Why the way we think about history is important

There is a notion that history consists of ‘the facts’ – that all you have to do is discover ‘the facts’, which are literally true at face value, and that these ‘facts’ then ‘speak for themselves’. Such thinking, among other things, has fuelled the kind of dribble that I see pouring from the minds and mouths of such lobby groups, here in New Zealand, as ‘Hobson’s Pledge’. Why they named themselves after a brand of furniture polish has never been clear to me.

From the perspective of professional history what such groups are doing is Dunning-Krugerism at its finest; they are so ignorant of the basic principles of the profession that they aren’t even aware of their ignorance. But the purpose of such lobby groups is not to explore the past to understand it. What such groups are doing is weaponising selected data from history to suit their agenda – all the while insisting they use ‘the facts’ and that those they criticise, somehow, are ignorant of them. The usual comment ‘Pledgers’ make on their Facebook page, is that ‘[Historian’s name] should know that…’ followed by some data-point they’ve dredged, out of context and without meaning, to support their own claims. I once got into discussion with one of them who cited a source as actually stating his argument. I had the same source and told him this material made no such statement, at which point he admitted he had made up the meaning. Spotting the ‘leading questions’ by which these people try to trap actual experts into ‘admissions’ is like shooting fish in a barrel.

It is, of course, very easy to select isolated ‘facts’ and use them to ‘prove’ a general point. This is known as the ‘association fallacy’ – the supposition that because one data-point suggests something, that must be true of the whole. One of the first to do so historically was the Roman writer Gaius Cornelius Tacitus (c56-120 CE), whose Annals and Histories were written during the first decades of the second century CE, and selected data to portray Emperors of the previous hundred years as progressively more foolish – leading up to Domitian, who was obviously bottom of the heap. It was a deliberate ploy: Domitian – under whose rule Tacitus had grown up – was a narcissistic authoritarian who made himself chief censor.

Do the facts really ‘speak for themselves’? It’s a fact that it has 1930s cars in it and a 1932 building behind. So when was the photo taken?

It is for these reasons that professional historians put a good deal of time and effort into thinking not just about the subject, but also about how we think about it. It’s known as ‘historiography’. And it goes further than evaluating sources, although that’s an important element. Historiography also helps historians understand the limits of knowledge, and guides new questions about the past. Think of it as the ‘wisdom’ that gives shape to the ‘knowledge’ provided by raw data.

The historiographical framework is, of course, bedded in contemporary thought; the sort of questions asked by historians in the nineteenth century differed from those of the twentieth, and those asked today are different again. Changing society offers different perspectives – and reflects the fact that history isn’t just about data collection. Data is, naturally, the first step; but then we have to understand what that data means. History as a field of investigation is about understanding the human journey from past to present. The ‘present’ is, inevitably, a constantly changing commodity – and so the questions we ask of the past change with it.

New Zealand’s own historiography has gone through several phases, usually generational. The first explosion of historical writing began in the 1890s and was wrapped around a validation of colonialism and the period fantasy that Maori had been ‘integrated’. It’s worth noting that a lot of the Hobson’s Furniture Polish data comes from writings and interpretations of this period, which extended well into the twentieth century. On the odd occasions they come up with archival research, or cite academic research, this same thinking wraps the meanings they put around it – as I discovered in that interchange above.

The 1890’s history was only the beginning of New Zealand’s view of itself from the historical perspective. By the mid-twentieth century such thinking was joined by the notion of New Zealand as an emerging nation – ‘colony to nation’.

That, in turn, gave way to the reversal of earlier colonial-era attitudes and the so-called ‘post-colonial’ or ‘revisionist’ thinking that emerged during the 1970s and beyond. There was also a sense by this time that history was multi-faceted; there was not ‘one’ history of New Zealand, there were many. This reflected the fact that any complex society cannot be reduced to a single idea or concept.

It took time for this approach to emerge, but by the time I was first introduced to the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in the early 1980s – for which I subsequently wrote some entries – the notion of the past being ‘histories’, not a single defined ‘history’ to which a ‘final answer’ had been found, was well embedded in the academy. And it made sense; the past did not just consist of great people in government, directing the masses; or of war leaders. It could be told from the perspective of ordinary people – whose perspectives and tales were very different – or from the viewpoint of race relations, or from that of any defined group.

The specific New Zealand experience reflects wider world trends in the historical field. Current historiography, worldwide, has emerged from this vision and is, of itself, also changing as time goes on. What it does is give us a way of understanding the past – both in its own terms, and in the way it then led to the present we know today.

The only problem with the professional approach, when dealing with the ‘Pledge’ brigade and others of similar ilk is that they either will not, or cannot, accept that a historiographical and professional analytical approach is valid. Nor, on my experience, do they accept that their rejection of it leaves so little common ground that it is impossible to discuss anything with them of that nature – any such point is, usually, received as ‘proof’ of a ‘conspiracy’ by historians to Hide the Truth. Sigh…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2019

11 thoughts on “Why the way we think about history is important

  1. The means by which “data” becomes “information” is always interesting, particularly when it says more about the person(s) doing the analysis than about the purported objective of the analysis. One of the things that interested me in … golly, don’t even remember what class this was in … study of mores, social attitudes, customs, etc., anyway! What interested me was how resistant those attitudes were to change and how unconscious most people were of their very existence. “It’s the way things have always been done” as if that means it was encoded into the warp and woof of spacetime itself. Is there a branch or school of historiography that looks at the analysis of historical fact from the basis of “unconscious” assumptions about human psychology and society? A sort of metaphysics of history, perhaps? That idea does seem implicit in your sentence regarding differing interpretations over time.

