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On Historians and Others

I have a new post up at Progressive Historians:

On Historians and Others….

….Historians are not theorists, though they may entertain certain theories in the course of interpreting an event they do not begin with answers as does a theorist but with questions. Questions they try to answer with research and evidence because history, while not a science, is an empirical discipline. Historians are not poets, they do not aim to create sweeping, romantic, myths, though like anyone else, historians admire mythic ideals but their task is to reveal where reality may have fallen short. Historians are not social scientists, though they sometimes borrow their tools; nor are they economists constructing abstract models hoping to predict events. A historian who tries to predict what will happen based upon the past is engaging in futurism, a very different and more difficult art.

….The public is not well prepared to handle or comment upon historical monographs of an esoteric or technical nature, only other specialists can do that. Nor are historians who have spent most of their career in a very rarefied subfield – say researching currency fluctuations in the Spanish Netherlands during the early modern period or Women’s social status in the Caribbean during the late Colonial era – well positioned to write a panoramic history of Western civilization, of the history of technology or similarly big picture subjects desired by the layman who wants to “read some history”. At least not without a major time investment.”

Read the rest here.

10 Responses to “On Historians and Others”

  1. historyguy99 Says:

    Another great post Zen!

    Historians have a varied set of skills. They are researchers, at times, detectives. They must consume and accurately recall vast amounts of historigraphical literature. Historians must think analytically foremost but also intuitively and sometimes, toward a synthesis. They must communicate clearly with the spoken and written word; and they must be teachers, literally in a classroom or in the larger sense of writing history to educate society.

    It has been said that historians are the "ultimate cold case investigators", working backward in time to seek out facts, analysis them, and form a hypothesis to present to their peers, or in the case of popular historians, the public. 

  2. Seerov Says:

    "Historians are not theorists, though they may entertain certain theories in the course of interpreting an event they do not begin with answers as does a theorist but with questions. " (Zen)

    I don’t know.  Take a historian like Dr. William H. McNeill.  He formulated a "theory" in sorts, to explain how civilizations rise, spread, and fall. He’s doing more than just explaining "what happened." 

    Also, what about subjects like historical geography or sociological history.  Are the practitioners of these fields "doing history?" 

    Last, what about Archaeology?  I’ve often felt that Archaeology too, is not a social science.  I consider it just another form of history.  While historians look for and uses historical manuscripts and writings, the archaeologist looks for and uses artifacts.  Aren’t they try to accomplish the same goal (ie. figuring out "what happened" in the past)?From what I understand, in Europe, Archaeology is "closer" to history in which they even may share the same departments within universities.

  3. Jeremy Young Says:

    Good luck getting McNeill to fit into any category, historical or otherwise.  Heh.

    Well done ZP — rathe than comment directly on it, I’ll simply post my own take ASAP.

  4. Seerov Says:

    Jeremy Young or Zen,

    Speaking of McNeill:

    Can you guys recommend any other good World History writers or books?  World History has become of great interest to me as I like looking at the "Big picture." 

    BTW Zen, thank you for alerting me to this website (Progressive Historians), I will be checking it out.

  5. Lexington Green Says:

    "A historian is someone who tries to cogently explain what really happened, based upon the best evidence available"

    Nicely free of postmodern angst.  The past really did happen, it really did happen in one way, or some ways, and not others, and the rational method of gathering and weighing evidence is the way to discern what happened.  Then, the flipside "cogently explain".  Cogency implies brevity, synthesis, clarity, discernment of what is and is not relevant.  Explanation implies a rational, ordered, coherent presentation to another person so that they understand what the historian has worked hard to learn. 

    Yes.  This is how it should be.  Sometimes it even is. 

    People who do not have Ph.D.s can do this.  Some who have them cannot. 

  6. Jeremy Young Says:

    I know a bit about macrohistory, having done a paper on it in my intro course in grad school.  Of course, I recommend the two historical books by Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse.  Other authors I’d recommend are John McNeill (of Georgetown, not the theologian), R. Bin Wong, Kenneth Pomeranz, and Alfred Crosby.  One note of warning about macrohistory: because it’s such a freewheeling field, it tends to attract some real loonies on both the left and the right.  I’d stay away from Thomas Sowell and David Landes (on the right) and Andre Gunder Frank and the late James Blaut (on the left).

  7. Seerov Says:

    Jeremy Young, thank you.

  8. zen Says:

    Hi guys,
    HG99 – thank you very much! You are quite right to emphasize the deductive aspect. Many historians had a book start with a simple question about something they found incongruous that sparked an investigation.
    Seerov – IMHO historians can venture into other areas and find that their historical knowledge is a great springboard. I myself dabble in strategic theory and futrism but when I do that, I’m no longer writing historically. Kind of agree with you on Archaeology – maybe Tim of ubiwar will chime in here on that subject.
    Lex- yup. Not too big on postmodernism – the PoMo’s had a useful 5 -10 % composed of insights on reexamining cultural and psychological framing of our assumptions – I think that aspect was ok when not taken to absurd extremes – but then their followers swiftly wandered away into politically motivated, time-wasting, bullshit that harmed about every discipline it touched. Yuck.
    Hi Jeremy -Much thanks for the recs. I have not heard of some of them and thanks for getting the ball rolling on the symposium too.

  9. Lexington Green Says:


    Pomerantz has some basic errors.

    Disagree about Landes.  He is pretty good. 

    Sowell is more a compendium of other people’s stuff, but has his value.

    Have not read McNeill, though he sounds interesting.


    My favorite Macrohistory guy is Alan Macfarlane.  He gives the best set of answers to "Why the West"? 


    His critique of Pomerantz is here:


    David Cosandey has a nice list of macrohistorians.


  10. Tim Stevens Says:

    I’ve never been quite sure what most archaeologists bring to the party, to be honest. The best archaeologists manage to combine attention to detail with a real sense of deep time. Personally, I’ve never had a problem looking backwards or forwards but the willing suspension of disbelief takes us into realms of speculation. Archaeology as science or art? More of the latter, despite the protestations of so-called ‘archaeological scientists’. Archaeology is basically all interpretation, albeit based on a thin veneer of dubious ‘facts’. Fun making up stories though. I think to put archaeology in context one can only construct grand narratives – it’s all about filling in the vast gaps in our knowledge with cultural assumptions, etc.

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