by mark | 6/22/2008 09:42:00 PM
Previously, Jeremy Young, our primus inter pares, called for a symposium on the question of what is a historian:

The argument we're (not quite) having here -- and to which Adam
in Historically Speaking makes another important
contribution -- concerns a series of rich and timeless questions: what exactly is a historian? Should the term be applied only to those who possess doctoral degrees and publishing histories, or are historians a more broad and multifaceted group? Is everyone a historian, as Carl Becker
famously argued? And assuming we can define the "wheat" and the "chaff," what separates the two? What does the "trained" historian have to offer that the "amateur" does not, or vice versa?

Good questions all. Let me start with what historians are not.

Historians are not theorists, though they may entertain certain theories in the course of interpreting an event they do not begin with answers as does a theorist but with questions. Questions they try to answer with research and evidence because history, while not a science, is an empirical discipline. Historians are not poets, they do not aim to create sweeping, romantic, myths, though like anyone else, historians admire mythic ideals but their task is to reveal where reality may have fallen short. Historians are not social scientists, though they sometimes borrow their tools; nor are they economists constructing abstract models hoping to predict events. A historian who tries to predict what will happen based upon the past is engaging in futurism, a very different and more difficult art.

None of this is meant to disparage political scientists, poets, economists, sociologists, anthropologists, authors of historical fiction or futurists. They all do worthy and interesting things, it's just that their work cannot properly be called "history". A historian is someone who tries to cogently explain what really happened, based upon the best evidence available; amateur or professional status matters less than skill, persistence and intellectual integrity in pursuing this task.

Historians have a varied set of skills. They are researchers, at times, detectives. They must consume and accurately recall vast amounts of historigraphical literature. Historians must think analytically foremost but also intuitively and sometimes, toward a synthesis. They must communicate clearly with the spoken and written word; and they must be teachers, literally in a classroom or in the larger sense of writing history to educate society. Few historians excel equally well at all of these different aspects but most good historians are strong or even exemplary in many of them.

In regard to the respective virtues of professional vs. "amateur" or "popular" historians ( many popular historians are or were also academics - Howard Zinn, Stephen Ambrose, Niall Ferguson and so on) it is important to recognize that they write for different audiences. Popular or amateur historians write for the intelligent reading public while academic historians write primarily for other academic historians. This is not a slam on profesional scholars but a recognition of differences in scope, scale and level of historical knowledge between the two groups of readers.

The public is not well prepared to handle or comment upon historical monographs of an esoteric or technical nature, only other specialists can do that. Nor are historians who have spent most of their career in a very rarefied subfield - say researching currency fluctuations in the Spanish Netherlands during the early modern period or Women's social status in the Caribbean during the late Colonial era - well positioned to write a panoramic history of Western civilization, of the history of technology or similarly big picture subjects desired by the layman who wants to "read some history". At least not without a major time investment.

The relationship between academic and popular/amateur historians is an interdependent one; the former are usually creating the monographic bricks with which the latter build their sweeping and entertaining literary edifices while popular historians "hook" readers into studying history more deeply - perhaps deeply enough to become a professional historian! One is not "better" than the other, simply different with distinct objectives.

The door of history is open to anyone - you simply need to walk through it.

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Anonymous Proudhon on 6/23/2008 4:04 PM:

You need to learn proper comma usage.


Blogger mark on 6/23/2008 4:56 PM:

Pretty much. Semi-colons are problematic as well.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 6/24/2008 1:11 AM:

Proudhon, please keep it substantive.


Blogger Bastoche on 6/25/2008 12:44 PM:

Mark: a very interesting essay. One quick comment:

As you say, historians do not just gather evidence in order to describe a past or present event; they interpret the event. But they interpret it on the basis of their ideological assumptions. Even if they are aware of their bias and attempt to control for it, nonetheless their assumptions will, at least to some small extent, influence how they treat the available evidence. As they go about constructing their explanation or narrative of an event, they will deem certain bits of evidence worthy of inscription and others worthy only of marginalization or outright erasure. Even those bits of evidence that they include will be affected by their assumptions. Certain individuals or groups, for example, will be given causal priority over others.

This is especially the case, I think, with those historians, amateur or professional, who narrate/explain contemporary events (the surge, for example). Ideally, as they sift evidence for their accounts, they will remain aware of the interplay between the available evidence and their ideological predilections. In reality, however, some historians use only the evidence that supports their ideological assumptions. Others, however, are bolder and more disruptive. Not only do they tolerate evidence that calls their assumptions into question, but they also allow their assumptions to be affected by the evidence. That is, they reshape their worldview in order to bring it into accord with what the evidence is saying. They might even find the evidence so powerful that they are willing not just to tinker with their paradigm but, in an act of intellectual revolution, scrap it entirely and fashion one that is better adapted to the evidence.

Of course, that takes a certain attribute that not all historians possess: intellectual courage.


Blogger Mentarch on 6/26/2008 2:05 PM:

"A historian is someone who tries to cogently explain what really happened, based upon the best evidence available; amateur or professional status matters less than skill, persistence and intellectual integrity in pursuing this task."

I completely agree - and great post, btw.

It boils down to knowing what one's credentials are - I am a scientist, but I know I am no historian (let alone an "amateur" one). That is why I have never pretended to document history, since what I do when I write is opine - along with established facts (historical or not).

That is also why I ever feel honored and humbled at being invited to post my ramblings here. ;-)


Blogger mark on 6/26/2008 11:15 PM:

Hi Bastoche,

I think you put that exceedingly well.

It's very easy to be seduced, to be overimpressed with evidence that supports the worldview we favor. Sources that make us " feel good" are dangerous because we tend not to give them the thorough examination they deserve. Going with the evidence requires courage - recognizing it requires presence of mind and some humility about the limits of our own judgment.

Hi Mentarch

Well you ramble historically far more smoothly than I would operate in a lab any day. Thank you BTW.

A lot of scientists end up with affinities for history. An uncle of mine, after a stint in physics, spent his career in neuropharmacological and neuropsychiatric research. Now that he has retired his house is filled with little other than history books