    But the “furniture polish” school of “thought” might be an exception. Interpretation seems a lot less the objective than personal validation.

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    1. Historiography is very much ‘meta-history’ and an attempt to understand the unconscious assumptions that frame the way we understand the past, including the frameworks of thinking that the historian is using at the time. It comes in various flavours: the one I generally use has a good deal of infusion from social anthropology. On my own experience of them, those who use history for personal validation generally aren’t even aware that professional historians have such an approach, and appear either unable or unwilling to understand it if explained – to them it presents as ‘ignoring “the facts”‘. Actually, of course, it is a way of understanding them…

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  2. Thank you for this interesting post. I have a friend who describes himself as a “Marxist” and tends to see history as being (largely) driven by economic forces. Whilst I do not (of course) discount the importance of economic drivers in history, I find my friend’s perspective reductionist as it leaves to little play for the importance of ideas which are not merely part of a superstructure determined by the economic base, but have relevance and importance in and of themselves. Kevin

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    1. Thanks Kevin – apologies for the delayed response. I have neglected my blog somewhat (posts get scheduled amidst the flurry of general life just now and comment response are a bit delayed). I find Marx interesting – analysing his thinking has been necessary for me to understand as part of my work in modern history, and I actually know someone who wrote his PhD thesis on Marx’s ‘Das Kapital’. Interest and analysis does not, of course, mean advocating Marx’s thinking; I think Marx was, himself, reductionist (as you point out) and framed by the priorities of his day – the mid-nineteenth century and the social spasms that led to his revolutionary age. Mix into that his period ideas of ‘progress’ as a kind of iron-clad, linear law of humanity, and the stage was set for what Barbara Tuchmann later called history’s greatest joke – Marxism. Still, one cannot discount the intellectual effort he put into his work, within those frameworks – or the fact that, through that lens, he still glimpsed aspects of actual human nature, albeit giving them a curious framework and explanation.

      As for economics in general – well, I know a good number of economists both as friends and professionally, who are very wonderful and very genuine people with tremendous intellectual ability and a well-honed sense of critical thinking. Obviously the parameters of thinking can still be debated – but it is done consciously, these days. There were times (I am thinking not just the 1840s-1850s era of Marx, Feuerbach etc, but also the 1980s) when it was not.


      1. Many thanks for your detailed and interesting response to my comments, Matthew. No problem as regards the late reply. Life does, as you say get in the way sometimes.

        I agree with you that Marx had some useful insights. For example his view that social conditions can influence consciousness. However, whilst this is undoubtedly true, it isn’t an iron law, as you acknowledge in your response to my comments. People can (and often do) rise above their social conditions and think independently (and often in ways incomprehensible to those who interpret Marx in a rigid manner).

        On Friday, I had a discussion with a friend who is a self-described Marxist. We discussed slavery and he was of the view that economic factors where crucial in the abolition of the slave trade. When I pointed out that Wilberforce (and others both in the Tory and Whig parties) had genuine moral objections to slavery and this played an important role in the abolition of the trade, he dismissed such people as “the god squad”. Such comments do, I think demonstrate the contempt in which many Marxists hold not only religion (I am myself an agnostic but have great respect for religious people), but also the Marxist fixation on economics often to the exclusion of all else.

        I agree with you that not all economists are narrow in their view of the world. It is, however true that reductionism reigns amongst certain schools (and not just Marxists). For example, ultra free market economists (who are, in my view not Conservatives but extreme Libertarians) who contend that markets are in all (or nearly all cases) superior to government intervention. I have met some of these people who are (on a personal level) often pleasant individuals, but their obsession with classical liberalism blinds them to the complexity of the world, in the same way that Marxists are blinkered in their view. However, to be fair to the Classical Liberals, they maintain a deep respect for political freedom which is lacking amongst most Marxists. Indeed even where Marxists do genuinely believe in democratic institutions, the results of Marxism inevitably lead to totalitarianism.

        Sorry for the long comment.

        Best, Kevin

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  3. Your final paragraph is particularly astute. The problem with conspiracy theories is that they often go for the “debunk everything” approach.

    In this process, they call into question the very process of coming to a conclusion, any conclusion. They think that once they are done demolishing current consensus, that they will be able to install their own conclusions into widespread public agreement. But how can they do so after destroying the very process that allows consensus to emerge? They can’t.

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    1. Too true. So often I see examples in ‘conspiracy’ theories of basic logic fallacies – notably the idea that a single piece of point-data must, by definition, therefore invalidate a whole. Of course it can’t, but humans seem to be hard-wired to believe such thinking – I’ve seen studies suggesting it might have been an ‘advantage technique’ to do so back in the old hunter-gatherer days. But even if it worked then, it doesn’t now in our world of very large and very complex societies, and therein is the problem. I don’t have answers for that one…

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