History as a Way of Knowing

We generally think of history as an expansive body of knowledge, an encyclopedic subject routinely studied in school as a source of cultural background. I would like us to consider this evening whether history might be better understood as a distinctive way of thinking, and perhaps even as a distinctive way of knowing.

That this might be so is suggested by a peculiar aspect of historical thinking: its universal applicability. Every discipline, every human activity, can be said to have a history. You can write the history of geology, or of physics, each as a study of the successive stages of sophistication and reliability in the development of each. But you cannot reverse those formulations. You cannot write a geology of history or a physics of history. Such phrases can have nothing more than metaphorical value for us.

Where to begin, then? What might this distinctiveness of history entail?

Perhaps the best place to begin would be in reflecting in a more sustained way on what it means to regard history as a form of memory. It’s a commonly employed metaphor, and for good reason. But we often use metaphors mindlessly, automatically, without thinking about what they may really mean. Sometimes they mean much more than we give them credit for.

The impulse to do history seems to be intrinsic to us as human beings. We are remembering and storymaking creatures. Narratives are one of the chief ways that we make sense of our impressions and experiences as they manifest in the flow of time. What we call “history” is merely the intensification of that basic human impulse. But its cultivation is essential to the perpetuation of civilized life. History is to social identity what memory is to individual identity. Without the points of reference provided by historical consciousness, we soon forget who and what we are, and we perish.

This is what George Santayana meant by his famous statement that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Without such memory, we cannot learn, use language, pass on knowledge, raise children successfully, establish rules of conduct, engage in scientific inquiry, or even dwell in society.

Nor can we have a sense of the future as a time we know will come, because we remember that other tomorrows also have come, and gone, in the past. A culture without memory will hardly be a culture at all; it will be barbarous and easily tyrannized, even if it is technologically advanced, because the incessant drumbeat of daily events will drown out all reflective efforts to connect past, present, and future, and thereby understand the things that unfold in time, including the path of our own lives.

Memory, then, is a crucial source of continuity. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, memory is “the cement, the bitumen, the matrix in which the other faculties are embedded…Without it, all of life and thought is an unrelated succession.”

But something more needs to be said. We don’t acquire a life-enhancing memory through the mere piling up of facts. It is not as if the more facts you retain, the better off you are, and the more you understand. It might make you a better Jeopardy contestant, but that is about the extent of it.

Instead, memory is most powerful when it is purposeful and selective. Memory requires a grid, a pattern of organization, a structure within which facts arrange themselves in a particular way, and thereby take on significance. Above all, it requires that we possess stories and narratives that link facts in ways that are both meaningful and truthful, and provide a principle of selection—a way of knowing what facts are worth paying attention to. That is how and why we remember the most meaningful things. Without such patterns, the facts are unremembered, or arrange themselves haphazardly—and the past takes on the dismal form Emerson described as “an unrelated succession”—history as one damned thing after another.

A compelling illustration of what I’m talking about is recounted in David Shenk’s fine book The Forgetting, which is not only an extraordinarily luminous study of Alzheimer’s Disease, but a sustained meditation on the meaning of memory—and thereby, one might say, of history.

Shenk recounts the fascinating case study of a man whom psychologists call S. He was a Russian journalist who “remembered virtually every detail of sight and sound that he had come into contact with in his entire life.” His freakish talent emerged when an editor reprimanded him for failing to take notes at a staff meeting—and S proceeded to repeat back to him every word that had been spoken in the meeting to that point. The editor sent S to the distinguished psychologist A.R. Luria, who subjected him to a battery of tests, and confirmed that it was true: there seemed to be no limit to the number of details S could recall. He could, for example, memorize lengthy tables of random numbers in an instant, and recall them perfectly for decades to come. It seemed that the man literally remembered everything.

And yet, Shenk adds, “he understood almost nothing,” because he could not “make meaning out of what he saw.” When presented with tables of numbers placed in a deliberate and obvious pattern, such as a standard ordinal sequence (1,2,3,4,5, etc.), he couldn’t make out the pattern. He couldn’t understand poetry, couldn’t understand the law, and couldn’t even remember people’s faces, because facial expressions are so changeable, and he lacked the ability to generalize those differences into a single stable identity. He was chronically disorganized and struck most observers as dim-witted. As Shenk concludes, “this astounding man, then, was not so much gifted with the ability to remember everything as he was cursed with the inability to forget detail and form more general impressions. He recorded only information, and was bereft of the essential ability to draw meaning out of events.” For him, life was indeed “one damned thing after another.”

As this case illustrates, the healthy brain actually has few physical limits upon what information it can retain. Something else has to come into play. What makes for genuinely intelligent and insightful memory is not the mere capacity for massive retention, but a certain balance in the mental economy of remembering and forgetting. In other words, memory takes an active role in thinning out the mental trees so that forests can be discerned. It is selective by nature, and its selectivity is an essential tool in the mind’s quest for rational order.

