Highways Into History


new internationalist
issue 247 - September 1993

Highways into history
There is no one version of history - historical truth,
like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. But people's
understanding of the past has been shaped by certain
key philosophies of history - here is an NI guide.


Origins Traditional notions of the past reside in the rhythm of the seasons; they are attempts to understand how humankind should adapt to nature. They usually involve some sort of creation story and thus are mixed with religion.

Philosophy The histories of early hunter-gatherer societies were morality tales about how to interact with nature and each other. Gradually these morality tales came to focus on the behavior of the priest, ruler and warrior class as the political state emerged from Egypt to imperial China. But history remained a series of 'lessons' telling (often in remarkable detail) of the great deeds or shortcomings of past rulers and their consequences: glorious conquest, the collapse of cities or deadly offence given to some moody god. These histories were either static or cyclical with little sense of the evolution and direction of society.

Politics The shift in focus from ancestors to rulers was vital: in the process history fatefully moved from being everybody's story to that of kings and priests. History now glorified ruling families and their deeds but could also contain veiled criticism.

Typical Works Oral historians have worked hard to gather the folk tales of hunter-gatherer societies in Africa and the Americas. A contemporary appreciation of this type of history is Calvin Luther Martin's In the Spirit of the Earth. Ancient priest/emperor histories were designed to provide proper conduct guides for contemporary rulers - the Roman Tacitus and the Chinese Ssu-ma Chi'en are just two examples.


Origins Traditional notions of the past based on many whimsical gods gave way to one that unfolded according to the purpose of the one true God of Judaism, Islam and Christianity. The nature gods of hunter-gatherers yielded to the sky gods of settled agriculture. These new religions grew up in Asia Minor and spread rapidly throughout the world.

Philosophy The eye here was directed to the future as much as to the past with events leading inevitably towards some final day of judgment. In general a 'chosen people' or community of the faithful (either by birth or conviction) have been anointed to carry out God's will on earth. History is a battleground between their purifying religious values and those who stand in their way. Just who was God's true agent and who an imposter became the trickiest of historical questions.

Politics Defending holy scripture as historical truth became the main buttress to the power of religious and secular authorities. Religion was politics. Heretics with a different view of the past were usually not tolerated. Both revolt and repression were carried out as if they were God's will.

Typical Works The Qu'ran and the Bible are among the first history books. The scholars of Islamic universities and the holy orders of Medieval Europe held the keys to human memory. Classic books of the period were those of St Augustine, St Bernard or the twelfth-century Islamic scholar Ibn Al-Athir.


Origins This is a major point of departure for nineteenth-century history. Here the influences of natural science in general and Charles Darwin in particular helped shape a cult of objective historical truth. History could be a value-free science reflecting in its methods the same march of progress that it was chronicling.

Philosophy The notion of progress born in Enlightenment Europe hardened into a sense of the inevitability of human advancement. At its best the new emphasis on historical accuracy gave a more balanced view of the past. At its worst it led to an automatic belief in the goodness of modernity.

Politics The crude use of Darwin's 'survival of the fittest' idea suited industrial society's need to justify the winners without too much thought for the losers. Marxism, another form of the gospel of progress, turned Darwin on his head to provide revolutionaries with a scientific faith in the inevitability of progressive socialism. Today crude certainties about what historical truth is and where it leads us have been shattered.

Typical Works EH Carr's What is History? is a classic and intelligent case for the progressive interpretation. The optimism of generations of Marxist historians has stumbled on the realities of 'actually existing socialism'. Ironically the main proponents of progressive optimism today are conservative historians concerned to defend the victories of the modernizing market.


Origins The growth of the nation-state called for a different kind of past. The first secular theory of history can be traced to the work of nineteenth-century German historian Leopold von Ranke. It soon spread across Europe, forming the dominant mode of history-writing in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This kind of history is still a staple of school textbooks.

Philosophy The nation and whatever noble predecessors it can claim are the centrepiece of this history - almost always a success story. The sense of a common past is the glue that keeps a country together. The nation's spiritual beginnings are traced back to the kings of ancient Gaul, to powerful African emperors or noble tribes in long-gone Teutonic forests. The nation takes up the mantle of 'the chosen people' from religion, and patriotic history is the unfolding of this people's special destiny.

Politics While the politics of this history varies from radical republicanism to jingoistic conservatism, a sense of special national destiny is always its motor force. It revolves around the deeds and qualities that made the nation great and in the case of Europe how this greatness was transported abroad to civilize lesser peoples. Much Third World patriotic history is a reaction to Western paternalism but takes on many of its characteristics, as with the murals in post-independence Ghana which attributed to Ghanaian genius the invention of the alphabet and the steam engine.

Typical Works The French historian François Guizot set the tone in the early nineteenth century and has been followed by scores of other European historians ranging in approach from the radical Jules Michelet to the High Tory Winston Churchill. At its worst this degenerates into militaristic sabre-rattling history but at least the cruder justifications of the West's 'civilizing role' are now gone.


Origins This is not properly speaking one of the 'grand governing narratives' that are usually identified as philosophies of history - it makes few claims about the overall meaning of history. But social history is a democratic response that accompanies the growth of political rights, literacy and a taste for their own history by those people left out due to their gender, colour, class or beliefs. It started in the late nineteenth century but only flowered in the 1960s.

Philosophy The social historian tends to look at society from below, concentrating on the issues of everyday life: the organization of work, consumer habits, family patterns and the dynamics of class and gender. Social history often focuses on the part rather than the whole: a local village, a particular industry, the influence of a church, gay or bohemian sub-cultures. Larger meanings are illuminated by these shafts of light from below.

Politics This kind of focus tends towards a sympathy with people at the bottom of society. This is in sharp contrast to much of national history, which engages us with those in power and their problems in 'managing' society. The conclusions of social historians can be conservative but the overall political tendency of this kind of history is on the Left.

Typical Works There are many fine works of social history but EP Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class is as good as any. The French Annales school of the early twentieth century, led by historians like Marc Bloch and Fernand Braudel, was a major influence in starting the social-history revolution, using local studies to give a vision of the whole society. Contemporary social history has narrowed its focus. Many feel that this leaves the overall analysis of historical meaning too open to those with less democratic inclinations than the social historian.

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