History Manifesto

Practical Past, Runaway Future

by guest contributor Zoltán Boldizsár Simon

In his latest book and recent articles, Hayden White puts the almost-forgotten notion of the “practical past” back on the scholarly agenda, and right at the center of debates within the field of philosophy of history. By reviving the conservative political philosopher Michael Oakeshott’s distinction between the “historical past” and the “practical past,” White argues that embracing the latter will help to restore the public reputation of history.white the practical past cover

By “history,” White means more than just historical writing and the academic discipline of history. He characterizes the “practical past” several times as a general societal attitude, in contrast to the discipline’s attachment to the historical past. However, I would like to read White as someone who is attentive to the necessary intertwining of “history” understood as a general sense of the course of events and as academic historical writing. In such a reading, a call for the embrace of the practical past would serve the same purpose as the call of The History Manifesto: to bring historical studies into contact with the most pressing concerns of our times, and to do so in a way that would enable historians and the discipline to be instrumental in shaping future action. Whereas The History Manifesto wishes to accomplish the task by turning to long-term thinking, in The Practical Past White argues that we should tell stories in which the past is living in the present, because these stories can serve as practical guides to future action.

In White’s view, the problem remains that the discipline of history is engaged instead in what Oakeshott called the historical past: “a dead past” that is “for itself alone.” Although I sharply disagree with White on this, I have to concede that his argument does not hinge upon such agreement. His point is that the desired public relevance of history lies in its capacity to tell practical stories in which the past is still with us, and by which we might go forward.

White’s turn to the practical past has already attracted a great deal of feedback. Some of this is positive, like that from White’s biographer, Herman Paul, who thinks that the notion of practical past is perfectly consistent with White’s overall humanism and an ideal of history that facilitates social action. More critical voices, like Chris Lorenz, note that the entire distinction between historical and practical past is based on a positivistic tradition that White thereby upholds. More is to come when the International Network for Theory of History devotes its second conference to the issue of the practical past. It will be held next year in Brazil under the title “The Practical Past: on the advantages and disadvantages of history for life.”

Given this wide impact, it is important to ask the question whether the notion of the practical past (and, for that matter, The History Manifesto) is a feasible and appropriate link between historical studies and our wider societal, cultural and political concerns. The answer I would like to give to this question is, unfortunately, anything but affirmative. The practical past is more of the problem than the solution: the notion of history that underlies White’s suggestion is precisely what has lost its relevance to recent societal concerns. In an article forthcoming in the European Review of History, I offer a detailed argument supporting this claim, but within the confines of a blog post I will focus on the essentials.

In the most general terms, the practical past fails to engage with the very concerns to which it wishes to connect. The feasibility of a conceptual framework for bridging past, present and future hinges on whether it can make sense of the future prospects we presently have. But the future prospects we presently have can best be called unprecedented changes: those entailed in the concept of the Anthropocene, in the prospect of a “technological singularity” and “intelligence explosion,” in nanotechnology, or in the practice of bioengineering and human enhancement.

Many of these may strike you as science fiction, but what matters is not whether we will actually witness, say, a technological singularity, when machines of our creation begin to make even more intelligent machines and thus suddenly outperform us. What matters is that this is the prospect of the future we have—not only at the cinema, but also at laboratories and university departments. Our notion of history—in the sense that White uses it, as both the course of events and as historical writing—does not depend solely on our retrospective stance. It derives from the way we configure the relationship between the past, the present and the future. If our future prospects qualitatively change, our notion of history, including history understood as historical writing, has to change with it if we wish it to survive.

Thus, the problem with White’s practical past (and with The History Manifesto) is that it is based on a notion of history that cannot make sense of our future prospect of unprecedented changes. For the practical past, based on a deep temporal continuity and on the continuity of human experience, has to bow down before a change that does not unfold or evolve from a past state of affairs (and this, I believe is precisely what Dipesh Chakrabarty finds so disturbingly challenging in the notion of the Anthropocene). The practical past is able to conceptualize only that sort of change and notion of history which White ponders in his book: the change during which a substance retains its identity, and a history in which a subject retains its identity while undergoing changes in appearance. What it cannot conceptualize is a change in which what was previously regarded as a subject that retains its self-identity through all changes (that is, humanity, on the largest scale) disappears or gets replaced by another subject that comes to existence without unfolding from the past. What the practical past can conceptualize is, for instance, the process of nation building; what it cannot conceptualize is unprecedented change.

