social function of history

Thesis writing is destroying me. I am beginning to harbour fantasies about carving my cranium open in order to pour my thoughts into some ready-made essay-shaped mould. You see, my entire thesis — argument, sources, structure — is already there, in my head, and merely requires some cunning extraction! Someone must invent a machine for this. Meanwhile I fear I am becoming a kind of thesis-spouting parrot — I can think of nothing else, and in every conversation it emerges in some grotesque form (e.g. a complaint, a spasm of terror, an epiphany, a stream of deranged mumbles)…

Notes on Richard Carrier’s list of the social functions of history:

  1. Articulating history in order that we may reflect on, learn from and understand ourselves through it.
  2. Writing public history — the fruits of historical research made accessible to a wider society.
  3. Teaching and passing on the skills of the discipline.
  4. “Historians teach what they know to a broad reach of students, who as citizens need an accurate knowledge of human history and a sense of historical method in order to become more informed and competent, essential to the health of a free democracy.”
  5. Incremental contributions towards the small problems of history, as building blocks for solving larger problems of history.
  6. Translation and revival of dead languages (and inferentially, cultures).
  7. Historical activist — history recast in terms of its relevance to the present.

I am somewhat concerned with #4, which is why I cite it in its entirety — it seems to me to be an unsubstantiated statement of assumptions. But on the whole Carrier thinks the most important function of history is #2, with the necessary “brickwork” accomplished by #5 (a vindication of graduate & PhD work).

I also think the study of history contributes a great deal to self-understanding — not the collective ‘self’ of nations or cultures, but the individual as a historical being. I’ve always felt Hegelian dialectics were more useful for individuals than for societies (cf. failure of Maoism, awesome self-awareness of Mao himself). Perhaps if more people studied history (I mean really study it, consider the repercussions of their craft and the ways it can impact one’s existence, seek an empathy with figures of history & so with fellow men and women today) they would become more reflective, thoughtful beings — more aware of the ways in which they can sensibly exercise themselves in society, more discerning, more understanding. Intellectually curious, without lapsing into condemnation. Perhaps this is what Carrier’s #4 is getting at so poorly.

feel free to add to or comment on Carrier’s list (full article here). I’m interested to see why historians (think they) do what they do.


One response to “social function of history

  • andrew weiss

    Does history even need a social function? What about just knowledge for it’s own sake, the disinterested pursuit of truth? Perhaps this is the only way we can do away with partisan or pseudohistory… If we don’t bring any bones to the table and don’t write for any one cause or society perhaps we can write history that tells us what actually happened. Just some thoughts.

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