Aspiring librarian and historian. Personal webpage.

Curriculum Vitae


Contact me

A Reflection on 'Doing' History

04 Feb 2017

This is a draft of a paper that I submitted during my coursework at McGill. The prompt was something like, “What is the purpose of history?” I recently rediscovered it whilst organizing my files and thought I would share.


“Most of all,” writes John Demos in his preface to The Unredeemed Captive, “I wanted to write a story.” Demos certainly succeeds in his objective, as he interweaves segments of thick description with his own considerations of past traces to form a coherent story about cultural intersections in colonial America. But Demos’ opening statement serves as more than just a notice of the strong narrative elements that follow. Demos’ reflection indicates a break from the traditional mode of historical writing, suggesting, perhaps, that all histories are not created equal. As a result, Demos’ statement functions as a starting point that frames a discussion regarding the purpose of history. I argue here that there is an innate plurality to writing and reading history that deserves attention. Histories can fulfill pragmatic and political means by legitimating nation states through national Whig histories, or by legitimating a particular community of people. Alternatively, histories can fulfil the humanistic goal of understanding past human struggle and experiences. In either case, storytelling functions as the vehicle for comprehending the intersections of diverse social categories that together explain lived experiences. But as storytellers and readers, we must be cognizant of our own interests in shaping the interpretive contexts from which we approach historical scholarship; the sharpness of this historical awareness is what separates professional and amateur historians. The purpose of history is to make available “truthful” interpretations of lived experiences, so that our collective understanding of human existence is not limited to a set of generalizations dependent on our own knowledge of the immediate past. But, in addition to this educational function, history must entertain and, at its very best, inspire.

We started this course with Caspar David Friedrich’s The Wanderer above a Sea of Fog, and I would like to recall the celebrated painting for one final metaphor. The wanderer looks out across the valley and is only able to make out certain features of the landscape as dense fog restricts his view. He knows the valley is there (he had just climbed the mountain and he recalls the unstable soil) but he can only see the immediate foreground and the most distinct background features. John Gaddis interprets Friedrich’s painting as demonstrative of a historian and “historical consciousness” — looking back towards the past, eager to understand. But what if another wanderer were standing atop the mountain directly opposite. He, too, would peer across the valley and discern only what was in the foreground. Both wanderers would know that one valley exists, but they would have two distinct interpretations of the same landscape; fused together, their experiences would dissipate the fog. Perhaps Friedrich’s painting is as much a metaphor for “historical consciousness” as it is one fitting “historical purpose.”

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, Caspar david Friedrich

How and why do we attempt to dissipate this fog? As writers we gather evidence, we rehearse it in a particular order, and then tell the whole tale as we see it; effectively, we turn a “possible” into one instance of the “actual” story. By “thinking historically,” we identify the relationships between the past and present and we see “the simultaneous sense of significance and insignificance, of detachment and engagement, of mastery and humility, of adventure and danger.[1]” Storytelling is the vehicle that enables us to go beyond just listing the historical importance of analytical categories — like race, class, religion, and nationality — by allowing us to show how each reciprocally inflect each other in specific situations. In other words, narratives enable us to write intersectional stories. As Peter Burke suggests, “all written history…necessarily takes some kind of narrative form,” because “historians have come to see their sources as stories, rather than as objective reflections of the past.”[2] Indeed, this reflexive understanding of historical sources has engendered a return of the narrative mode. Ultimately, I think the purpose of historical narrative is twofold: to seize the reader’s attention with vivid language, while imparting an intimate understanding by means of sharp analysis.

As we have seen throughout this course, history manifests itself in many forms. There are sweeping narratives that describe grand theories and offer universal speculations in the Braudelian Annales mode. In Guns, Germs, and Steel, for example, Jared Diamond synthesizes 13,000 years of human history in his attempt to explain the totality of human development via environmentalist arguments. Put simply, Diamond’s focus is on large-scale historical processes. Adversely, there are small stories, limited in scope and period, which provide a profound intimacy with the subject matter.[3] Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms, for example, tells the story of a seemingly inconsequential 15th century miller. Ginzburg’s narrative demonstrates that Menochio constructed his own unique understanding of cosmology in direct opposition to that of the Catholic Church. Ginzburg’s analysis of minimal trial records, coupled with scholarly speculation and colourful language rescued an inconsequential miller from the ‘obscurity engendered by posterity.’ Similarly, Jonathan Spence’s The Question of Hu tells the tale of an 18th century Chinese man, John Hu, and his experiences amid a period of increasing cross-cultural contact. Spence’s simple narrative reconstructs Hu’s struggles as an assistant to a French Jesuit on the open sea, in France, and back in Canton as they might have been. In fact, Burke alludes to the cinematographical nature of Spence’s use of narrative as a “language of montage.”[4]  The reduction in scale to the micro has enabled historians to explain the impact of structures on the daily lives of particular individuals and communities. One consequence of this style, however, is that specific narratives are tacitly regarded as representative of the general. Franco Venturi underlined this problematic with particular inflection as he said: “to study the chronicles of villages is completely meaningless. The historian’s duty is to study the origins of ideas that shape our lives, not to write novels.”[5]

The claims of authority by practitioners of didactic historiography — popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries — have been debased by postmodernist critiques of historical narratives.[6] Theoretical frameworks and evidentiary sources work to separate historical narrative from fictional stories. Storytelling in itself offers no practical resolution; as a result, history cannot be isolated from theory. Giovanni Levi suggests that theoretical frameworks enable historians to develop “an ever expanding repertoire of thickly described material, rendered intelligible by thick contextualization,” which works to broaden our understanding of past human conditions.[7] The expansion of theoretical approaches since Ranke’s historicism has been fundamentally beneficial to the discipline. The content of historical study has been extended, ranging from studies of social structures to mentalities, gender, and identity. An alternative interpretation of these developments, however, suggests that the enlargement in subject and theory has weakened the integrity of the discipline. As the lines demarcating the boundaries between disciplines have become increasingly faint, especially since the turn to social and cultural history in the 1970s, a distinct purpose — and method — has become difficult to define. The jury is still out.