In order to answer the question of how historical studies could regain its instrumentality in shaping our lives, we should first have an answer to the question of what sort of concerns we have and what sort of future life we envision. Before we could demand a role for history in shaping future action and wider societal concerns, we should consider what our societal concerns demand from our notion of history.

Zoltán Boldizsár Simon is a doctoral research associate at the Bielefeld Graduate School in History and Sociology. His research revolves around the interrelated efforts to devise a quasi-substantive philosophy of history to account for history understood as the course of events, and to frame a critical philosophy of history that reconciles the linguistic and non-linguistic dimensions of history understood as historical writing.

British History and the Question of Relevance: Dispatches from the Mid-Atlantic Conference on British Studies

by Emily Rutherford

Jo Guldi and David Armitage’s History Manifesto continues to make headlines within academic circles. Deborah Cohen and Peter Mandler’s critique (about which I wrote in January) has now appeared in the American Historical Review, with a reply from Guldi and Armitage. Cohen and Mandler issued a further “rejoinder,” as well as a statement making note of “silent changes” to the History Manifesto‘s digital edition. The substance of the exchange seems largely to center on disagreements about how to interpret data about things like the level of specialization of history dissertations over time, but along the way there’s a degree of mudslinging that only serves to make clear what all participants see as the high stakes for this debate.

I’m still struck by the fact that Armitage, Cohen, Guldi, and Mandler were all trained within the British/imperial field, and to a large extent still teach and publish in it. I still wonder if there’s something about this field’s own long-perceived crisis that draws British historians to large questions about how to rethink the discipline. I also wonder if that’s the right way to think about this, and if media narratives about “crisis” and “relevance” aren’t too self-reinforcing. Last weekend, I attended and presented at the Mid-Atlantic Conference on British Studies, the regional conference for my field’s professional association. Experts gathered from a wide range of institutions across the Mid-Atlantic region and also from further afield, including several scholars from the UK and Ireland. This was the first time I’d had the opportunity to see British history in action, and particularly to see it in action outside the most elite US and UK institutions. This experience told me a rather different story about the field, and historical scholarship more broadly, than you’re likely to get from the pages of periodicals.

MACBS 2015 was held in honor of the great social historian Judith Walkowitz, retiring this year, who broke new ground in the 1980s and ’90s with her sensitive and perceptive writing about prostitution and other ways that sexuality mapped itself onto urban spaces in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain. Perhaps accordingly, social and cultural history were well-represented among the papers, ranging (among those I heard) from the demographics of Royal Navy officers in the Napoleonic period to utopian communes of the early twentieth century to gender and equestrian sport in late-nineteenth-century India, with much between. Many speakers made use of the kind of prosopography it seems that you can only do with the wealth of ego-documents left by Victorians, tracing familial and affective connections across empire. And a panel held in memory of another great social and women’s historian, the late Leonore Davidoff, demonstrated that there is as much continuity as there is change in our notoriously faddish discipline. Elizabeth Imber, a graduate student at Johns Hopkins whose dissertation project is clearly imperial and transnational, had as much to say as historians who came of age in the 1960s about the lasting influence of the seminal work Family Fortunes (1987) that Davidoff co-authored with Catherine Hall. In general, the conclusion I drew from MACBS was that much good work is coming out of history departments across the US and the UK that isn’t trend-driven, that doesn’t posit the global—or even the imperial—as a natural theoretical good. I saw a few graphs and maps that visualized things like census data, but this struck me less as a sign of the triumph of Big Data than as reflective of a kind of empirical social history with which the British field has long been associated. This is not to say that the entire conference focused on these themes—there were also panels on literature, on twentieth-century political history, on high-intellectual Cambridge School history of history (J.G.A. Pocock himself gave a paper on Gibbon!), on the early modern Atlantic, and more. I heard a surprising amount about eighteenth-century sodomy. But the conference’s overall interest in social history was clear.

