On Present-Mindedness in the Writing of History

In The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History (2008), the distinguished American historian Gordon Wood warns against the distortions of reading the present into the past or seeing the present as an inevitable outcome of events in the past. At the same time, he knows that present-mindedness is not entirely avoidable. Its complete absence from a historical perspective turns into antiquarianism. There are continuities as well as discontinuities between past and present. In In The Light of History, J. H. Plumb illustrates the former in his account of the hippies of the nineteen-sixties, who reenacted heretical behavior in the past when groups of the socially disaffected opted out of society. He illustrates the latter in showing how the nuclear family has as a result of social and economic changes increasingly lost its authority. Eighteenth-century and twentieth-century thought may not coincide on the meanings of liberty and equality, but they have enough in common for the thought of Locke and Hume, Rousseau and Voltaire, who themselves differ about their meaning, to be recognizable and relevant in the present. What Locke and Hume, Rousseau and Voltaire have to say continue to speak to us: that capacity is what makes them classics. So the division between past and present is not a given. It is the invention of the historical imagination. The dates that divide them, the boundaries that mark them off are not inscribed in stone. They may shift, depending on differences in historical perspective and interest. What counts as modern may begin in the Renaissance or in 1910. From one perspective, the twentieth-century may constitute a homogeneous period; from another, it can be divided up, let us say, between modern and post-modern. What determines the boundary is the point of view of the historian who has his life in the present.

Wood does not mean to confine the study of events in the past to their immediate historical context. He is interested in how an event or document (for instance, The Declaration of Independence or the Constitution) has played “ in “the memory of nations” (193 ff.). The historian himself has a share in that memory. Shouldn’t memory be pluralized, for it can hardly be the case that national memory is homogeneous? For one thing, the historian with his superior knowledge of the past is bound to have a different memory from that of the citizen without his knowledge. And that knowledge will undoubtedly affect his view, for instance, of how the Supreme Court should interpret the Constitution. There is a difference between remembering the Constitution as the expression of a single, clear intention of the founding fathers and remembering it as an open-ended compromise between contending views of the founders. It is always possible that the historian may insist on simply recording what he believes to be prevailing views. But unless he is a mere chronicler, his report will be informed with interpretation, and interpretation is not an exercise in neutrality. The historian is a citizen, and hard as he tries to cordon off his role of citizen from that of historian, the two roles will interpenetrate. Present-mindedness in one form or another is inescapable. What is at issue is the quality of present-mindedness? The radical postmodern rejection of the possibility of an objective representation of the past tends to dissolve the past in the solution of the present and should not qualify as history. Any worthwhile history needs to be alert to both the tension between present and past and the continuities between them.

Wood dismisses Santayana’s famous aphorism: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” as “fatuous.” He doesn’t elaborate on the judgment, but one can reasonably guess that he finds Santayana guilty of present-mindedness in the implicit assumption that circumstances remain the same through history. Is Wood being fair to Santayana? Consider nation building in the Middle East by Western powers. Remembering the past would have been salutary. Little has changed between the many efforts made in the past and the current American attempt. Of course, an action that failed in the past may succeed in the present. Whereas the command economy failed in the Soviet Union, it has apparently succeeded in China. Unlike the Soviets, the Chinese Communists modified central control without relinquishing it by accommodating a market economy. Apparently they remembered the past and learned from it. On the other hand, actions that succeeded in the past may fail in the future, because history doesn’t simply repeat itself. The circumstances of the current global economic crisis differ from those in which the Great Depression of the 1930s occurred. It is by no means clear that a return to the New Deal would accomplish for the present what it achieved for the thirties and the forties of the previous century, because of changing circumstances in the global economy, which Santayana’s warning doesn’t take into account. Keynes may be the answer, but there are differences between Keynsians about how he should be applied. There is the question of how the past is understood, of what lessons we should take from it. We may look to the past for guidance, but not be in agreement about what it has to say: interpretations vary. We may learn from the past, but not necessarily what to do. Avoiding past errors does not guarantee that what we do in the present will improve matters. Like all aphorisms, Santayana’s only partially illuminates. It doesn’t deserve Wood’s censure.