A discussion about the purpose of history inevitably leads to the discussion of whose history are we writing. Feminist, postcolonial and subaltern scholars have draw attention to the inherent power-dynamic that permeates historical writing.  Ultimately, these critiques draw attention to the epistemology of social science and humanist knowledge defined by modern universities. For example, Dipesh Chakrabarty argues that Eurocentric historians have crafted Indian history specifically “to look like yet another episode in the universal and…march of citizenship, of the nation state, of themes of human emancipation spelled out in the course of the European Enlightenment.”[8] As a result, Indian history will continue to “remain a mimicry of a certain ‘modern’ subject of European history” and much like African history, “is bound to represent a sad figure of lack and failure.”[9] Similarly, John Demos’ The Unredeemed Captive attempts to right an analogous wrong, as he notes, “I made a second resolution…[that] I would try to confront [the aboriginals]. It seemed astonishing how completely I had missed (ignored? discounted? Avoided?) the various host-groups.”[10] Thus, it becomes critical that we take into account the political circumstances within the academy, the archives, and general society in which history is written and read. Antoinette Burton makes this point clear, as she draws attention to the physicality of archives. According to Burton archives “set up boundaries, guard against intruders, recognize only some expertise, and privilege credentials over others” in an attempt to control matrices of power.[11] In this broader sense, doing history becomes less the domain of any one group of people, and the historical narrative less a finished story, than an endeavour that comprises both the production and reception of intersecting, contradictory, gendered, and politicized accounts of the past.

As long as historians and readers continue to show interest in human nature and the human condition, they will recognize that studying the past is a fundamental part of the puzzle. I do not think I am in the minority in believing that a virtue of historical narratives is that in reconstructing the emotions and intellect of people living in conditions very different from our own, we further our understanding of what it means to be human. Yet the practical belief that history can offer much needed guidance and perspective to contemporary society still exists. This conviction influences research priorities even if the results are rarely communicated effectively to lay readers. Contemporary political and socio-cultural realities influence the subject matter and the approach to doing history. For example, the sense of crisis about environmental management has prompted a growth in environmental history, and the comparatively recent emergence of Africa in the international scene has directed attention to African history. Uncertainties about the present are grafted onto the past, in an effort, perhaps, to find perspective on the most pressing problems of our time. But despite these new and exciting fields, the ivory-tower mentality still afflicts historical writing and audience reception. The act of historical re-creation is an inherently creative one, unbound by the pedantic conventions of “hard” social sciences, like economics and political science. Yet some continue to construct narratives in an academic language that is bereft of literary expression. To effectively stimulate a reader’s imagination historical narratives must use accessible language to its fullest extent. Ultimately, history is as much a medium for placating contemporary anxieties, as it is a vehicle for entertainment and inspiration.

In crafting their narratives some historians have an abundance of traces, whilst others deal with scarcity. Regardless of the quality and quantity of sources, historical narratives, unlike the certainty of mathematics, cannot provide a conclusive picture of past human experiences. But this is all the more reason for assiduous care, an open mind, and for the acceptance of the inherent uncertainties of historical conclusions. Disorderly, fragmentary traces leave room for diverse participation by individuals with different interpretive skills. Ultimately, the answer to “what is the purpose of history” is as multifaceted as the discipline is in framework and approach. The purpose of history should not be to impart a list of facts, or delineate one historical explanation, nor explain an assortment of “good” or “bad” examples. Instead, the purpose of history is to describe and analyze episodes of judgement, caution, and human struggle. Furthermore, the purpose of history is to promote the virtues of thinking historically — Gaddis suggests the term “historical consciousness.” In effect, thinking historically enables us to understand the present diachronically, and in relation to causation. But most of all, the creative element of historical writing empowers us to tell vivid stories of the struggles of those who have lived, loved, and thought. Whether it is a poignant story of an Argentinian woman who defined her identity around union activism, or an imaginative narrative of cross-cultural contact in colonial New England, our innate human desire to know why and how is the engine that powers historical inquiry. Finally, with all pretences for historical objectivity and “truth” dispelled I, too, must admit that above all, I want to write stories.


[1] John Gaddis, The Landscape of History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004): 129.

[2] Peter Burke, “History of Events and the Revival of Narrative,” in New Perspectives on Historical Writing, ed. Peter Burke (University Park, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001): 284.

[3] I would consider my work to be microhistorical.

[4] Burke, “History of Events,” 297.

[5] Quoted in Giovanni Levi, “On Microhistory,” in New Perspectives on Historical Writing, ed. Peter Burke (University Park, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001): 100.

[6] The idea that there is a prescribed, authoritative history of something has long passed. This approach has been debased by postmodernists critiquing the fictitious nature of historical narratives.

[7] Levi, “On Microhistory,” 104.

[8] Dipesh Chakrabarty, “Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks for “Indian” Pasts?” Representations 37 (Winter, 1992): 17.

[9] Ibid., 18.

[10] John Demos, The Unredeemed Captive (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1994): preface.

[11] Antoinette Burton, “Archive Stories: Gender in the Making of Imperial Colonial Histories,” in Gender and Empire, ed. Philippa Levine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004): 282-3.