Terrific article; it is the sort of paper that should be discussed in an upper 

seminar, the kind of essay that I remember we discussed in upper level

seminars back in the years I was "in training" to become an historian.

Will tell you one thing, I am eternally grateful for a philosophy class

I once took on the subject of the "philosophy of history."  And if there is

one major criticism to make of "Bonfire" it is that it proceeds as if

there was no such thing as Philosophy of History.  Bad mistake.

I did not realize it at the time but I was "converted" to Collingwood

by that class.  This is in reference to RG Collingwood, a British

historian   -aka, philosopher of history .  His point can be summarized

succinctly:   The meaning of history follows from its uses in the present.

History should be useful in ways that people are conscious of   -rather

than useful in unconscious ways they never reflect upon  -because

what generally happens in that case  is that some kind of political

(or other) agenda is assumed and the agenda sets the rules

not any need for objectivity.

Grand theories are not shibboleths, however. These theories can be useful

in an of themselves, especially as motivation to study history

in the first place. Hence, to reflect on my own intellectual trajectory,

the various phases I went through, Hegel, Condorcet, Saint-Simon

and the Positivists, Vico, etc., each taught me valuable lessons and, indeed,

with some modification (actually a lot of modification) I still am

under the spell of Saint-Simon.

What do people need history for?  How about basic literacy?

History, after all, is another word for memory, and if you have

vast memory you can draw upon a wealth of historical metaphors

and, best of all, you do not ceaselessly reinvent the past.  I mean,

do you want to be well informed or not?

To use one example, Juan Williams was on the tube the other day

complaining that history, by definition, discriminates against women,

After all, it is all about "his story" not "her story."

Alas for Juan Williams this false etymology was popular in the early

years of the feminist movement of the 60s-70s,  popularized by

Betty Friedan and others.  It has nothing at all to do with

his or (lack of) her.  The root is a Greek term, "histo," meaning

tissue  -in the sense of fabric held together by weaving techniques.

Hence the Muse of history (the discipline) is the minor goddess Clotho,

the female deity of spinning.

Any well educated  and history conscious Anglican could have told you

this in the Victorian era, and maybe can still tell you  -in ways pretty much

closed to Evangelicals or "liberal Christians" today, precisely because

such believers have such a low opinion of the worth of history.

And heaven forbid that they take any interest in classical mythology.

What Collingwood also did was to insulate me from fads like

social history of various kinds, that is, from the excesses of these

recent departures into special interest pleading that are basically

subjective in character.  Collingwood has acted as a disinfectant

and maybe moreso as a  "vaccine" from bogus or specious history.

I do have an agenda, of course.  To me it is the view that  most basic about

history is the undeniable fact that religion and politics, plus culture

more generally, plus the "private cultures" each one of us carries

around in our heads, are always the direct products of our memories

and our learned memories, viz, history.  Hence we need to get history right

for the same kind of reason we need to get mastery of the English language

right; you cannot function well unless you do so,

This does not mean that you are condemned to a life of library stacks

and never go outside and enjoy nature.  My models of what should be

the norm are people like Teddy Roosevelt, an historian per se as well

as a practical politician, and also an avid outdoorsman,  Martin Luther

who not only wrote prodigiously but was a man's man and an energetic

social activist, plus people like Japanese Buddhist leader Kobo Daishi,

founder of the Shingon school, who not only was a scholar of

Asian religion and literature, but an engineer (for his era)

and a pioneer in education in his country.

There's a saying to the effect that "the Bible is true but it is not accurate."

I take that view  -with the modification that "it sometimes is not accurate

even if it IS accurate about more things than not."  Yet is can be inaccurate

and in cases the inaccuracies can be monumental.  Reference is especially

to Richard Elliott Friedman's 1987 opus, "Who Wrote the Bible?"

It is impossible to learn all the facts there are that are possible to know

about the Bible but it is quite possible to become very well informed

about a selected number of themes in the Bible that seem to you

to have special importance.