This selectivity is neatly reflected in the etymology of the ancient Greek word logos, sometimes translated as “account” or “argument,” which derives from the verb legein, meaning “to select.” To give a rational, coherent, useful, and true account of something, one has to select the details to be stressed, and leave the others out. We remember those things that fit a template of meaning, and point to a larger whole. We fail to retain the details that, like wandering orphans, have no connection to anything of abiding concern.

History as a Laboratory

So far, so good. But now a mystery. We can never finally reduce what we know about ourselves to a set of inert propositions, because whatever we know about ourselves, or think we know, becomes a part of what we are, at the moment we come to know it. At the very moment we absorb such propositions, we inch beyond their grip, and become a mystery to ourselves again. Self-knowledge is, in that sense, constantly transformative, and constantly elusive, because the ground is always shifting.

Writing history is even more so, because it means taking ever-moving aim at an ever-moving target with ever-changing eyes, ever-transforming weapons, and ever-protean intentions. “History,” wrote the great Hungarian-American historian John Lukacs, “by its very nature, is ‘revisionist,’” because it is “the frequent, and constant, rethinking of the past,” an enterprise that, unlike a court of law, “tries its subjects through multiple jeopardy.” The past changes, not only because it is constantly growing, but because the things we need from it change too, as do the things we are capable of noticing about it.

The appropriation of this ever-changing past is, then, a paradoxical undertaking. And it becomes progressively more difficult precisely as one becomes more skilled, knowledgeable, and conscientious. Indeed, it is surprisingly easy to write bad history, and even easier to deliver oneself of crude but profound-sounding historical comparisons. It is easy, for example, for any smart layman to opine about the ominous parallels between the histories of America and Rome, or between America and the Weimar Republic. And so there may be. But it is very difficult for experienced and knowledgeable historians to specify wherein those parallels are to be found: so hard that, these days, they will almost certainly decline to try, or hedge their observations about with so many reservations and qualifications that nothing much will be left in the end.

It is easy, in short, to treat the past as if it were just an overflowing grab bag of anecdotes, and careful professional historians are right to admonish those who do so. But only partly right. For man does not live by pedantry and careful contextualization alone. We look to the past for insight, and historical insight is irreducibly an act of the constructive imagination, as much as it is a science of careful reconstruction. That will always be true, because the leap from a mountain of carefully compiled data to a compelling narrative or a persuasive theory will always be shrouded in mystery, propelled by the ineffable force of what Michael Polanyi called “tacit knowledge,” no matter the discipline in which the leap occurs.

And it will always be true, because the writing of history will always take its bearings from the needs of the present. How, indeed, could it be otherwise? So long as history is still a vital intellectual undertaking, indispensable to our civilized existence, then it will always be “proper” and “necessary” for us to seek out precedents in the past, and to do so energetically and earnestly, not being content to confine the past to a comfortable imprisonment in its own context.

History constantly reminds that we did not invent ourselves, and that the formative influences of our origins linger on in us. It reminds us that we can never entirely remove the incidentals of our time and place, because they are never entirely incidental.

Nothing really has changed since Thucydides penned his History of the Peloponnesian War, sustained by the fragile hope that it would be consulted by “those who desire an exact knowledge of the past as a key to the future, which in all probability will repeat or resemble the past.” Probabilities aside, it remains true that the past’s few precedents are the only clues we have about the likely outcomes for similar endeavors in the present and future. Elusive as it is, the past is all we really have to work with, and all we can genuinely know. History is Clio’s laboratory. It may be disorderly and makeshift. But it has to be if it is to remain true to the things it studies.

By the standards of science, history makes for a lousy laboratory. No doubt about that. But it is all we have to work with. It is the only laboratory available to us for assaying the possibilities of our human nature in a manner consistent with that nature. Far from disdaining science, we should imitate many of its characteristic dispositions: the fastidious gathering and sifting of evidence, the effort to be dispassionate and even-handed, the openness to alternative hypotheses and explanations, the caution in propounding sweeping generalizations. Although we continue to draw upon history’s traditional storytelling methods, we also can use sophisticated analytical models to discover patterns and regularities in individual and collective behavior. We even can call what we are doing “social science” rather than history, if we like.

But we cannot follow the path of science much further than that, if only for one stubborn reason: we cannot devise replicable experiments and still claim to be studying human beings rather than corpses. It is as simple as that. You cannot experiment upon human beings, at least not on the scale required to make history “scientific,” and at the same time continue to respect their dignity as human beings. To do otherwise is murdering to dissect. It is not science but history that tells us that this is so. It is not experimental science, but history, that tells us how dreams of a “worker’s utopia” gave rise to one of the most corrupt tyrannies of human history, or how civilized, technically competent modern men saw fit to place their fellow men in gas chambers. These are not events that need to be replicated. Instead, they need to be remembered, as pieces of evidence about what civilized men are capable of doing, and perhaps by extension about the kinds of political regimes and moral reasonings that seem likely to unleash—or to guard against—such moral horrors.

