Does History as a discipline get better over time?

Feb 2017
132
Pacific Ocean
#1
From an intuitive point of view it seems to me that historians get better at explaining the past over time. Not only do they (us?) possess new concepts and thinking tools to work with historical evidence but also gain access to more evidence over time, be it via archaeology, by the random finding of medieval manuscripts in some forgotten library, or by some other manner. At the same time, we know the flaws of previous methods in a more profound way, something that has reached an apex in recent decades with postmodern currents which have challenged the idea that it is even possible to write a narrative which has any resemblance to the past.

A corollary of this position is that historical works written in the beginning of the 20th century, for example, should be revisited, their evidence and interpretations reassessed having in mind new concepts coming from the Social Sciences or other areas. In this sense, older historical works are inevitably dated, and have as their only use indications of how history was made during that time. Another corollary, this one more depressing, is that inevitably anything published today will have the same fate.

Thoughts, anyone?
 
Oct 2018
1,209
Adelaide south Australia
#2
Depends on whom you read and what you want., but overall I agree that historians seem to be getting more readable.

Many historians are undisciplined, boring writers, which is a pity as the subject matter is often anything but.--That' s before you start wondering about reliability.

Some archaeologists are also quite good reporters and writers. Recently, I especially like The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts,-----The authors are Israel Finkelstein, Professor of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University, and Neil Asher Silberman, an archaeologist, historian and contributing editor to Archaeology Magazine.

from: The Bible Unearthed - Wikipedia

In my teens I read Leonard Cottrell, who was more a journalist and writer than a serious historian. However, I loved his books.

Today it seems to me that we are spoiled for choice of good, readable historians and archaeologists. Sadly , therein still astounding amount of dross around, one needs to be very discerning.

There are three historians I find especially readable and thought provoking:

Marina Warner;'Joan Of Arc' and 'Alone Of All her Sex' on the cult of the Virgin Mary.

More recently:

Peter Ackroyd 'London: The Biography' and 'Thames; Sacred River'. Of the two books, prefer the first.

A N Wilson ' The Victorians', a great read, and very informative. 'Paul; The Mind Of The Apostle', a bit harder going , but worth the read.

I certainly think the modern reader is far better served by contemporary writers than by pretty much anyone, up to and including Edward Gibbon.

Although,in my opinion, there is no such thing as an objective historian, I think It's a matter of degree.
 
Feb 2017
132
Pacific Ocean
#3
Although I didn't mean 'explaining' as the ability to describe things in a readable manner, this is also an interesting issue. What I meant is that the conceptual backgrounds of historians are getting more complex over time, which leads them to extract more information from the extant evidence. At the same time, since some large-scale theories have been around for some time it is easier to pinpoint where they fail to explain the past, and to offer alternative explanations which better account for the evidence we have.

An example would be the work done by people such as Peter Brown and Averil Cameron in regards to the end of the Roman Empire. While previous historiography argued that the Roman Empire suffered from a military defeat and a general fall in the 5th century, historians from recent decades have pointed that this can only be seen when one considers political/military evidence, and that this decline/fall idea disappears once one pays attention to social/cultural evidence. My point in my previous post is to discuss if this kind of change in historiography can be considered progress, or if these are just two equally valid interpretations, or even that historiography in some fields is passing through a decline.

In regards to the ability to write historical pieces in a 'readable' manner I think there is no progress to be seen, for there are always good and bad writers. Gibbon, for instance, is still read nowadays not as a historical work but mostly as a piece of good literature. Burckhardt and Huizinga are two other examples. In a more recent past, Ginzburg is another famous historian who writes in a more literary way (although he would probably be offended by this assertion). And this only to mention the most famous ones. The ability to write well is probably correlated to the target audience of the historian. Academic historians don't necessarily have as their objective to reach the wider public, while others could write with the popularization of History in mind, therefore producing something that the general reader will find more agreable.
 
Oct 2018
1,209
Adelaide south Australia
#4
Ah, wasn't sure quite what you meant.

I took a year of modern history at university. Although there was only one set text, there was a LOT of other reading, at times a much as a third year subject. My tutor told me this was to weed out those who saw history as a soft option.

However, there has , I think been at least one major development in the discipline: Was a time when the discipline of history as I was tought emphasised 'the great man' approach to history. 'Great' meant a person's effect on history, good or bad, so includes people such as Hitler, Mao and Stalin.. Over the years I found that approach limiting and incomplete.