Hence one "grand theory" that I work with year in and year out is the view

that, yes, the Bible is true but it isn't always historically accurate.  How in 
the hell

can I reconcile these contrary (not contradictory, "contrary") truths?  That is

my self chosen Great Task.  True to form I think the solution is Kantian:

Appeal to a higher truth than either Biblical literalists or Biblical modernists

want us to think are the only alternatives.   Hence I go back to

the originals, as it were, the sacred texts of ancient Mesopotamia

which, if you take the time to learn that literature,

give us most of the "Ur myths" of the Old Testament.

In this context "myth" means "story," or etiology, or account, or the like.

It does not mean falsehood. It means truth but expressed in literary format.

Hence if you really are interested in the Book of Job, and who isn't?,

then it is necessary  to study Ludlul bel nemiqi, "I will praise the

lord of Wisdom" on which it is based.

Religion requires mastery of history  -or at least a serious background of 

But so does Constitutionalist "originalism."  And so does much else,

including subjects of interest that date to times in the 20th century

or even the early 21st century.

History is useful, it is damned useful, as a matter of fact.


From: <> on 
behalf of Centroids <>
Sent: Saturday, March 10, 2018 4:49 AM
To: Centroids Discussions
Subject: [RC] History and the Bonfire of the Humanities | The Nation

A friend just sent this to me (from 2015). At the risk of trolling, I’d love to 
hear what Billy thinks. I myself am sympathetic to the Practical Past and  a 
mutual reform with philosophy...


Bonfire of the Humanities | The 
Historians are losing their audience, and searching for the next trend won’t 
win it back.

Bonfire of the Humanities
Historians are losing their audience, and searching for the next trend won’t 
win it back.
By Samuel Moyn<>
January 21, 2015

Edward Gibbon (1773), by Henry Walton

History has a history, and historians rarely tire of quarreling over it. Yet 
for the past few centuries, historians have maintained an uneasy truce over the 
assumption that the search for “facts” should always take precedence over the 
more fractious difficulty of interpreting them. According to Arnaldo 
Momigliano, the great twentieth-century Italian scholar of ancient history, it 
was the Renaissance antiquarians who, though they did not write history, 
inadvertently made the modern historical profession possible by repudiating 
grand theory in order to establish cherished fact. The antiquarians collected 
remnants of the classical past, and understandably they needed to vouch for the 
reliability of their artifacts at a time when so many relics were wrongly 
sourced or outright fakes. Momigliano cited the nineteenth-century Oxford don 
Mark Pattison, who went so far as to remark about antiquarians—approvingly—that 
“thinking was not their profession.” It may remain the whispered credo required 
for admission to the guild.

More wary than anthropologists, literary critics or political scientists of 
speculative frameworks, historians generally have been most pleased with their 
ability simply to tell the truth—as if it were a secret to be uncovered through 
fact-finding rather than a riddle to be solved through interpretation. Anthony 
Grafton once honored Momigliano with the title “the man who saved history,” and 
it seems fair to say that the latter voiced the consensus of a profession that 
makes facts almost sacred and theories essentially secondary.

Even when historians started to think a little, they did so gingerly. If 
antiquarians merely paved the road for modern history, to proceed down it 
required doing more than displaying the hard-won truth. Momigliano reported 
that it took a while for our early modern intellectual ancestors to suspect 
that they could ever improve on the classical historians of Greece and Rome, 
thanks to the new facts that antiquarians had eked out. The true antiquarians 
simply stashed their goods and, Momigliano vividly wrote, shivered in “horror 
at the invasion of the holy precincts of history by a fanatic gang of 
philosophers who travelled very light.” But their heirs, like Edward Gibbon, 
author of the stupendous Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, realized that 
storytellers would have to take on board speculation or “philosophy,” 
corralling facts within an intellectual scheme to lend them meaning. Facts 
alone were blind, just as theory was empty on its own. Yet Momigliano, sharing 
Pattison’s approval of the antiquarian origins of history, acknowledged the 
necessity of thinking almost regretfully, as if the results were an inevitably 
ramshackle edifice built on the bedrock of fact that it was the real job of 
historians to lay down. Theories could be stripped away, and stories renovated 
as fashion changed, but the facts on which the edifice was built would endure. 
The “ethics” of the profession, Momigliano testified, rested on the ability of 
historians to stay true to them.

