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Instrumental Uses of History January 9, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.

Coming off the second part of my review of Richard Staley’s Einstein’s Generation, and also to try and set a tone for this year’s blogging, I’d like to consider the question of the instrumental uses of history.  I want to start with the idea that history is an inevitable component of argumentation.  Some other term might prove more convenient later on, but for the moment I want to say that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to open a discussion without invoking history in some way.

The point might be made by reference to comments in a recent discussion at the History of Economics Playground blog.  There one question is whether or not economists can get away with shoddy history when they start out with the claim that they “are not historians of economic thought”.  Yann takes the case to an extreme by pointing out that you could say, “Well, I’m not a physicist, but here’s some thoughts about physics for my fellow economists,” and physicists would have every right to call them on their errors.  However, physics is not an inevitable component of economic argumentation (as it might be for engineering argumentation), whereas it might be convenient to refer to the history of economics in making an economic argument without assuring the audience of the quality of the history.

I think this point is generalizable.  Since the past provides us with the experience from example necessary to understanding the present, the past necessarily becomes a topic of conversation.  In this instance, history becomes a sort of shadow philosophy, a set of exemplary episodes that demonstrate certain principles, which then can be invoked to discuss current situations. Since this kind of history is really more philosophy than it is history, it is less important that the history actually be gotten right (however much it might irk historians when clichés and myths are repeated ad nauseam).  “Why Kennedy won in 1960”, “Why Reagan won in 1980”, “Why Carter lost in 1980”, all become stock examples to be used for evaluating future Presidential campaigns.  Naturally a more nuanced understanding of history will provide a better set of stock examples, but we can get away with having unsound history if the principles underlying the examples we use are adequate to the tasks we face.

Likewise, history must necessarily be invoked to understand why it is we are in the situation we are, why we have certain problems to work on, and certain intellectual, cultural, and physical resources to deal with them.  Understanding others’ background can help explain the motivations for their actions, particularly when those motivations or actions seem unintuitive.  Understanding different constituencies’ histories can also help assign current responsibility.  If one side in a conflict has historically suffered as a consequence of another side’s unprovoked actions, brokering a peace might not be so simple as stopping the fighting, since some sort of reparation for past injury, or assurance that unprovoked action would not be taken again, would be expected.  Similarly, if certain constituencies have not historically had access to the advantages enjoyed by other constituencies, it might be thought just or wise to provide those constituencies with special assistance.

In these instances history is in one sense simply instrumental to defining current conditions (defining resources, defining expected rights, articulating feelings of suspicion, etc.), and what matters is not so much an accurate history but an accurate definition of conditions.  Furthermore, in these instances, different constituencies might have less of an interest in arriving at an accurate history than in deploying history in such a way that it makes present conditions appear as favorable to them as possible, diminishing historians’ possible usefulness and likely embroiling them in the rhetoric of controversy.  (In discussion, Chris Donohue has informed me of Jürgen Habermas’ use of the the idea of  history as a “balancing of accounts” or a “settlement of damages” to describe this vein of history, which is very much to-the-point.)

If history is inevitable to present deliberation, if a fully accurate understanding of history is unnecessary (or undesirable!) to carrying out present deliberation, and if professional historians are unlikely to have a fully accurate understanding of history themselves, then historians find themselves less in the position of the physicist, and very much in the position of the economist.  All policies (corporate or government), to be legitimate (to shareholders or to constituents), must have some rationale as to why they are expected to be effective, which convey certain implicit or explicit principles.  Policymakers do not require that these accord with the best available economic principles; economics (or some other political or social science) is in some way inevitable to the act of policymaking.

The question for historians, then, is: given the inevitability of history to everyday life, what role can the historian reasonably expect to play?

In theory, historians could assign themselves the task of correcting bad history where and when they see it.  Such a task would be a major burden on historians’ time (taking time away from the task of them making themselves better historians), it would likely have little effect on actual action since accurate history was never really at issue, and it would also augment historians’ reputation for obnoxiousness, placing them in the same category as the grammatical scold.  (Grammar, of course, is inevitable to language, but good grammar is not necessary to adequate communication.  Personally, I try to never split infinitives in my official writing, but don’t worry about it here.)

In practice, historians need a far better understanding of the instrumental uses of history in order to pick their battles intelligently.  If present actors are committed to using history to understand the principles underlying their actions, historians have a clear and consistent role to play.  If principles turning on historical myths are being systematically deployed in controversies, then historians (assuming they approve of the other side’s cause) might make the opposite side aware of those myths (but should disabuse themselves of the efficacy of their continual intervention, since controversies where one side demands victory—or at least perpetual principled opposition—are unlikely to be resolved through reasoned intervention).  If historians see history being used as a weapon, but do not wish to take sides, they can publish a general correction for those wanting one, but should probably not expect their work to be as widely read as that of those who use history instrumentally.  Professional historians should consider themselves under obligation never to consciously distort the historical record for political purposes, though the role of the “corrective” with political implications, I think, remains unresolved.

Historians of science also need to be more sympathetic to instrumental uses of history put to ends other than accurate history.  Philosophers may make bad historians from time to time, but just because the history of science does not “work” philosophically, better methods of securing knowledge require philosophical work, which requires instrumental uses of history to examine what sufficient conditions are required for securing knowledge, much as a sociologist like Harry Collins might ask what sufficient conditions of trust are required for securing the acceptance of knowledge.  Likewise, as Richard Staley points out, scientific work requires a pruning and redefinition of individual narratives to recommend collective paths forward.  Historians of science should undo all these instrumental uses to recover a more accurate history, they should make these instrumental uses of history subjects of historical investigation themselves, and they should not be too upset when others cannot be bothered to share their passion for accurate history.