The panel in honor of Walkowitz was titled “London, Britain: The Role of the Capital in Studies of British History.” Panelists spoke about the prominence of the spatial in structuring their analysis of the past as well as their practice of research in the present. Most of the audience nodded in recognition—if there’s one thing I’ve noticed about American historians of Britain, it’s that they love to bond over their shared experiences of the British Library and the National Archives at Kew—though as one historian originally from the North of England remarked to me at the subsequent reception, “Haven’t we heard enough about London?”

In his paper, panelist Farid Azfar (Swarthmore) made what I interpreted as an implicit dig at the History Manifesto-led argument that relevant—or even just good—history should have a wide geographical and chronological scope. Walkowitz’s book City of Dreadful Delight (1992), Azfar argued, remains compelling precisely because of its situation in a specific place and time and its synchronic analysis. I have to say that I agree—and MACBS convinced me. Since I began my doctorate, I’ve been anxious about the point of studying the intellectual and cultural world of English educational institutions within the span of fifty-odd years, when my department colleagues are planning dissertations about international governance, control over natural resources, capitalism, and other topics that bear a clear relation to today’s headlines.

But I don’t think that’s the whole story. The range of excellent papers at MACBS ably demonstrated the difference between “relevant” work and “good” or “interesting” work. Papers compelled not because they were connected to the headlines (though some certainly were), and not because they turned to the kinds of “origins” questions from which diachronic narratives about recent (particularly state-centric) history so often depart. They compelled because in twenty minutes with just a few archival examples they opened up new worlds of understanding about the past, creating a way in even for non-experts. I was surprised by the number of papers from far outside my own sub-subfield by which I was fascinated.

Is it enough for historical scholarship to be “interesting”? I expect this question will continue to keep me awake at night, and it doesn’t change the fact that, no matter how “interesting” or “relevant,” there won’t be enough jobs for all of us. But it does suggest that reading magazines, or even the AHR, to know what’s happening in research terms in a range of American colleges and universities won’t provide a complete picture. Perhaps we should consider whether having a say in the media really constitutes the public engagement and claim to relevance to which all historians ought to be striving—or whether teaching “interesting” history to school and university students, as most of us who call ourselves historians do, mightn’t be just as essential.

Thucydides, Canon, and Western Civilization

by Emily Rutherford

Columbia University, where I study, is one of very few American colleges where all undergraduates are required to complete a sequence of survey courses in western civilization. Many history graduate students eventually teach in the Core sequence, and it’s impossible to avoid the thousands of eighteen-year-olds walking around with copies of the Iliad, the Bible, and the Greek tragedy of the year. As a result, I’ve become preoccupied by the pedagogical uses of these ancient texts today, what their significance is to those who don’t study the ancient world, how our reactions to them are filtered through centuries of other readers’ translations and interpretations, and what my own responsibility as someone who hopes to be a university teacher of European history is to Western-civilization narratives.

The Core rubs off on other corners of Columbia. We first-year PhD students began our required introductory historiography course by reading Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War. The last time I read Thucydides, it was for a reading course in Victorian intellectual history, in the Greek edition edited by the great reforming headmaster of Rugby Thomas Arnold. Like many of his contemporaries, Arnold revered Thucydides as a guide to modern statecraft and also as a pagan whose theory of history was assimilable to a Christian worldview. Reading the text again, it was easy to see why Thucydides’ perspective on the imperial ambitions of a great naval power, and his commitment to tracing the processes behind that power’s political and military decision-making, might have seemed significant to early modern and modern British imperial subjects whose education and culture taught them to look to antiquity for political, philosophical, and strategic guides. It’s also comprehensible that present-day political and international-relations theorists, working within a philosophical tradition long infused with classical learning, turn to key passages from Thucydides like the “Melian Dialogue” in Book Five in order to illustrate their own claims about the negotiation of political power.

