What is the Value of Historical Thinking?

According to a certain way of thinking about history and present-day life, historical research has little to no practical value, since its subject matter (the past) is, by definition, “dead and gone.”* From this perspective, historical inquiries concerning the emergence of written language, or the French Revolution, have no contemporary relevance; they are merely divertissements for those peculiarly curious about them.

Jacques Louis David - "Napoleon Crossing the Alps" (1803)

Jacques Louis David – “Napoleon Crossing the Alps” (1803)

This way of thinking is profoundly oversimplified. We human beings are “always already” historical beings, in the sense that we are always oriented to the past in one way or another.** And how we are so oriented, makes a difference to our everyday conduct. A person who believes that the French revolution was motivated primarily by economic interests will behave differently than one who believes it was motivated by moral ones; and this is the sort of question that careful historiography helps to clarify (generally in the form of making-more-complex one’s initial imagination of the past). Granted, this difference is sometimes quite subtle: of the magnitude, for instance, of the difference it would make to the average U.S. Citizen’s day-to-day behavior, if he or she believed that the continent of Europe was situated in the Southern rather than the Northern Hemisphere.

This orientation takes place through (1) the present-day conditions that the past has brought about, as well as (2) through our ideas about what the past has been like, and finally through (3) our ideas about how present-day conditions have been brought about.*** It is precisely this orientation to the past that historical inquiry and, above all, well-crafted historical argument, stands to destabilize and change.

A deeper and more nuanced historical sensibility about some set of past events enables a deeper and more nuanced orientation to those parts of the present world that these past events affect.


*I borrow the phrase “dead and gone” from Allan Megill, who employs it as the name of one of four modes of historiography in Megill, Historical Knowledge, Historical Error (Chicago U.P., 2007).

**The term and concept of a state in which something “always already” is, is borrowed from Martin Heidegger, Being and Time 1965 [1927].

***For a brilliant analysis of the variety of (interconnected) ways in which the past, and our awareness of the past, affect our present, see Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (1960).