What’s the Point of History?

It’s a question we should ask ourselves more often. Or answer, I suppose, because I see lots of people get it wrong.

“To know what happened so we can’t make the same mistakes again!”

“To appreciate and understand the past.”

“To shape the future!”

“To help us understand the present.”

Good tries. And they all factor into history in some way or another. But they aren’t the point of history. More like (un)fortunate side-effects.

(Source: york.ac.uk)

The ultimate point of history is to explain change.

(I shamelessly pilfered that from another historian, who got it from someone else, who got it from someone else… etc.)

history is not an inherently political or moral thing. When people say that history will prove your wrong/right, or that history will judge you… they’ve got it completely wrong. Maybe in a few years someone will write a book judging Trump, for example. But equally, someone will probably write a book venerating Trump. Those books would be political books, using history to make a political argument. Either one could be right, but they wouldn’t be history.

A book that analysed Trump? That tried to explain how he won, why he appealed to people, and what his successes and failures were in government (as well as their effects and the rationalisations behind them)? That would be a history book.

Despite what some of us would like to think, history does not judge. It does not direct future action. It does not impose morality. At its heart, all history seeks to do is explain what things were like then, what they’re like now, and what happened in between to make that change happen. History provides context for change, it describes change, and it explains change.

How this information is used (or sometimes twisted) is for other people to decide. But that’s all historians are doing.

You can’t be on the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ side of history. Only someone’s interpretation of it.

2 thoughts on “What’s the Point of History?”

  1. Interesting thoughts! I personally think that history should be considered a tiny bit different. You say that “The ultimate point of history is to explain change.”

    Which is much closer than most people get to explaining ‘history’!

    Though, personally, I feel that history is more to document change, rather than explain it. Yes, every single person who writes about history can only do so from their own perspective, which affects the prose heavily, but I believe that it is the responsibility of the reader to glean information about the author’s life so that they have context for the things they are reading.

    Excellent post! I will share this one on Twitter!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! 😀 And thankyou for your interesting comments.

      I feel we are using different interpretations of the word ‘history.’ The purpose of popular history could possibly be to ‘document change’, though I’m not sure I entirely agree. But the purpose of academic history is certainly to explain change. The fundamental argument in history, the smallest essay, is expected to provide some degree of analysis of the evidence it is handling and attempt to come to a conclusion: it seeks to explain the evidence to the reader, it doesn’t usually just present the assumed facts as are. This is because the ‘facts’ (if we can ever be sure of facts in history) are always open to interpretation, so it’s impossible to document or record history without doing some analysis and explanation of the material being dealt with. Hence how it is fundamentally explaining change rather than just recording it.

      Sorry I was slow replying to this! Somehow it slipped by me.

      Liked by 1 person

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