No. 28, October 1994


Book reviews


The functions of History

History teachers are confronted daily with the ever present question: Why do I need to study History? I know I have to study Maths because my ability in Maths is for some reason or another, rightly or wrongly, used to judge my academic and intellectual potential. If I study Accounting or Computer Science it will enable me to compete in the job market. But what does History offer me?

Closely related to the question of the utility of History is the need for understanding the functions of History in modern-day society. Let us remind ourselves of the pragmatic origins of history at the dawn of civilization and in the most primeval of cultures: the pragmatic need to remember things so that you know how to manage daily affairs and organise society. Since then the functions of history have been considerably extended. History is the story of the identification of History with the power of the state and the establishment and confirmation of religions. That is why History is so often the battleground of politics and religion: it served as both justification for the existing order and as clarion call for change, resistance, revolution. In the eighteenth century the Enlightenment--and the rising positivism self-confidently proclaimed History as the instrument for rational study and interpretation that would reveal the hidden laws of progress. The historism of the nineteenth century reminded historians of their inability to achieve such an idealistic aim. History deals with the unique and the individual characteristics of each period and culture. It is through the understanding and appreciation of the inner character of a period or a society that its inner logic is revealed.

The positivist revolt against this rejection of the concept of the laws of history led to the rise of the social sciences. Their commitment to the explanatory theories that would unlock the secrets of the human mind and society reduced History's function to that of a laboratory. Thus in their perception History became nothing more than an "auxiliary science". Why then study History if its only function is to provide the selective details necessary to support or reject a particular theory in the social and human sciences? Why study something that can never have a worthwhile purpose in its own right? Contemporary studies focus on three irreplaceable functions that the study of History fulfils in contemporary society.

1. History fulfils a basic intellectual need. This basic need is something more than curiosity, romanticising, self-justification or establishing and confirming a particular heritage or tradition. It is traditionally represented by the argument that History provides lessons to be learned and enables one to prevent repeating the same mistakes. In a more sophisticated way this argument is presented in the form of developing a sense of responsible and rational behaviour. The Italian Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) was the most prominent exponent of the idea of historia magistrae vitae: History the tutor of life.

Historians are today more modest about History's ability to achieve these highsounding ideals. There is doubt as to whether leaders really learn the lessons of history. But this does not in any way cancel the need for a feeling for, an understanding and a realisation of the role of history in society. The power of and the need for history is not its pragmatic day-to-day functions but lies in its broader intellectually formative value and meaning.

Studying History enables one to identify the variety of factors involved in issues and to weigh these factors against each other. This is referred to as prudentia: the ability to reduce complex issues to their fundamental elements, relationships and meaning thus creating a holistic overview which clearly distinguishes between the essential and the non-essential. In politics this is called the hallmark of real statesmanship. In life it is called wisdom. That is why great statesmen in history (Frederick the Great, Napoleon, Bismarck, Kissinger) had such a profound appreciation of History. This is what historical consciousness really is.

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