In the early days of Gibbon’s Enlightenment, most of the frameworks on which 
historians relied were theories about the origins and progress of society; in 
the two centuries since, historians have been willing to have their facts 
consort with a wide variety of suitors, from nationalism to Marxism to 
postmodernism. The discipline has gone through so many self-styled theoretical 
“turns” that it is frankly hard to keep up. It is paradoxically because most 
historians have looked on theory with suspicion—as a lamentable necessity, at 
best, to allow the facts their day—that they have often been avid 
trend-watchers. Precisely because they are so fickle, opportunistic and 
superficial in their attitude to speculation, historians seem to change popular 
theories often, treating them not as foundations to be built on, but as 
seasonal outfits to clothe the facts they have so assiduously gathered.

* * *

Today, historians worry that they have lost their audience, and their distress 
has made the search for the next trend seem especially pressing. At the 
beginning of her new book, Writing History in the Global Era, Lynn Hunt remarks 
that “history is in crisis” because it can no longer answer “the nagging 
question” of why history matters. David Armitage and Jo Guldi, in their History 
Manifesto, concur: in the face of today’s “bonfire of the humanities,” and a 
disastrous loss of interest in a topic in which the culture used to invest 
heavily (and in classes that students used to attend in droves), defining a new 
professional vocation is critical. History, so often viewed as a “luxury” or 
“indulgence,” needs to figure out how to “keep people awake at night,” as Simon 
Schama has said. Actually, the problem is worse: students today have endless 
diversions for the wee hours; the trouble for historians is keeping students 
awake during the day.

In the last few decades, Hunt has had the most reliable eye for new trends in 
the American historical profession, and what she considers important always 
amounts to more than the sum of her current enthusiasms. You may not like the 
enterprises she is bullish on; you may try to blow up one of her bandwagons—as 
I did in these pages when she invented human-rights history—only to find 
yourself riding it for life [“On the Genealogy of Morals,” April 16, 2007]. 
What you cannot dispute is that she has a preternatural sense of the new new 
thing being touted by historians to study old things.

Like a few other famous trendsetters, Hunt, who recently retired from UCLA, was 
trained in the 1970s during the rising tide of social history, when what 
mattered most was learning about the ordinary men—and, even more important, 
women—lost to the enormous condescension of posterity. Having focused for 
centuries on kings (and, eventually, presidents) and their wars and diplomats 
and negotiations, historians realized that they had mostly ignored the social 
forces pulsing from below, and they longed to identify with the forgotten 
people who had been written out of history simply because they were not elites. 
Social historians often had left-wing sympathies, and, following the lodestar 
of E.P. Thompson’s luminous The Making of the English Working Class (1963), 
they wanted social history to chronicle the rise in political consciousness of 
the laboring people (and, later, other oppressed or marginalized groups) who 
deserved justice. Because they were interested in the shape of society and not 
only its working classes, social historians drew on a then-newfangled body of 
thought. It was not just left-wing politics but Marxism as a theory of society 
that prospered under social history’s reign; in turn, the whole tradition of 
such thinking, from the Enlightenment to Emile Durkheim and Max Weber, became 

Hunt left the fold in the 1980s, bolting for what she famously dubbed “the new 
cultural history.” Worlds became full of meaning, renegade social historians 
discovered, and the representations of power that people create, the rituals 
they practice, and the ways they interpret their worlds now trumped basic 
information about the social order. It wasn’t enough to understand the class 
structure at the time of the French Revolution, Hunt argued in her landmark 
book Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution (1984); one also 
needed to understand the world of political symbols and “political culture” 
that made social action meaningful—especially since class turned out not to 
matter as much as the Marxists believed. Trading in Marxism for anthropology 
and “postmodern” theory, the new cultural history was, among other things, a 
protest against the tabulation of people according to static categories like 
“the workers” or “the peasantry,” and its breakthrough coincided with the 
failure of political efforts to win greater social equality.

