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If you thought this blog was "meta" before…. January 11, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.

Today I want to ask “what are we doing here?” When we set out to write history, what do we hope to accomplish? There are clearly a lot of different answers that historians can give to this question, and before I go into them, I want to say that I think they are all legitimate. But I also want to emphasize that historians need to think deeply about what they are trying to accomplish, and that they try to make their goals (and audiences) more explicit. The reason is because all histories are, in some way, imbalanced, and while this imbalance has a lot to do with limitations in resources, it also has to do with differences in goals. But these imbalanced histories can be picked up by historians with an alternative set of goals and incorporated into their histories without reflection.

Let’s be more concrete. Some historians are interested in entertaining their audiences. Entertainment usually involves making one’s broad audience feel comfortable, and so historians will pick familiar figures for incorporation into their studies, will repeat familiar notions, and will favor amusing anecdotes rather than strive to represent “typicality”; and they will hype the importance of their subject (“the X that changed the world!”). That’s fine–it sells books, gets people interested, and that’s a goal I don’t begrudge.

Other historians are interested in advancing a political program of some kind. They will highlight previously marginalized topics that have not been appreciated, and, possibly, they will demonstrate how the discourses of dominant classes have conspired to conceal the history they want to tell.

I consider myself to be an analytical historian, which involves trying to assess the importance of certain subjects within certain contexts, separating what was typical from what was exceptional, and so forth.

Finally (although I’m sure one could go on), you have philosophical historians, who use case studies to highlight the way something works.

Now, historians write histories, but it is the community of historians that writes the historiography (“the literature”). In the next post, I’m going to talk about how the history of science is a field that attracts historians with remarkably diverse agendas, why this is good, why it is potentially debilitating, and how a realization of the nature of this intellectual terrain has been an essential part of my education as an historian.



1. Jenny - January 28, 2008

I think that journalists entertain the masses better than historians. In fact their non-fiction works often sell more books. They do the “who, what, where, how, and why” much better in pre-digested form…

I find history of science to be more aligned with something like the history of art – there are established methodologies and given means of analyzing your evidence. I do agree with you that the origins of the history of science have less to do with the actual aims of history.

I would probably place myself in the philosophical historian camp…history used to explain things. Kinda like Foucault’s version of history, missing some pieces but a really great overall framework…

If it makes you feel better (or worse maybe), Thomas Kuhn found a second life as a way to explain paradigms in modern art…

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