Triptych: a Theory of History

What did I know about history before reading a trio of books on the subject? This is a hard question to answer, but it's worth taking a crack at in order to figure out what I've gained from the experience.

A Personal History of History
History and I officially parted ways in secondary school, where a clash on the GCSE timetable robbed me of any opportunity to study a Humanities subject. This didn't seem like much of a sacrifice at the time. What is "geography" anyway? Who are the world's foremost geographers? What Nobel Prize category do they fall into? Once you siphon off geology and environmental sciences and anthropology and sociology and politics and economics, what's left? Why not just study those subjects instead, or at least sort them into more natural categories?

I digress. History. History, history, history. So what did I learn in History at secondary school? William the Conqueror didn't just wake up one morning and decide to invade England; historical events have causes, but they're manifold and difficult to tease out after the fact. There's a finite amount of evidence about the past, and as more time elapses between now and then, that amount gets smaller and smaller, so it becomes harder to piece together what happened. Recounting of historical events, both those made in the past and present, introduces bias into the record, because the people doing the recording are distanced from those events, either through time or culture or their own understanding. The closer a piece of evidence is to the event it pertains to, the stronger it is as evidence, but it is never free from scrutiny. Monarchs and priests argue a lot. Don't try to cross the Alps with elephants.

Add to this an arbitrary selection of historical knowledge about Medieval England, Ancient Rome, the rise of Islam, the Reformation, Tudors, Stuarts, and a couple of World Wars. That's not a terrible takeaway, to be honest. I don't have a massive amount of faith in the way contemporary schooling works, but considering I stopped officially learning history at the age of 13, the above paragraph doesn't seem to reflect too badly on the process. That said, I was one of the nerdy kids who joined Archaeology Club in Year 8,1, and some elements of this may have come from there, which was tailored to a smaller and more interested group.

Motivation
Quite a bit of time has passed between now and then, and in the intervening years I've taken up further interest in a lot of stuff that is undeniably "history". In addition, other disciplines that have my attention benefit from historical perspectives, either in the sense of that discipline having its own history that is worth investigating (history of philosophy, for example), or in the sense of pertaining to historical circumstances, events or data (such as economics).

"This stuff", I reasoned, "happened in the past. We only have historical records of it. It turns out there's a whole super-field dedicated to the study of history. It's called 'history'. Are there fundamental principles of the study of history which I could learn from reading some undergrad texts on the subject, which would help me in understanding it? Specifically, is there a general theory of history that I can learn?"

Long story short, there isn't. Unless I was staggeringly unlucky in my selection of books, there is no royal road to understanding past events and the remnants they've left for us. In mathematics, some things are described as by convention, in that they are the way they are because everyone in mathematics has agreed to do it that way for convenience; "we do it this way by convention", you may hear a lecturer say, "while this has to happen the way it does because of inexorable fundamental facts about the universe, and if we did it any other way, black would be white and up would be down and nothing would make sense any more." History as a discipline seems be made entirely out of convention, (to my newbie eyes a pretty robust set of conventions that broadly make a lot of sense), but the inexorable facts about how to interpret the past don't seem to exist.

GRYFFINDOR!
What do exist, however, are a variety of competing schools of thought around how it does and doesn't make sense to interpret history, and what it even means to do so. While all three of the books I read go over this to some extent, it is the primary basis for the first, The Houses of History, by Anna Green and Kathleen Troup. Divided into twelve chapters, each covers a broad "house" of historical inquiry, explaining its origin, proponents and motivations. The book is billed as a reader, and as such each chapter concludes in a sample text from a historian exemplifying those ideas. It seems the houses of history aren't quite so well-demarcated as Hogwarts; some chapters address fairly well-defined schools of thought (Marxism, for example), while others address much more general ideas, such as the use of sociological theory in historical analysis. Nonetheless, from my outside view, Houses of History does an admirable job of providing descriptions and examples of contemporary approaches to historical investigation.

Trivial Pursuits
Next on the list was The Pursuit of History by John Tosh. Lacking the chapter-by-chapter structure of Houses of History, The Pursuit of History has a similar goal: to move through different approaches to the titular pursuit of history, explaining what they're about and where they came from. It covers many of the same areas but with different emphases, elaborating on some of the more practical elements of history as a discipline. Tosh has a subtle sense of humour that I found quite pleasing, and goes to some greater lengths to expound upon answers to the question of what historians are actually doing, what its value is to society and what sort of role they should hold in broader discourse.

"Oh, but we've already met..."
History: A Very Short Introduction, by John Arnold, is obviously aimed at a more popular audience than the previous two books in this triptych, and this showed in a number of ways. For a start, it begins with a murder. While the previous two books were quite dry, this one is very much about getting the reader excited by the very notion of history. Something I found especially pleasing was an example of novel historical research carried out specifically for this book, in which the author walks us through the process of investigating the events surrounding an innocuous entry in a 17th Century ledger, following the life events of the individuals it mentions and putting them in a broader historical context. It also devotes a couple of chapters to a condensed history-of-history, going over historians featured in the previous two books in less of a distributed, topical meander.

Oh, the Humanities!
As hinted earlier, I find myself in foreign territory as far as the humanities are concerned. They have mildly askew alien values, and reading them is like driving along the edge of an uncanny valley. You never know when you'll tumble over the edge into a world where people take Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx seriously. Houses of History dedicates an entire chapter to psychohistorical analysis, which is apparently totally a thing that people still do, in spite of Freudian psychoanalysis being widely discredited by the overwhelming majority of contemporary psychologists, and the past few decades seeing phenomenal insights from the cognitive sciences2. That said, the sample text from this chapter had the spectacular name "The Legend of Hitler's Childhood", which I can't help but applaud.

Also Marx. So much Marx. Coming from an economics background, it's always mystifying as to why Karl Marx holds such sway in the humanities. Marx basically doesn't exist in any modern economics curriculum because the theoretical accounts of economic activity he provides are essentially wrong. No biggie. Lots of philosophers who thought about economic behaviour around this time were equally wrong; however relatively few of them have been canonised as one of the greatest thinkers of the 19th Century on the other side of the fence. Having now delved (very shallowly) into History's take on Marx, I'm perhaps a little less mystified, though I now have a few more Marxism Mysteries in my collection. It's hard to say whether I've come out ahead or not.

At some point, I will write the post on Talking Heads from History which I have been meaning to write pretty much forever. Now is not that point.

Takeaways
I started this triptych with the goal of excavating the tip of some general theory of history I was previously unaware of; one that might yield insights I can use when considering other ideas and disciplines in historical contexts. I wasn't successful in this regard, but I do feel like I'm walking away from it with a selection of intangible benefits. Rather than picking up some useful tools of thinking, I feel like I've gained broader appreciation and perspective, though only time (and presumably reading more history) will tell whether this is actually the case.

I am still quite confident that I shouldn't try to cross the Alps with elephants.


  1. Also Sign Language Club, Astronomy Club and the choir. Make of this what you will. 

  2. Somewhat analogously, in a recent Scott Aaronson interview he mentions how when reading books on the philosophy of physics or computing, it's like they're several decades behind the times, talking about the implications of problems that have been long resolved in their parent field.