Then Hunt changed her mind again. No sooner had the ink dried on The Family 
Romance of the French Revolution (1992)—a creative application of Sigmund 
Freud’s originally individualized psychoanalysis to a collective event, which 
remains her most interesting book—than she declared that “theory” had gone too 
far. It seemed, Hunt complained, to be little more than a recipe for saying 
whatever you want. “Postmodernists often put the word ‘reality’ in quotation 
marks to problematize the ‘there’ out there,” Hunt and several colleagues wrote 
in Telling the Truth About History (1994). But this statement wasn’t itself 
realistic—the point of theory is that no “reality” is self-interpreting—and her 
verdict could hardly prove the uselessness of broader frameworks of 
interpretation, except to those who treat them as secondary in the first place. 
Frightened by the whirling fashions that seemed to threaten mere chaos, Hunt 
rallied around facts. She declared the cultural turn a vast mistake, and 
postmodernism a tissue of error. From whatever heaven or hell they reside in, 
the antiquarians were smiling.

* * *

But if facts provide permanent refuge to historians, fashions continue to 
entice them. Twenty years on, Hunt is again scrutinizing the latest trends, and 
the opinions she offers about them in Writing History in the Global Era should 
not be taken lightly. She begins by reviewing the shift from social to cultural 
history. As she confesses, one big problem with the search for “meaning” in the 
past is that it was so vague as to be useless, even if it showed that a 
shortcoming of social history was an incessant focus on anonymous and 
supposedly objective processes. But cultural history proved to be another 
cul-de-sac. Hunt explains it with a different metaphor: “What began as a 
penetrating critique of the dominant paradigms ended up seeming less like a 
battering ram and more like that proverbial sucking sound of a flushing 
toilet.” In Hunt’s telling, the clear need even two decades ago was for a new 
“paradigm” for historians to apply to their facts. But what is it?

Where cultural history often emphasized the small and the local, Hunt 
continues, the current wave of interest in “globalization” favors the 
far-flung. It gets its name from a process exalted by Thomas Friedman and 
excoriated by Naomi Klein, and Hunt shows that historians have hardly been 
immune from suddenly discovering the world beyond their cramped former national 
or regional redoubts. She also shows that the very term “globalization” has 
experienced a crescendo in the past two decades, with books and articles 
pouring forth from presses offering global histories on a welter of subjects. 
We have been treated to global histories of cod, comics and cotton, and one 
publisher offers a series dedicated to global accounts of foodstuffs like figs, 
offal, pancakes and pizza. German historian Jürgen Osterhammel’s history of the 
nineteenth century, The Transformation of the World, shows what life was like 
when it took eighty days to travel around the globe, anticipating our age of 
supersonic movement of people and instantaneous transmission of bytes. Even 
Hunt has recently gotten into the act, editing a book about the French 
Revolution from a global perspective.

Proponents of globalizing history have persuasively argued that history has 
remained “Eurocentric,” but Hunt rightly asks whether the contemporary fashion 
of writing history across large spaces does more than drastically expand the 
canvas for historical depiction. “Is globalization a new paradigm for 
historical explanation that replaces those criticized by cultural theories?” 
she asks. It may enlarge the scale of study, focusing on long-distance trade, 
far-flung empire or cross-border war, but such a perspective could merely draw 
greater mountains of facts in view, without explaining what they mean or why 
they matter.

What global history emphatically does not prove is that the classic authorities 
for interpreting the past have become obsolete, especially since Karl Marx 
himself described the phenomenon now called globalization. Hunt’s starting 
point is different. She argues that because she and her fellow cultural 
historians so irreparably damaged the social theories that commanded history 
from Gibbon’s time to our own, the options for doing history now can only take 
one of two forms. One is to do without any reigning “paradigm,” which Hunt 
stipulates cultural history never had—beyond a general commitment to 
recapturing meaning, without agreement on how to interpret it. The other is to 
invent a new paradigm. Hunt’s fear is that globalization, because it 
foregrounds anonymous processes once favored by social historians, will end up 
preferring the sorts of frameworks they once relied upon. Globalization could, 
that is, make obsolete the insights of the cultural revolution Hunt originally 
sponsored, while doing nothing to lead historians beyond the limits she now 
thinks are intrinsic to a global focus.

To her credit, Hunt makes it clear that her need for a new dispensation is 
hardly universal within the profession. It is conventional to group Hunt with 
her generational colleagues Joan Scott and William Sewell, since all three 
bolted from social history in a crowd, and all three have regularly explained 
their turns over the years. (Sewell is the author of the greatest book in the 
historiographical landscape, Logics of History: Social Theory and Social 
Transformation [2005].) But as Hunt notes, Scott has stuck it out with 
postmodernism—apparently believing it more defensible than Hunt does—while 
Sewell has gone “backwards” to Marxism. Hunt is not satisfied with either 
choice: “Must historians choose between a return to the previous paradigms,” 
she wonders, “or no paradigm at all?”