Less obvious, however, is the relationship between what Thucydides and his contemporaries saw as the practice of history and the practice into which twenty-first-century American doctoral students are socialized through institutions like the first-year historiography seminar. Today, we are often nudged away from historical accounts whose primary purpose is to elucidate strategic political and military decision-making; very different theoretical and ethical standards govern our evidence-gathering and how we make use of oral testimony; fewer professional historians see it as their job to record national history for a first audience of compatriots who took part in that history; our professional practice has a first loyalty to the written archive that was not conceivable in the late fifth century BCE. Thucydides’ method is not, practically speaking, among the menu of options from which apprentice historians are invited to choose when using their coursework to conceptualize their own approaches to the past. While a reception history of Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War‘s role in shaping the relatively young academic discipline of history would be an interesting project, there’s an alterity to this nearly 2,500-year-old text that can’t be overcome: saying that it’s of its moment and yet there are still lessons to be learned from it (one member of our class who works on recent American history and uses oral sources certainly thought so) is fundamentally different to saying, as many historiography seminars do, that a twenty-year-old work of high-theoretical linguistic-turn history is of its moment and yet there are still lessons to be learned from it.

A significant strand of public-intellectual debate holds that history has lost a position it once held as magistra vitae and as the deciding analytic of statecraft—hearkening back to a golden age imagined, perhaps, out of a sense that reading ancient historians like Thucydides was once more fundamental to the study of the past than it is today. The data don’t necessarily support a narrative of history’s decline and fall. But in the discussion around Guldi and Armitage’s History Manifesto and in other forums, historians keen to recover this statecraft side to history’s educational potential have advocated approaches that might do this—taking on big narratives and big ideas with methods old and new—and have presented them as a favorable alternative to what they see as a dominant but short-sighted mode of academic history. Those who make this argument hold that this “microhistory” or “antiquarianism,” by letting the archive (instead of concerns found in policy or the public discourse) dictate the historical narrative and claims to significance, is necessarily limited in its impact.

I have many concerns about this artificial binary, but it’s probably best not to wade into them here, except to say that the “microhistorical”/”antiquarian” form of history patently also has important lessons to teach undergraduates and the wider public, a group not limited to policymakers. Putting Thucydides in dialogue with this media discussion ably shows how a policy-, narrative-, and big-ideas-focused brand of history, and an archivally-faithful, perhaps more specialized or narrower in scope, form of history are to some extent two sides of the same coin. The Peloponnesian War‘s status as an ancient text, the specifics of its composition, the stories of early modern and modern readers who have responded to it and thus made it the canonical take on politics and warfare that it continues to be, may not always be stories of interest to those who hope that historians can tell them how to assess the consequences of a strategic decision. But the latter can’t be explained historically without the former, and it’s possible for accounts of both to emerge from a reading of Thucydides’ text itself. Moreover, these factors all feed into how we trace—and justify—large-scale narratives of European ideas and culture to undergraduates, and there’s no telling which bit might make the most difference to a given student.

The History Manifesto and Its Discontents

by Emily Rutherford

David Armitage and Jo Guldi published their History Manifesto online and in print in October, and since then the critiques have begun to roll in. There has been plenty of chatter on Twitter and an interesting set of responses from a group of graduate students and faculty at the Modern British Studies program at the University of Birmingham. But most trenchant to date is a response from historians of Britain Deborah Cohen (Northwestern) and Peter Mandler (Cambridge), shortly to be published in the American Historical Review with Armitage and Guldi’s reply.

