Heritage and Challenge: The History and Theory of History

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

CHAPTER 12

USE

ANY serious consideration of history should end with an answer to the critical question: Of what possible use are true stories about the human past? Definition and delimitation are prerequisites for these answers, but they do not reveal them. If historical knowledge were general, with lawlike regularities and the power of exact prediction, it would provide the same kind of instrumentality as the physical sciences. But it is not and does not. Therefore one must elaborate the quite different uses that a history may serve. Of course, to show its possible uses is not the same thing as to show how people do in fact use it or misuse it.


Intrinsic or Esthetic Values

An obvious, yet in some ways the most complex, use of a history is as a source of various types of satisfaction to those who write it and to those who read it. Some of these satisfactions are intrinsic to the discipline; others are completely or largely extrinsic to it. For the historian, much more than for the consumer of histories, these satisfactions variously relate to motives—to the reasons for her being a historian or for her writing the particular histories that she does write. Such motives or apprehended reasons are of no great methodological import, and they rarely coincide with the extended uses that such a history may have. The private reason that a historian writes a particular book may be far removed from the value that her history, as history, may have even for her, let alone for other people.

People become historians for many reasons. One must emphasize that today the decision to become a historian is generally a decision to become part of a well-defined profession; it is a decision to assume a clear social role; and it is thus a decision that one may make with scarcely any reference to particular histories that one needs to write or to any

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