For Hunt to ask this question, her twin premises—that cultural history utterly 
devastated social theory, while generating no real interpretive worldview of 
its own—must bear a lot of weight. Perhaps too much: Sewell doesn’t think the 
first is true, while Scott would bridle at the second. For that matter, you 
might wonder whether the source of the problem is the roller coaster of 
approaches and its endless loops, which produces the demand for a new new 

Bravely, Hunt forges ahead to shape her own paradigm, in what is the most 
interesting chapter of her book. She concludes that historians need a novel 
approach to society—or, more precisely, a theory of the mutual relationship 
between the individual self and the larger society. Neither social nor cultural 
history, which submerged the individual in a larger system of forces or 
meaning—often to the point of rendering him entirely insignificant—could 
possibly fit the bill, Hunt says. But there is good news: “Ideas about the 
society-self connection are now emerging from an unlikely conjunction of 
influences.” Her goal is to spell out what these are, as sources for a new 

Two of Hunt’s sources are evolutionary neuroscience and cognitive psychology, 
which she tinkered with in earlier work. Her enthusiasm for them appears 
strange, given that the rule of biological processes is hardly less anonymous 
and deterministic than a globalizing turn that effaces human agency. Importing 
newfangled theories from other esoteric fields and leaning on works of pop 
science doesn’t seem like a recipe for success. Remember the crop of historians 
of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century who put their bets on 
scientific racism? Nobody does, except as cautionary tales, because their work 
is worthless.

What becomes even more confusing is that Hunt grafts this trend onto a return 
to the hoary tradition of social theory that she explicitly admits is simply a 
broader version of the approaches that cultural history supposedly overturned. 
The idea that “the social is the ground of meaning”—in Hunt’s ultimate 
formula—was central to the tradition of thinking from the Neapolitan sage 
Giambattista Vico to Durkheim, Marx and Weber. It may be that social historians 
badly misunderstood this tradition in their efforts to think about society in 
terms of broad categories of people, just as cultural historians reversed the 
error in celebrating “meaning” as a separate object. But in her proposed return 
to the social, Hunt is essentially admitting that we progress not by seeking a 
new paradigm, but by fixing past mistakes. One of the biggest is the 
trend-driven thought that historians had to choose between studying society and 
studying culture, even if that false choice once made sense to Hunt and her 

For this reason, Hunt’s book sometimes reads as if we have to live her own 
intellectual life story in order to follow her venture to craft a new paradigm. 
It could be, however, that all this talk of “paradigms” is misleading—a 
distraction from the fact that the relation of self and society has been the 
constant concern of social theory since its origin, and that there is a huge 
range of options within that tradition to explore and improve upon. Hunt 
repudiates the common postmodern position that the self is a historical 
product, as if merely proposing a compromise between the claims of society and 
the self were specific or sufficient. Even when it comes to her own modish 
neuroscientific flourish, Hunt connects it to an older French thinker, Maurice 
Merleau-Ponty, and his broader notion that selves are embodied. But like Marcel 
Gauchet, a contemporary Frenchman on whom she draws heavily, Merleau-Ponty is 
merely one figure within a rich fund of resources in social thought.

Hunt raises but never resolves what may be the key quandary for historians 
today. The emergence of global history inevitably makes one wonder if the 
categories—starting with “society” itself—that Westerners have devised to study 
themselves are applicable to peoples of all times and climes. Hunt repudiates 
extremist commentators who insist that Western categories can only ever explain 
Western things. It is not clear that this overcomes the difficulty.

