: What does it mean to believe in history?

Jeremy Caradonna, a historian of sustainability, claims on his website to believe in history (here). Believing in history clearly means something more than believing merely that things did happen before now. I think it means believing in a certain approach to describing the world, with a concomitant set of beliefs about how the world works. Here’s his explanation: ‘I believe in history and I don't think it's obscure. I'm making a conscious effort to write more works that are accessible to the average reader. I want people to realize that the past is, paradoxically, something that is acted out and negotiated in the present. The past lives on past its prime. I see modern culture as "an inheritance" from past generations. It's something that falls into our laps--something with which we must deal. The more we know about the past, the more we understand ourselves, and the easier it is to liberate ourselves from those aspects of our culture that we most despise. We made homophobia, imperialism, prejudice, classism, misogyny, and an unsustainable industrial society, and we can unmake them. I think having an historical awareness gives us power and I like empowering students and readers with knowledge.’

I think believing in history also means espousing a set of assumptions common to the assumptions held by other people who believe in history. Caradonna shares a list of assumptions, and here are some of my own. Different schools of history have widely varying beliefs about the extent to which these principles hold, but I think these are all assumptions that a variety of academic historians wouldn’t be too offended by:

  1. There are no ahistorical truths. Everything that exists is historically specific.
  2. Put more simply, things change.
  3. Nothing is completely new.
  4. Individuals are part of wider systems and societies that determine the possibilities of their actions.
  5. Humans live in places and spaces that determine the possibilities of their actions.

I found another way to express number 1 in William Miller’s The Philosophy of History, ‘we do not know who we are, or what we are capable of, for good or for ill, apart from what has been done. And so Ortega y Gasset says in a key sentence, ‘Man, in a word, has no nature; what he has is history.’

I really like that. Believing in history means believing that studying history provides the broadest framework for understanding how the world works. Like the title of a recent seminar series at Harvard, ‘History is Everything.’

J. William Miller, The Philosophy of History (1981), p.16. http://www.jeremycaradonna.com/about