Heritage and Challenge: The History and Theory of History

By Paul K. Conkin; Roland N. Stromberg | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 8

WHAT IS HISTORY?

As Part I has demonstrated, self-conscious historians have long grappled with the numerous theoretical and methodological problems suggested by their own discipline. No one has solved the problems to the complete satisfaction of either all historians or all the philosophers who think and write about history. Thus the controversies still rage, and the arguments are ever more subtle and rigorous. Near ignorance of these perplexing issues scarcely becomes a historian. But historians must not become so morbidly involved in theoretical perplexities that they flounder in enervating anxiety. They still need to create histories. The best antidote for either extreme—ignorance or enervation—is a discriminating understanding of the controverted issues in a subject area now generally termed the critical philosophy of history. This and the following chapters should provide some of that understanding.

One must take care to make neither too many nor the wrong claims for the value of philosophical self-consciousness on the part of historians. Above all, one must not expect such self-consciousness automatically to make one a historian. A philosophic genius may develop a clear and precise definition of history, see the exact relationship of history to other disciplines, understand all of its methodological intricacies, and appreciate its various personal and social uses, yet be a poor historian. One has to learn the exacting demands of historical inquiry through practice and then assimilate them as working habits. No shortcut works. An awareness of theoretical issues will at best provide only some important critical guidelines in the learning of such habits. But a critical understanding of history does contribute immensely to appreciation, to an awareness of both the intellectual dilemmas and the intellectual challenges of the discipline. Unless leavened by such an appreciative awareness, a historical apprenticeship can be an intellectually deadening pathway to mere technical proficiency.

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