Theories of History K.J. Benoy
Schools of Thought • Historians (and non-historians) seek to make sense of the past. • They look for patterns. • They seek truths. • What they find shapes their conclusions. • If they are not intellectually honest, their existing ideas may determine what they seek in the past – and therefore reinforce pre-determined beliefs – not unlike a science student “cooking” his experimental results. • Since we all have biases, a good historian must be aware of his own and must avoid a myopic approach and be willing to change positions if the evidence warrants it.
Schools of Thought • It is possible to see clusters of historical interpretations – these are referred to as schools of thought. • Sometimes historical writers fit comfortably into one particular school. Sometimes they straddle two or more.
Cyclical • This suggests that history repeats itself over time. There is no real progress. • Such views were common in the ancient world -- Herodotus and Thucydides suggested this. Ssu-Ma Ch’ien, in China, believed in dynastic cycles. • Mesoamerican civilizations believed in this. • During the Renaissance Petrarch and Machiavelli recycled the idea. • In modern times Toynbee and Spengler have also believed in it.
Linear • Followers of these theories believe in progress. • St. Augustine. • Ibn Khaldun • Voltaire • Karl Marx • They believe that the world can made better.
Linear II • For the Jews there was the notion of God’s forgiveness and belief in the future coming of a messiah would bring redemption. • Many argue that Christianity changed Western thinking. • Christ had come to redeem mankind.
Linear III • The ideology of Liberalism assumes the notion of progress and the slang term for liberal, whig, is given to the approach of liberal historians – the Whig View of History. • Socialists and Communists similarly believe in the notion of progress.
Great Man • Followers of the Great Man Theory suggest that individuals, through the power of their character or intellect, determine the course of history. • Event making men cause events to take place. • Eventful men are famous through their association with important events that they did not themselves cause to occur
French historian Philippe Aries popularized social history Everyman • Opposing the Great Man Theory is a belief that it is the cumulative efforts of the many, not a small elite, that shapes the world. • Anthropologists, sociologists and psychologists often voice these ideas. • Social historians also tend to focus their efforts on examining ordinary lives.
Great Ideas - Philosophic History • Proponents of such theories believe that history is moved along by changing ideas. • G.W.F. Hegel believed in a dialectic whereby an idea (thesis) us posed and challenged (antithesis). A synthesis is arrived at, which becomes a new thesis, to be challenged again. History is, therefore, the development of consciousness. • Karl Marx insisted that economic shifts moved history along – what matters is ownership of the means of production. (Dialectical Materialism)
Great Ideas - Philosophic History II • Determinists believe that there are fundamental laws of history. • They often see history as moving toward a goal of some kind. • Marx felt that the world was moving inexorably to Communism. • The modern Ammerican historian Fukuyama believes that western liberal democracy now reigns supreme -- bringing an “end to history” in that the battle of 20th century ideologies was won.
Geographic - Geopolitical • Yet others believe that the landscape or environment is a chief determinant of history. • Immanuel Kant • Halford Mackinder • Alfred Thayer Mahan • Geography determines potential and needs.
Ecological History & Ecofeminism • “New Age” thinking has produced distinctly late 20th century and 21st century strains of thought. • Christopher B. Jones talks of the “Gaia Hypothesis” - of ecological determinism • Riane Eisler postulates an ecological and feminist viewpoint. • Such theorists often attack traditional history as oppressive. They want fundamental change in society’s way of thinking.
Postmodernism • Many argue that postmodernist philosophical thought is a threat to the viability of the study of history. • Postmodernists agree with Nietszche, who said “There are no facts, only interpretations.”
Postmodernism II • Deconstructionist thought is connected to this. • Deconstructionists believe that language is incapable of describing truth – so the premise of History is false. • Deconstructionists do not believe in certainties. They are often called “relativists” because they question existing values and suggest we cannot find certainties anywhere. • They tend to come from “New Left” backgrounds who reject tradition and aim to construct a “better” future. • Political correctness is a trend that comes out of this. By eliminating words from our vocabulary, practitioners hope to destroy the ability to formulate bad ideas.
Postmodernism III • The most significant postmodernist thinker is Michel Foucault. • Foucault rejects mainstream Western thought since the enlightenment. • The husband of Canada’s last Governor General, John Ralston Saul, accepts this view. One of his book titles, Voltaire’s Bastards; the Dictatorship of Reason in the West, shows his hostility.
Defending History • Keith Windschuttle recently wrote a book entitled The Killing of History: How a Discipline is Being Murdered by Literary Critics and Social Theorists. • He argues: • “The study of history is essentially a search for the truth…those who insist that all historic evidence is inherently subjective are wrong…one of the most common experiences of historians is that the evidence they find forces them, often reluctantly, to change the position they originally intended to take.” • Historians have generally mustered more convincing evidence in support of their conclusions than have their critics.
Conclusion • Historians of all varieties, and their critics, play an important role in encouraging thought. • If studying history is worthwhile, we should understand why. • We should also understand that for it to have meaning, it must be honestly pursued. • Historians must look to evidence to support or refute their views. • “The truth is out there.”