I came across a broader whilst studying Social Anthropology, when reading Victor Turner's 'Forest Of Symbols'. In that book he examines the concept of 'liminality 'and 'the liminal figure" examining the context in which great men come to play. The argument is that great men are created by specific circumstances. So far, it has help up when examining 'great men' as different as Julius Caesar, Winston Churchill and Mohandas Gandhi , to mention only a few..

Liminality - Wikipedia

Is that why you were getting at? Implicit in any study about people or society are different theories to explain change. My perception is that societal change is a continuum. Using dates of significant events as indicators is I think simplistic. .; change is alway taking place, but often so slowly we don't notice, or miss small but critical changes.

It's over 30 years since I studied history formally, so I'm probably very out of touch with current paradigms.. I still read, but from interest, not in any disciplined way.
 
Apr 2018
979
Upland, Sweden
#5
I am not sure modern historians are generally more readable. Certainly, many older historians had a very flowery, at times imprecise (some positivist might say "un-scientific") language... but many modern historians instead fill their works with sociological jargon the meaning of which is not exactly transparent, and more than often quite dry.

As for explanatory value... yes, and no. I agree with you that often modern historians take great pains to be nuanced, give all sides a fair hearing and remain skeptical against the sources. These are all virtues... in moderation. Being at the end of my B.A. now, I can't help but feel that there is a certain... bloodlessness, to much of modern historical writing. Sometimes historians are almost afraid to make any kind of positive truth statements (this is no doubt connected with the lingering of post-modernist views on epistemology in the humanities)... this seems to be changing though, and while I am in no way an expert of these things, my "feel" is that we are past the worst of it.

More alarming I think is the unfortunate tendency to get bogged down in antiquarian trivialities, often from a very politicized point of view. The academic world is of course free to spend their time doing anyway they want, but they shouldn't be surprised if the public, let alone decisionmakers in the sciences, law, politics and finance do not take them very seriously if their predominant areas of interest are in areas like "The literary representation of withcraft in Sweden of the 1600s", "Decolonizing folk music in Irish migration to New York" or other such things (two real examples from either myself or friends who went on overseas exchanges). Here is an interesting view from Niall Ferguson, look especially from 9 minutes onwards: A clear minority of US academics are not focusing on traditional historiographical subjects. A few illustrative examples from his talk are for example "Emotions in history"; "Sex, life and generation"; "The history of women and mental illness in the US." Are any of these subjects really fit to dominate an undergraduate curriculum, especially compared with what you could spend your time on? There is also a tendency, obviously connected to these developments, of not following Ranke's wie es eigentlich gewesen but rather moralizing over the past instead of trying to understand it.

----

There is light though, of course. Many history writers today are very popular, and the sheer access to historical information (which constantly increases, along with modern technology) as well as means to dissimenate such information means that some historical writers can probably look forward to being very influential - Yuval Noah Harari comes to mind. I am just not sure whether these people will be classified as "historians" by the academy...

Perhaps we are moving towards a situation similar to the Enlightenment, when influential and meaningful public thinking and debate will take place not in the academy but rather in the modern day equivalent of coffee houses, clubs and societieties.
 
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Likes: bboomer
Feb 2017
132
Pacific Ocean
#6
Sometimes historians are almost afraid to make any kind of positive truth statements
Probably postmodern thought has influence in that trend, and maybe it is passing (I have seen some quite 'unorthodox' titles in historical works lately), but I don't think this is just a postmodern thing. Often the historian is not able to state 'positive truths' simply because it is clear to him/her that the evidence does not support such a bold claim. As you spoke of Ranke, he takes History to be the science of the unique, and I think that in this trend of not stating 'positive truths' historians are stating one more time that History is indeed the science of the unique, in which bold generalizations are, if not impossible, at least too difficult/unstable to make. This comes to the second point.

More alarming I think is the unfortunate tendency to get bogged down in antiquarian trivialities, often from a very politicized point of view.
This kind of 'antiquarian triviality' seems to me to be the way to go, at least considering the current state of many fields in historiography. We already have big theories (Moses Finley's theory of the ancient city as a consumer city comes to mind), and it is precisely 'antiquarian triviality' that permits us to question the validity of such theories (see, for example, Kostas Vlassopoulos (2007) and his arguing that Finley's model is too generalizing, and that with new information acquired from archaeology we can now know that the ancient world was much more complex than we once thought). Positive statements and big theories are what sell, but generally they are not compatible with our extant evidence. This is one of the reasons why people like Harari could be considered non-academics (another one being, I suspect, jealousy of their success). History as a discipline has simply gone past that point.
 