1. enzian - January 10, 2010

As usual, Will, this is a great post – I’ve been appreciating your efforts for some time.

I felt, though, that your penultimate paragraph was leading to a stronger conclusion than that at which you ultimately arrived. If instrumental history is inevitable, and especially if (a) it’s inevitable in the making of important policy & (b) the area of history being used is that in which a given historian is an expert, I kind of thought you’d make the case that such an historian has an obligation to intervene, or maybe even to seek out an active role in policy deliberations (not to say that correcting errors when they arise isn’t part of the analytic-deliberative process..).

What would you say to someone who insisted that there was a very real obligation on the historian who found his or her area of expertise under threat of heightened demand from clear-and-eminent political decision-making?

2. Will Thomas - January 10, 2010

Thanks for the comment, enzian. I guess my reticence to have a more assertive conclusion has to do with my feeling that social and political science are also inevitable features of policymaking, and that economists and policy analysts generally have a good grip on today’s policy problems, even if they don’t always agree with each other. Of course I’d like to see better history deployed in the public sphere, but if I had to prioritize, I’d rather see bad policy arguments refuted before bad history. And since it’s so hard to make bad policy arguments go away via public outreach, I don’t have much faith that we’ll have much luck getting rid of bad history.

Where I think the best opportunities are is if we had much more detailed, more rigorous, and just plain more history of the last 10-30 years or so, and that this work needs to dovetail with the work of policy analysts and those very large groups of people who work regularly with the public. Naomi Oreskes had a good talk saying something along these lines at the last HSS meeting.

And, of course, understanding of the last 10-30 years depends on a proper understanding of prior periods. But here the policy-oriented historians should liaise with historians of those periods, rather than imagine that older periods have direct lessons for contemporary issues, other than those basic bits of wisdom that intelligent policy analysts and policymakers will already possess.

3. Peter Morgan - January 16, 2010

For a physicist with a significant interest in philosophy of physics and a sometime interest in history of physics, this was a dense post. I think of physics, somewhat post-positivistically, as a systematization of experience — history, perhaps — that has current utility. Physics, or any systematization, allows us to put a lot of history in a box that has contents with which we don’t have to concern ourselves, because we know what the outside of the box says about what is inside. We value good boxes because they let us get on and do new stuff. What boxes we know of and use more-or-less defines us.

Revisiting the inside of a box — pointing out where there are myths, for example — is only useful, tautologically, if it improves the utility of the box. To which we can add, that there are different users of a given box, with different views of its utility, and the creation of new boxes that contain parts of one box and parts of another can have great utility.

To me this suggests that historians can only expect people other than historians to be interested if their re-presentations of history suggests a new way to box it all up, usefully, for someone, which I think gives a possible focus for your concluding sentence. I’m not as passionate about details of history as a historian, unless those details suggest that a change should be made to a box that I use. I love new boxes. I suppose that historians may sometimes produce a box that a physicist can use without modification, but I would generally expect that a physicist has concerns that a historian is not quite competent to address, just as a physicist’s history is rarely satisfactorily competent to a historian.

The idea that there are boxes that contain knowledge, with an index on the side, is itself an idea that could do with being refined, but a physicist is somewhat too likely to think of a visual analogy, sadly, at least in a quick and naive blog comment. I suspect that the focus on utility is also delicate.

Thanks for your thoughts.

4. Will Thomas - January 17, 2010

Peter, thanks very much for your thoughts, and a fine explanation of how things look from the opposite perspective. I was going to reply in a bit more depth, but I think I’ll just come back to your set-of-indexed-boxes idea when I do a post on how one can draw a distinction between creative and destructive instrumental uses of history. That is a necessary corollary to this post, and I think much of the basic idea is already contained in your analogy.

5. Atsushi Akera - February 25, 2010

Will, I’m not sure whether you’re still thinking about this issue, but perhaps you’d be interested in what “policy historians” have been doing and saying. You may be especially interested in Richard Neustadt and Ernest May’s /Thinking in Time/, and their effort to classify the different ways in which history affects policy makers. See also Julian Zelizer’s “Clio’s Lost Tribe,” a history of policy history’s development (Journal of Policy History, 12/3(2000):369-694). Both talk about historical correctives as one of only several different uses of history (in the policy arena).

Policy history, on the other hand, deals with only one aspect of instrumental uses of history. Certainly the public history movement has made other kinds of uses of history (though the two are related). Also, have your thoughts wandered into the relevance of the notion of the “history of the present?” Some of your comments venture into that arena, I think. One more connection (off of a connection). Carnegie Mellon, under Peter Sterns and Joel Tarr, specifically developed a department of “Applied History”–that has connections both to public history and the history of science/technology. (Tarr was an urban historian; CMU had a major school for urban administration)

(Atsushi Akera, historian of technology; Department of Science and Technology Studies, Rensselaer Polytechnic)

6. Will Thomas - February 25, 2010

Atsushi, thanks for commenting. This is on the back-burner at the moment, but I do intend to return to it down the road. I must confess ignorance to all the literature you mention here, but I will pick it up since I have a strong interest in the the various flavors of policy analysis, and it sounds compelling. This also reminds me that I still need to give your book, Calculating a Natural World: Scientists, Engineers, and Computers During the Rise of U.S. Cold War Research a serious read-over. (The link is for anyone else who might also be interested and who isn’t aware of the book.)

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