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Heritage and Challenge: The History and Theory of History

Heritage and Challenge: The History and Theory of History - Paul K. Conkin, Roland N. Stromberg

It often seems to me as if History was like a child's box of letters, with which we can spell any word we please. We have only to pick out such letters as we want, arrange them as we like, and say nothing about those which do not suit our purpose.
― James Anthony Froude


In the end the suspicion grows that all significant patterns ascribed to the past, in small matters as in large, are myths.

― Roland K. Stromberg



Heritage and Challenge: The History and Theory of History (1989), a revised and updated version of a book first published in 1971, consists of an overview of the history of Western historiography written by Roland N. Stromberg and then a taste of the theory of historiography written by Paul K. Conkin. Though at first glance such topics may seem to be a bit too self-referential, in my view such meta-historical considerations are just as important to readers of history as they should be to historians. The writing of history is so time and place dependent that some modern historians deny even the possibility of objective historiography. Stromberg briefly indicates how this temporal and spatial dependence actually manifested itself, and, in principle, Conkin equally briefly examines the conceptual and philosophical problems that arise in the very project of writing history. Stromberg provides what can only be regarded as an introduction to his topic; Conkin did not manage to do that for his.


At a little more than 100 pages Stromberg's contribution is a necessarily incomplete survey of the history of the writing of history since Herodotus in which the only non-Western historian mentioned is Ibn Khaldun. The extensive and culturally central tradition of history in China is dismissed in a sentence or two in a manner that sent my hackles rising. Stromberg's position apparently is that "history" is history as process, as evolution, and that this type of history did not arise until the end of the 18th century in Europe. Nonetheless, he starts with Herodotus and not with the 18th century. So why, again, is non-Western historiography excluded?


Once I got over this irritation it was possible to benefit from the author's particular view of the development of historiography in the West (taken with a great deal of granular NaCl). I must say that I got a much better picture of European historiography during the 18th and 19th centuries in Lionel Gossman's excellent Basel in the Age of Burckhardt and in his essay collection Between History and Literature than I did here, but I do appreciate the (tentative) orientation within the much larger picture provided in this book. As a consequence, Mt. TBR has grown noticeably...


Of particular interest to me was Stromberg's deflation of the objective, scientific pretensions of historians that began to emerge by the middle of the 18th century. He points out that during the Franco-Prussian War the French (German) historians all established beyond any shadow of a doubt that France (Germany) had the historically justified claim on the Alsace. And during World War I French, German and British historians wrote fervid war propaganda posturing as objective history. I have mentioned elsewhere how during the 19th century most of the German historians in the dominant school of Leopold von Ranke provided the ideological justification for the formation and then expansion of the German Empire. In all of these cases, I am speaking of academic historians, not just those who wrote popularizations. There is surely no need to mention the hacks who wrote the official histories for fascist Germany, Italy and Spain nor for the Soviet Union and Communist China (nor the flag waving triumphalists of my native land). 


Stromberg also points up one of the prejudices that raise my hackles in historical works: While discussing H.G. Wells' Outline of History Stromberg writes "With his scientific, positivist mind, Wells had no interest in getting inside the minds of former ages and appreciating them for their own beauty or brilliance; to him as to Voltaire, most of the past was either simply ignorant or wicked." Though I acknowledge other roles for historiography - for example, trying to explain how we (the various human cultures) got to where we are - for me a central purpose of reading history is to establish a context within which I can put myself in the shoes of (some of) the people of the given time and place (which is one of the reasons why I like to read histories written by authors of the given time and culture) and try to appreciate the unique beauty and brilliance (and, often enough, the horrors) of that corner of the world at that moment.


The picture Stromberg paints of contemporary history writing is not rosy: casting about for novelty and/or relevance, challenged by ever decreasing funding and interest, historians have abandoned the large scale totalizing efforts of the past for collecting larger and larger piles of data in increasingly fragmented subfields (or moving into questionable fields like "psychohistory"). These piles, in turn, are becoming so large and specialized that the scope of material that any historian can master becomes narrower and narrower.(*) In Hugh Trevor-Roper's words, "We are all confined to our own antheap, which is generally dusty, small, and low." 


In the second half of the book Conkin presents what he thinks every up and coming historian should know about the theory or philosophy of history. This text was so distant from my expectations that I'm still not sure what he was doing. Instead of being an examination of the conceptual and philosophical problems of history accompanied by a critical summary of the alternative positions taken by various scholars on these problems (which is what a philosopher would do) and preempted by Stromberg's historical presentation of some of these problems, Conkin gives the reader a half fish, half fowl waffling I did not find at all useful. On occasion, names were dropped and theories were mentioned and not explained, or even outlined. In the library copy I read, the first one-fifth of the text was heavily dogeared and underlined; after that point, pristine pages. I, too, shall be looking elsewhere for insight into the philosophy of history. I'm happy to say that this book contains an ample Selected Bibliography to help me on my way.



(*) This is a problem for many other disciplines.