The Human Endeavor

As a science of unrepeatable events and incommensurable things, History is arguably not a science at all. It resists the tendency to generalize. Take, for example, one of the most fascinating of these issues: the question of what constitutes greatness in a leader. The word “great” itself implies a comparative judgment. But how do we go about making such comparisons intelligently? There are no quantitative units into which we can translate, and no scales upon which we can weigh, the leadership quotients of Pericles, Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, Attila, Elizabeth I, Napoleon, Lincoln, Stalin, and Lyndon Johnson.

We can and do compare such leaders, though, or others like them, such as the long succession of American Presidents, and we learn extremely valuable things in the process. But in doing so, we cannot detach these very different leaders from their contexts, treating them as pure abstractions, ignoring relevant details such as whom they were leading, where they were going, and what they were up against. “Leadership” means nothing if it is not leadership exercised in very specific circumstances. How does one compare a twentieth-century democratic leader with an absolute monarch or tribal chieftain? Yet what is the point in studying the past if each epoch is to be treated as though sealed unto itself? Comparisons are both irresistible and perilous—and the more interesting they are, the more difficult they are. If made entirely without context, comparisons become meaningless. But if made entirely within context, comparisons become impossible.

There is then a certain quixotic quality built into the very task historians have taken on. And here’s another paradox. By all rights, history ought to be among the most conservative of all the academic disciplines, given the degree of power and authority it accords to the past. History constantly reminds that we did not invent ourselves, and that the formative influences of our origins linger on in us. It reminds us that we can never entirely remove the incidentals of our time and place, because they are never entirely incidental. At the same time, it reminds us that this has always been true, for all men and women at all times. In other words, it reminds us that historicity is a central part of the human condition. And it reminds of the fleeting and precious quality of all the things we value most, and enjoins upon us the task of preserving and protecting them, conserving the world’s nobility and beauty to the extent possible.

But matters have turned out quite differently. Modernity has been a double-edged sword; it introduced us to the notion that we need not be prisoners of the conditions into which we were born, but instead have it within our power, as Thomas Paine declared, to begin the world over again. (Or as James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus put it, “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awaken.”) A great many of today’s academic historians believe that the chief point of studying the past is to demonstrate that all our inherited institutions, beliefs, conventions, and normative values are arbitrary “social constructions” in the service of power, and therefore without any greater legitimacy or binding authority. From this point of view, history is a useful field of study not because it tells us about the things that made us who we are, but because it releases us from the power of those very things, and thereby confers the promise of boundless possibility upon us.

All that has been constructed can presumably be dismantled and reconstructed, and all contemporary customs and usages, being merely historical, can be cancelled. In this view, it would be absurd to imagine that the past should have anything to teach us, or the study of the past any purpose beyond the needs of the present. The principal value of studying history, in this view, is not as a glue but as a solvent. History becomes a liberatory force, the great disenchanter.

We should admit that there is something to these assertions. History can indeed be an avenue whereby the present escapes from the tutelary influence and false assumptions of the past. That is an important and valuable role. But that is not all history is. The study and teaching of history ought to be directed not only at the accumulation of historical knowledge and the overturning of misconceptions, but also at the cultivation of a historical consciousness. Which means that history is also an avenue whereby the present can escape, not only from the past, but from the mental stranglehold of the present. Historical study ought to enlarge us, deepen us, and draw us out of ourselves, out of our time and place, by bringing us into a serious encounter with a past that is already a part of us.

In drawing us out, it “cultures” us, in all the multiple senses of that word. As such, it is not merely an academic subject or an accumulated body of knowledge, but a discipline formative of the soul. Historians do not need to justify themselves by their “practical” contributions to the formulation of public policy. They do their part when they preserve and advance a certain kind of consciousness and memory, traits of character upon which an arrogant and feckless culture of relentless change and instant erasure has all but declared war.

To repeat, human beings are by nature remembering and storymaking creatures. History embraces and affirms those traits, even as it insists upon refining them by the light of truth. To do that alone is to do a great deal, at a time when all the forces seem to be arrayed on the other side.

Of course, the study of history is not all sweetness and light. It can be sobering and shocking, and morally troubling. James Baldwin even called history “the nightmare from which no one can awaken,” because “people are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” One does not have to believe in original sin to study it successfully, but it probably helps. By relentlessly placing on display the pervasive crookedness of humanity’s timber, history brings us back to earth, equips us to resist the powerful lure of radical expectations, and reminds us of the grimmer possibilities of human nature: possibilities that, for most people living in most times, have not been the least bit imaginary. With such realizations firmly in hand, we are far better equipped to move forward in the right way.

So we work away in Clio’s makeshift laboratory, deducing what we can from the patient examination and comparison of unrepeatable events and incommensurable examples, each rooted in a singular place and moment. If this were science, it would be a crazy way to go about things. It is as if we were reduced to making deductions from the fragmentary journal of a mad scientist who constructed haphazard experiments at random and never repeated any of them. But the oddness is unavoidable. It indicates how different is the approach to knowledge afforded by history: part science, part art, and thoroughly human.

This was presented as a Keynote Address at the 2021 National ISI Honors Program, on “The Future of History: Recovering Justice, Liberty, and Truth in an Age of Historical Revolt.”