A historian’s politics may be the way present-mindedness gets expressed. Wood cites with approval Rebecca West: “When politics comes in the door, truth flies out the window” (308). Is this always the case, or are there conditions when politics and truth are companionable? Shouldn’t we make a distinction between politics as an obstacle to a disinterested investigation of the truth and politics as a consequence of the discovery of truth? A historian of the recent past that actively informs the present uncovers hitherto concealed corrupt practices in society and then becomes politically active in exposing and condemning the corruption. The activism that follows does not compromise his role as a historian. This is a stark instance: the relationship between politics and history or the writing of history has a more complicated aspect. The historian is also a citizen with a political disposition that he cannot completely overcome, hard as he tries. Coleridge spoke of suspending disbelief in reading a text, which liberates, for instance, a Jewish reader of Dante to experience and appreciate The Divine Comedy as an imaginative achievement. Should a historian with democratic sympathies comparably suspend judgment in his study, for example, of the institution of slavery? He must not allow his judgment of the institution to cloud his understanding of how the institution works. Where he finds a benevolent master, he acknowledges his existence. But a study of slavery that does not resonate with implicit, if not explicit, condemnation of the institution is morally deficient. Slavery is evil everywhere and at any time, its abolition a triumphant moment, actually a series of moments, in the history of humanity. In the writing of history, however, legitimate differences may arise about how supporters of the institution in the past should be understood. The historian needs first to establish what I would call the horizon of possibility for a particular era and its institutions and events. Was it possible for the educated class of ancient Greece to conceive of slavery as an evil institution? There is no evidence that slavery was an issue in the quarrels of the time, though there may be unrecorded voices of opposition to the institution. If the abolition of slavery was not within the horizon of possibility, should Plato and Aristotle be absolved of their acceptance of slavery? Should it affect our understanding and diminish our appreciation of their total achievements? These are at least questions that need to be addressed. The philosopher Bernard Williams provides a useful answer: “One can believe in moral progress without accusing past ages of wickedness or stupidity” (Quoted in Nagel, 142).

Slavery in nineteenth-century America is an altogether different matter? Its abolition was certainly within the horizon of possibility. Historians, agreed about the evil of slavery, may nonetheless treat the slaveholding class in different ways. Some may simply expose the destructive consequences of their conduct. Others may choose to enter the mindset of the slaveholders and their apologists in order to understand the world from their perspective. A recent resurgence of sympathetic interest in the Confederate south tries to disentangle values of the southern tradition from the institution of slavery. Entering the mindset of ante-bellum apologists, Eugene Genovese has represented their view of agrarian conservatism as a countervailing force to the ravages of modern industrialism. The risk of attempting an empathetic understanding of the slaveholding perspective is being seduced by it. The historian avoids complicity by not converting his understanding into justification. The value of taking the risk is a greater grasp of how the ruling class understood itself. The choice of how to approach the subject often involves the political disposition of the historian. The exclusive focus on the destructive consequences of slavery would be the work of the liberal historian, entry into the mindset of the slaveholding class, that of the conservative historian. (Genovese combines in an unusual way a Marxist perspective on industrial capitalism and a conservative affection for Southern agrarian traditions.) Which, to repeat, is not to suggest that both liberals and conservatives do not share revulsion from slavery. One would expect a modern historian of whatever political persuasion to view the abolition of the institution of slavery as a triumphant event in human progress. Modern society represents a major advance on all societies in which slavery existed.

The politics of history writing is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the study of revolution. Was the French Revolution necessary? Would the changes that flowed from it, political democracy and economic freedom (i.e., the free market), have been possible without the violence of revolution? Both the French and Russian revolutions have been subjects of studies by liberal and progressive historians, among them Marxists in the first half of the twentieth-century, who view the revolutions and the form they took as inevitable stages in human progress. Historians of the late twentieth-century such as Francois Furet and Simon Schama have produced a radically revised view of the French Revolution as a destructive event in human history. And, they have argued, the Revolution was not inevitable; it could and should have been avoided. Progressive and democratic change would have occurred without violent Revolution. Furet did not arrive at this view without a political commitment. He was an ex-Marxist disillusioned by the Russian Revolution. In the Marxist tradition, the two revolutions belong to the same family. The stages of the Russian Revolution are seen as a reenactment of the stages of the French Revolution: Jacobin (Robespierre/Lenin), Thermidor (a ruling committee of transition) Dictatorship (Napoleon/Stalin). Disillusioned by the Russian Revolution, which resulted in the deaths of million and millions of people, Furet turned his attention to the French Revolution and produced a view of it that is both powerful and controversial. Other historians critical of the Russian revolution reject the linkage with the French revolution embraced by Marxist historians. Furet preserves it, but radically inverts its significance. Like the Russian revolution, the French revolution was destructive and not inevitable. It was not the only route that could have been taken to undo the ancien regime. It is doubtful that Furet would have arrived at the view uninformed by his political experience. The persuasiveness of Furet’s view depends upon the logic and evidence that he adduces. Truth does not always fly out the window when politics comes through the door.