* * *

Whereas Hunt wants to reckon with the fashion of globalization, Armitage and 
Guldi are interested in larger time scales and not merely expanded geographical 
spaces. Armitage, a trusted Harvard colleague of mine, has never been above 
spotting trends himself, having already helped define the study of Atlantic 
history, Pacific history and international history. Now he has a couple of new 
themes—long-term history and present-minded history—and in his effort to 
expound them he is joined by Guldi, a younger whiz kid who is an expert in “big 

Their exciting argument goes like this: in the past few decades, historians 
have dropped their emphasis on what the French historian Fernand Braudel called 
the longue durée. In his celebrated history of the Mediterranean Sea littoral, 
published in 1949, Braudel insisted on the superior reality of the long-term 
rhythms of life. The commanding forces of demography and environment, Braudel 
assumed, made individuals—even kings—mere “dust.” Armitage and Guldi offer a 
series of reasons why, contrary to Braudel’s inspiring example, historians 
broke for the short term. Perhaps the main one was cultural history: “meaning” 
seemed inevitably tied to a specific time and place, in ways that grand stories 
across vastly different times would always slight. But there were other 
reasons, too, like the pressures of finding new topics in the professional 
competition for turf. The results, Armitage and Guldi believe, were profound, 
as the average time scale of history books was precipitously compressed.

But retrieving our sensitivity to what the pair somewhat mysteriously call 
“vibrations of deeper time” is not just an attempt to return to Braudel’s cool 
and remote surveys of aeons. The real reason to ascend to Olympian heights and 
the sweeping gaze they allow, Armitage and Guldi say, is to plunge into the 
political affairs of the city. How is it, they ask, that since classical times 
history played the role as magistra vitae—roughly, a teacher for living—and 
especially for the guidance of political actors, but now has been rudely 
displaced by other fields, and especially by dismal (and often disastrous) 
economic thinking? History used to be, if not exactly philosophy, then at least 
“philosophy teaching by examples,” as Thucydides originally put it, and as the 
early modern Viscount Bolingbroke repeated in his Letters on the Study and Use 
of History (1735).

In this plea for relevance, Armitage is cutting against the famous stricture of 
his mentor, the Cambridge University don Quentin Skinner: if thinking is to be 
done, it has to be done “for ourselves,” without the aid of historical 
perspective. Where Skinner voiced a conventional antiquarian view that the role 
of writing history is to cut the present off from very different pasts, 
Armitage and Guldi insist on the operative value of historical work, and indeed 
for the highest public causes. After chronicling the cult of the short term, 
the two turn to the pressing political reasons for abandoning it in order to 
bring the long term to bear on our present, with the help of new digital tools. 
Historians need, they say, to immerse themselves in the vast digital archives 
of searchable information now on offer, and compared to which their old search 
for archival documents looks narrow and quaint.

Even as they have some wise and penetrating things to say about the new 
services that big data affords, Armitage and Guldi make it clear that their 
brief is not for every historian to shift to the long term. In their defense, 
they cite none other than Lynn Hunt. Time-bound and local puzzles will always 
remain to be confronted; but for Armitage and Guldi, the really uplifting new 
new thing is that computerized data and computing power allow a set of rapid 
solutions to challenges that took Braudel and his ilk a decade to decipher. And 
these, they argue, could in turn allow historians a return to the public stage, 
whether it comes to debates about international governance or global land 

* * *

Armitage and Guldi are careful to distinguish their notion of the long term 
from other calls for “deep” and “big” history. Given her scientism, Hunt has a 
soft spot for the call for depth, one that is associated with another Harvard 
scholar, Daniel Smail, author of On Deep History and the Brain (2008). Smail 
refuses to restrict the history of humanity to the last few millennia and their 
documentary record, when archaeology and especially biology provide tools to 
extend history back much further. For acolytes of “big” history, like the 
Australian scholar David Christian, “deep” history that starts so late—with 
human beings—is itself too unambitious. It’s an argument that has resonated 
beyond the ivory tower. Bill Gates has been agitating for high schools to teach 
history starting with the Big Bang. “I just loved it,” Gates told The New York 
Times of his experience exercising on his treadmill while watching Christian 
explain the concept of big history on a video. “It was very clarifying for me. 
I thought, God, everybody should watch this thing!”

