What I have learned from history

These are not the lessons of history. They are just things I have learned. Some of this knowledge is hard-earned, and some is just the persistence of ideas I have had since I was a teenager.

1. Things that seem very important now were often very different or even non-existent in the past. The opposite is also true, that things that were very important in the past now seem silly.

1a. This is especially true of general concepts that are important for our values, sense of identity and the ways we try to change other people—concepts like freedom, addiction, democracy, faith, justice, or rights. Historical analysis shows their meanings to be unstable, vague and contradictory.

1b.  Sometimes people successfully attach a certain interpretation to these concepts, and insert them into policy and institutions. This can even recreate parts of the world in the image of those concepts and their opposites. But only for a while (see point 1).

2. Nothing has pure origins. Everything comes from hybridity, change and compromise.

2a. We very rarely say or do anything that is original. We usually just mix different ingredients, with different proportions.

 3. Almost no social or political reform turns out as expected, especially over the long run.

3a. Intentions are usually irrelevant. Good intentions often lead to bad results and vice versa. The results are very hard to predict.

3b. Of course, the very definition of good and bad intentions and results will also change over time.

3c. We often criticize people in the past for behaving in such and such a way and not understanding the implications of their actions, even as we behave in a very similar manner don’t understand the implications of our actions.

 4. There are many levels of historical process: Huge macro-trends that can only be understood in terms of abstract structures and statistical tendencies; mid-level trends shaped by events and policies; and micro-trends shaped by individual choices and agency (not to mention all kinds of intermediary levels).

4a. These levels clearly overlap, but I still have no clear idea how they are related to each other.

5. When we separate economics, politics, society, culture, language, environment, biology and technology, law and psychology, our analyses are inevitably wrong.

6. Good history scholarship has accuracy, a nuanced sense of causality and a complex sense of the many factors involved.

6a. Good history scholarship is immoral.

6b. It can easily seem polemical, revisionist or irrelevant because it cares little for the current stories and categories most people share with each other.

7. Good history writing works with symbols and narratives, in a complex but emotionally potent way.

7a. The truth of good history writing has little to do with accurate causality, facts and footnotes (although it can be easily combined with extensive research, facts and footnotes).

7b. Good history writing is very hard to combine with good history scholarship.

 8. Everything is complicated.

8b. Most people don’t really want to know how complicated it is.


Posted on October 12, 2011, in Academic History, The Big Questions, The Search and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.


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