Cohen and Mandler take sharp aim at the “fantasy” (8 – page numbers refer to the draft PDF published on Cohen’s personal website) that they argue the History Manifesto has constructed, of history’s increasing overspecialization and declining relevance. Their primary criticisms are twofold. First, they take issue with Armitage and Guldi’s interpretation of historian Benjamin Schmidt’s data about the last several decades of history PhDs, as well as other evidence Armitage and Guldi present in order to suggest that dissertations’ horizons have contracted since the 1960s. In fact, they write, the last four decades of AHR book reviews show that “There’s no evidence either that historians concentrated on long-horizon research before 1968 or that there was a fall off afterwards, when the great shrinkage supposedly began” (4). This, therefore, undermines the urgency of Armitage and Guldi’s central claim that history needs a return to large-scale, narrative, political history in order to reestablish its relevance to policymakers and world events. Second, Cohen and Mandler turn, as many others have, to Armitage and Guldi’s representation of “microhistory” as the antithesis of the “longue durée” history they advocate. Cohen and Mandler write that Armitage and Guldi’s “microhistory” is a caricature, incorporating the traditional definition of microhistory as well as an “overflowing grab-bag of other sorts of history” (7), such as those of race, class, and gender, which in fact have not confined themselves to short time-scales. They point to specific instances in which these “new” forms of history have had precisely the concrete effects upon policy for which Armitage and Guldi wish: such as the Lawrence v. Texas case which overturned sodomy law, in which a pivotal historians’ amicus brief drew on kinds of history which Armitage and Guldi disparage. Finally, Cohen and Mandler point out that, whatever the role of historians in policy, history retains a serious hold among a diverse public in large part because of the ever-widening range of subjects and approaches it embraces, and that this is as much or more a claim for its significance (and success) than any crisis narrative focused on policy.

Whatever the merits of Armitage and Guldi’s and Cohen and Mandler’s respective stances, what becomes clear in this exchange is the significance of intellectual-historical approaches to finding a role for our discipline in today’s society and polity. Cohen and Mandler’s critique rests on their claim that the intellectual genealogy Armitage and Guldi trace, of history’s declining relevance through its increasing specialization and increasing marginality, is a spurious and lazy one (see e.g. p. 5). In calling Armitage and Guldi to task not for their political solutions to the alleged humanities crisis but for their methodology as professional historians (at least one of whom does have a background in intellectual history), Cohen and Mandler made a choice. That choice may turn out to shift the terms of how the History Manifesto is being debated in an interesting way, away from rhetoric about Crisis and (as happened in the course of arguments twenty years ago about the linguistic turn) back to how we as specialists practice our craft. As historian Rachel Hope Cleves wrote on Twitter last week, and as the master’s students at Birmingham who engaged with the History Manifesto this autumn have already demonstrated, this discussion is well on its way to becoming a key set of readings for students learning to think about controversies within the discipline.

From the Birmingham blog to Mandler and Cohen, the major published engagement with the History Manifesto thus far has come from historians trained in the British field. Indeed, Armitage and Guldi were both trained as British historians as well. As someone who works in (and defends the relevance of) the British national field, I’m interested in what this says about the field and its relevance to historical practice more widely. What about the issues the History Manifesto raises would interest British historians in particular? Part of it may stem from the crises this field in particular has confronted in recent decades, as British historians have striven to adapt to a historiographical landscape in which the centrality of the British Isles cannot be taken for granted and have reimagined themselves as historians of empire, Europe, or the Atlantic world. Part of it also may stem from British history’s long-held interest in social history and problems of class: Cohen and Mandler’s criticisms touch in part on the possibility of elitism inherent in Armitage and Guldi’s implication that policymakers, rather than the public, are a historian’s appropriate target audience, and a similar tension was present in the Birmingham responses (and some comments Armitage made about them at a History Manifesto event I attended at Columbia University on November 17, 2014). These days, “impact” and “public engagement” are built into how academics at UK universities must represent their research to the government, and so perhaps such questions are felt more keenly by those whose careers are in or connected to the UK.

The issue of what it means to be a historian of (modern) Britain is one which I hope to think about on this blog in the months to come, and the History Manifesto debate may well help to frame that question. It has always seemed to me, though, that historians who teach in universities have their public-engagement factor built in: won’t we all be asked at some point in our careers whether we can teach the survey?