Feb 2017
132
Pacific Ocean
#7
I came across a broader whilst studying Social Anthropology, when reading Victor Turner's 'Forest Of Symbols'. In that book he examines the concept of 'liminality 'and 'the liminal figure" examining the context in which great men come to play. The argument is that great men are created by specific circumstances. So far, it has help up when examining 'great men' as different as Julius Caesar, Winston Churchill and Mohandas Gandhi , to mention only a few..
Tolstoy had a similar opinion, explained in War and Peace. He sees history as being composed of millions of forces, as many as there are points of view, and that even what can be considered 'great figures' depend on these millions of points of view to exist. I have never given this much thought, but it seems promising and, in a sense, an advancement in relation to previous historiography, which should nevertheless not be forgotten, of course.

My perception is that societal change is a continuum. Using dates of significant events as indicators is I think simplistic. .; change is alway taking place, but often so slowly we don't notice, or miss small but critical changes.
This is a problem that seems to have been haunting historians for some time — how to adequately describe dynamic pasts. The models used in the history of mentalities certainly don't seem to be able to do this properly (see how, for example, the problem that the better one explains how a general mentality was maintained through time, the harder it is to explain why it changed).
 
Likes: bboomer
Oct 2018
1,209
Adelaide south Australia
#8
I've been fairly lucky with history books I've bought over the last decade or so, but I've come across a couple of real clunkers:


A biography of Henry V111, which I thought would be great but is really dreary; the authors spends pages and pages writing a detailed account of Henry's household expenses, to the penny. The whole book is filled with such minutiae.

'The Raj,' a history of the British in India. I thought that would be terrific, it's really boring. I've had it around 10 years. Haven't finished reading it yet. Same problem; an emphasis on the trivial.

In terms truth statements, I'm happier when historians and archaeologists avoid talking in certainties..Schliemann's 's so-called discovery of Troy comes to mind. Plus some of the early statements made about the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun---and my favourite; recent discoveries which seem to show that the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt is almost certainly myth, along with Moses. Plus, the Davidic empire seems to be a bit of an exaggeration; 'king' David seems to have been a tribal leader. *

There seldom enough evidence to produce clear picture of the' what' ' of history, and it becomes harder the further back in time.Modern history often has more available evidence.The exception the Holocaust.Those events are probably the most thoroughly documented period in history, and they're still finding new stuff--If you are interested in the topic, have a look at Yad Vashem on Youtube

Yad Vashem - Wikipedia

* '"The Bible Unearthed' Finkelstein and Siberman.
 
Oct 2018
56
Toronto/Shanghai
#9
Each time period has different wants and values of history, and therefore the historical writing written in a certain time period tends to reflect those opinions. That being said, there are many tracts of Qing dynasty philologists and historians decrying the decayed state of historical writing in the Late Ming as symptomatic of a general decline in scholarship and a lack of proper educational climate. Modern French historians were originally dismissed as geographers, though what they wrote is now seen as the seed of proper historical writing - that is a shift away from the "great political lives" narrative to verifiable researched work. Many major historians of the 20th century came out as controversial within their communities when they began -- now these people are often taken as exemplary. It is a difficult question -- For example I am rereading Hayden White right now, and it is not his "revolutionary" critique of history that I find interesting, in as such as the fact that - though many historians have taken his critique as a footnote -- the general push back against this form of negative doubt and criticism and focuses on biases to the realization that narrative is still important and worth writing.
 
Likes: bboomer
Jun 2017
2,819
Connecticut
#10
From an intuitive point of view it seems to me that historians get better at explaining the past over time. Not only do they (us?) possess new concepts and thinking tools to work with historical evidence but also gain access to more evidence over time, be it via archaeology, by the random finding of medieval manuscripts in some forgotten library, or by some other manner. At the same time, we know the flaws of previous methods in a more profound way, something that has reached an apex in recent decades with postmodern currents which have challenged the idea that it is even possible to write a narrative which has any resemblance to the past.

A corollary of this position is that historical works written in the beginning of the 20th century, for example, should be revisited, their evidence and interpretations reassessed having in mind new concepts coming from the Social Sciences or other areas. In this sense, older historical works are inevitably dated, and have as their only use indications of how history was made during that time. Another corollary, this one more depressing, is that inevitably anything published today will have the same fate.

Thoughts, anyone?
It's a double edged sword because history gets more and more refined and tellable on one hand on the other hand the passage of time eventually creates an incentive to create rather than to tell history(which I think is the main issue with the academic system).
 

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