An explanation

I study history, and every time I talk to someone about it I tend to hear the question common to beleaguered students everywhere: “and what do you do with that?” The disciples of history in particular might suffer more than others. Not unreasonably, the common vision of history is narrative. A series of events, known and catalogued, which, when laid out nicely, bring us neatly to the present. The narrative of history is a practical vision. It allows us to condense within a discrete and re-findable object all of the vagaries of the past, so that the knowledge can be applied to the present. Much like a general knowledge of gravity, momentum, and speed might allow one to safely navigate a staircase; a general knowledge of history can aid us all in navigating the cultural landscape in which we live.

But, we do ourselves a disservice if we assume our knowledge to be complete or unimpeachable. Take again the example of gravity. Its operation is evident, and its existence is a touchstone of reality. A ball thrown into the air a million times over will inevitably return to the ground as a constant proof of the Universes’ orderliness. That what goes up must also come down is a typical understanding of the operation of gravity and a functional one as well because it describes the material world as most people are likely to perceive it. It is however incomplete, and necessarily so. The trend of recent research concerning the operation of gravity at a sub-atomic level has pointed to a disconcerting untidiness inherent in the coexistence of general relativity and quantum theory. Of course, the actual consequence of this fact upon the lives of the vast majority of people is also probably only discernible at the Planck scale. The point isn’t that people are wrong about gravity, but rather that the world is not always as it seems.

Similarly, history is more than the narrative. There are, on the one hand, some touchstone events, the basic existence and general shape of which all historians will agree on. On the other hand however, lies a far more ambiguous and disputed expanse which details the relationships between events and the journey from one point to the next. Yes, Julius Caesar lived and reigned thousands of years ago, and that is historical fact. But why should we care? Or, to bring the example closer to home, why does it matter that 68 years ago some journeyman baseball player by the name of Jackie Robinson took the field against the Boston Braves? With what strangeness would an alien species, unaware of the common past which divided us by race, look upon the idolization of this particular player over so many others?

There are therefore historical facts, but it’s the process of their explanation which makes history. Henri Poincaré notes that “somewhere in his writings” Leo Tolstoy had once explained that “science for science’s sake is an absurd conception [because] we cannot know all the facts, since they are practically infinite in number.” That our understanding of the world might be “determined by caprice or immediate necessity” was hugely unsatisfying to Mr. Poincaré. Consequently he argued that the point of science was not to know everything, but rather to make a judicious selection of those facts which are most interesting, those which “can be used several times, those which have a chance of recurring.”[1]

A similar problem exists in history. Uncountable men and women have spilled their blood for causes both good and bad, innumerable speeches have been given which have charged their recipients to accept their destiny and thereby change the future, a thousand times over men and women have stood in the face of history at particular moments and changed the world. Why then do we choose to remember some moments over others, and why are so many forgotten? Which are the facts which are important to our world, and how can we discern them?

I don’t have a complete answer to this problem, nor is it particularly important to me that I should have one. What matters to me lives beyond the pure narrative of the past. When I interest myself in the methods by which historians discriminate the past, it’s enough for me to remember that the world in which I live is one for which I have selected the facts by which to understand it. Someone who is not me may well have made quite a different selections of facts, and therefore receive quite a different world.

[1] Henri Poincaré, Science and Method trans. Francis Maitland (Mineola, Dover Publications, 2003), 15-16.

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