Perish the thought. Apart from the fact that Gates’s scientism sacrifices the 
critical perspective that humanists have learned to maintain since their 
disastrous nineteenth-century dalliance with biology and other natural 
sciences, the trouble with massive expansions of the time line, even just to 
the totality of human history, is simple: it forces historians to become 
scientists, effectively converting their discipline into what is already 
somebody else’s job. Gates’s big historians already exist: they are called 
physicists. In any case, this is not what Armitage and Guldi seem to want. They 
justifiably insist that humanistic inquiry like history is supposed to provide 
an alternative to “the natural-law models of evolutionary anthropologists, 
economists, and other arbiters of our society.” More than that, excessive 
expansion sacrifices the idea that the drama of human history is about the fate 
of our ends, and therefore what we ought to care most about, even when they 
affect the nonhuman world.

Yet even in their comparatively modest call for long time lines to confront 
burning problems (including a literally burning earth), Armitage and Guldi have 
no answer to what has always been the really hard question: How do you 
interpret facts across a tiny or huge time scale? Just as the globe provides a 
larger space, an extended time line merely allows a longer frame. To think 
about what happens in the sunlit uplands beyond the confinement of the local 
and time-bound, you need a theory. Data—including big data about the long 
term—is never self-interpreting. Nor is orientation toward the past for the 
sake of the future solely a problem for which more information is the solution; 
it is ultimately a philosophical problem that only speculation can solve. This 
was the point of social theory from Vico to Marx: to integrate necessary facts 
with a vision of human becoming, which never lacked an ethical and political 
dimension. Arguably, it is this, most of all, that people need today, not 
merely a proclivity for the long term.

Armitage and Guldi have no use for Marx except to inspire their title, and to 
allow them to begin their book by invoking the specter of the long term and to 
end it by demanding that the historians of the world unite. Unlike Hunt, they 
do not regard the newly won chronological sweep—like the larger space of 
globalization—as something that has to be filled by some theory or other that 
allows new or big (or old or little) data to be interpreted in compelling ways. 
Or if they do, it is not the focus of their brief for ambition.

Even our boldest trendsetters, then, do not see the wall between history and 
philosophy as the final frontier to breach, in part because it was the first 
one erected to define the discipline by antiquarians in love with their facts. 
Armitage and Guldi wisely remark that fashionable “critical turns” conceal “old 
patterns of thought that have become entrenched.” Of these, the most durable is 
not the affection for the short term, but the refusal to risk the certainty of 
facts for the sake of a fusion of history and philosophy.

* * *

In 1966, Hayden White published “The Burden of History,” his still invigorating 
attack on his professional colleagues. “History is perhaps the conservative 
discipline par excellence,” White wrote, coming out swinging, and perhaps most 
of all against the factological ethics so central to the modern craft. The 
consequences, according to White, were grave: “As history has become 
increasingly professionalized and specialized, the ordinary historian, wrapped 
up in the search for the elusive document that will establish him as an 
authority in a narrowly defined field, has had little time to inform himself of 
the latest developments in the more remote fields of art and science.”

Momigliano wrote a notorious polemic against White (a former teacher of mine) 
precisely for denigrating the recovery of factual truth, which he thought 
central to history. But if Momigliano turned that recovery into a punishing 
imperative of the historical superego, White wanted to substitute a different 
“ethics” for history—one that would make room for theory, or even insist on 
seeing beyond the contrast between history and theory, in the service of the 
present. Nearly 90 years old and still ahead of his time, White is back this 
year with his own lively new book, The Practical Past.

Because the past needs to be practical for us—there is no reason to care about 
it except insofar as it is useful to the present—White begins his book by once 
again putting Momigliano’s professional “ethics” in their proper place:

The older, rhetorically structured mode of historical writing openly promoted 
the study and contemplation of the past as propaedeutic to a life in the public 
sphere, as an alternative ground to theology and metaphysics (not to mention as 
an alternative to the kind of knowledge one might derive from experience of 
what Aristotle called the “banausic” life of commerce and trade), for the 
discovery or invention of principles by which to answer the central question of 
ethics: “What should (ought, must) I do?” Or to put it in Lenin’s terms: “What 
is to be done?”

It seems as if, in roundabout ways, all of our current historiographical 
trend-followers finally agree with White, in the face of what they regard as a 
great crisis for historical writing today. But it is one thing to call for 
speculation for the sake of relevance, and another to bring about a new 
marriage of history and philosophy. For the coming generation, one thing is 
clear: thinking will have to become our profession.

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