Historians try or should try for objectivity. They must have a respect for facts, even when the facts would contradict their expectations and prejudices. Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is a sufficient warning about the danger of affirming “the mutability of the past” (25). Facts are altered or evaporated to serve an ideology, particularly dangerous when it is the ideology of those in power. Disinterestedness entails a respect for objective reality. Interpretation must be constrained by facts, but facts by themselves can never determine interpretation. Historians may agree about what happened, but disagree about what the happening signifies. Leopold von Ranke’s injunction to the historian to report “wie es eigentlich gewesen” (what actually happened), which has its counterpart in Matthew Arnold’s call to see “the object as in itself it really is,” does not always guarantee agreement among historians about what actually happened. The ideal of objectivity is, nevertheless, necessary to the work of the historian for it insists on his or her obligation to be clear seeing and honest in representing what one sees. And it assumes that historians with different perspectives will often agree about the facts, if not interpretations. If this were not the case, good faith debates between accomplished historians would be impossible. The mark of disinterestedness in interpretation is the capacity of the historian to revise interpretation when evidence compels.

However hard one tries to rise above politics, it is, I believe, inescapable in the writing of history. So the question arises: what is the political bias (not meant pejoratively here) of the apparently apolitical, anti-activist stance that Gordon Wood espouses. The main lesson of history, according to Wood, is that “nothing ever works out quite the way its managers intended or expected.” History, in other words, is a story of unintended consequences. (“Quite” is a fudge word; it suggests that not all consequences are unintended; some do work out more or less as intended.) The focus on “unintended consequences” is generally considered to be conservative, for it is a caution against the possibly destructive consequences of radical action that has its source in an abstract (rational) idea of the good life. And there is a great deal of objective evidence to support this view. So where does bias or politics enter into this view? It is rare that the warning is directed against the unintended and possibly destructive consequences of doing nothing. It is almost invariably directed against radical action that proceeds from an abstract idea of the good society. We find classic expressions of this view in the great conservative thinkers, Burke and Tocqueville. The argument against present-mindedness reflects not only a respect for the past or tradition, it gives the past a kind of conservative authority to check those who would appropriate it for a radical or revolutionary agenda. That argument itself is a version of present-mindedness, for in studying the past, the conservative may find alarming signs for the present and future.

Wood tells us that history does not “teach a lot of little lessons,” but “it does tell us how we might live in the world.” He compares it to experience and old age: wisdom is what one learns from it” (71). If there is a big lesson, it appears to be cautionary. Prudence should govern the nations and actions of individuals. The warning against “unintended consequences” does not inspire heroic action. It is a warning that might inhibit Washington, Mandela and Martin Luther King as well as alerting us to the dangers of Stalin and Hitler. Wood’s argument against present-mindedness is valuable as a caution against viewing history as the story of inevitable human progress. In its focus on unintended consequences, however, it tends to minimize the role of reason and will in positive historical achievement.

Marx, of all people, knew all about unintended consequences. A revolutionary with the grandest of narratives, taught us about the irony of history, which, as he said, repeats itself: first as tragedy, then as farce. And nothing exemplifies the irony of history better than the fate of the Marxist dream of a classless society. But not all historical developments are subject to historical irony. The creation of the American Republic may not have resulted in the perfect realization of the intentions of the founders, but its realization is hardly a betrayal of them. Historical actors whom we admire such as the founding fathers combine conviction of what ought to be done with an open-minded awareness of unintended consequences. The model for change is experiment, which allows for failure and change of direction, if necessary. The founding fathers looked back to the past for inspiration, but were not bound by it. The institutions they created for a new republic were informed by the wisdom of thinkers of the past and a present-minded capacity for innovation.

Works Cited

Nagel, Thomas. Secular Philosophy and the Religious Temperament (Oxford University Press, 2010)
Orwell, George. 1984 Signet Classic (1950-87)
Wood, Gordon. The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History (2008)

From February, 2011