Thoughts on the Value of History

“But falsehood, in general, passes current among the multitude because they are ignorant of history and believe all that they have heard from childhood in choirs and tragedies.”

Pausanias, A Description of Greece

“For human reason is not autonomous at all. It is always living in one historical context or another. Any historical context, as we see, distorts the vision of reason; that is why reason needs the help of history in order to overcome these historical limitations.”

Pope Benedict, Truth and Tolerance

Being a history major, and intending to one day make a living of some sort via the discipline of history, the overall value and place of history as a discipline in the broader scheme of things is something I regard with some interest and thought. I came across these two quotations today and was struck by the general convergence of thought in the two quite disparate writers. Pausanias, in one of the occasional interjections of opinion or explanation he offers in his travel guide, illustrates succintly one of the problems we must deal with in considering history (and Pope Benedict brings this out further in a different vein): our notions tend to be pre-formed from often times dubious sources. In the modern age replace “choirs and tragedies” with television and movies- the impact is the same. Our surrounding culture conditions our understanding and perception of history, and it is only by beginning to step back from our era and regard other eras that we can break out, contingently and partially to be sure, from the pre-conditioning of our age.

By considering history in greater depth and detail than what is offered by the mass media organs and popular opinion and knowledge, we are able to begin- again contingently and partially- viewing our own age and its systems of thought, its preconceptions and first principles, from a better perspective. History enables one to move outside of our limited perspective of the now and realize that the now is by no means absolute or unique; many “nows” have existed, with their own preconceptions and certainties, often quite divergent from ours. By recognizing and to as much of an extent as possible understanding this basic fact one is able to regard one’s own preconceptions with greater objectivity- most importantly, to recognize the preconceptions and first principles of one’s own era.

This assumes that one can, as Pope Benedict says, to a certain extent step outside of the immediate limitations of one’s historical context, that speaking and listening across “language games,” to borrow Wittgenstein’s terminology, is entirely possible. I agree, though of course with the caveat that one is always, to a certain extent, conditioned by one’s historical context, but it is not an absolute condition. Nor is it impossible to interact meaningfully with other language games; they are not mutually exclusive and impermeable. The disciple of history indeed rests upon the practice of crossing language games and stepping out of one’s immediate historical context; at the same time the ongoing practice of history more greatly enables one to consider the world more rationally and with fewer blind spots.

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