Thursday, April 23, 2009

Does History Have any Utilitarian Value? A Response

In Part II you state, "The humanities have no utilitarian." In Part III, you state that history-buffs are of "no practical use to anyone" because they do not analyze primary/secondary sources and do not use the historical method, which in turn implies that the work of historians does have practical value. In Part IV, you challenge post-modernists who do not believe that the humanities have intrinsic value. My confusion may be cleared up if you could explain the relationship between those statements. Does your assertion that the "humanities have no utilitarian value" exclude history (i.e. Does history have utilitarian value? Practical value? Non-utilitarian value?). Also, is History part of the Humanities or is it a Social Science? Does it make a difference as to whether History has utilitarian value if you classify it as one or the other?

I view history as part of the humanities and not as one of the sciences, social or any other. As part of the humanities, history has no utilitarian value; it does not produce any goods with direct empirical benefits for human beings. Also history is outside of the sciences as it has no predictive value. During the nineteenth century it was quite common to view history as a science and to formulate specific laws. Hegel and Marx are good examples of this. In fact Marx wanted to dedicate Das Kapital to Darwin, because he saw what he was doing for history what Darwin had done for biology. This endeavor to find laws for history and create an overarching narrative has failed. Admittedly there is still the popular notion that one can learn from the past. But you will find about as many professional historians who believe this as you do scientists who reject evolution.

In Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series there is a character named Hari Seldon who, through his study of psychohistory, is able to formulate laws as to how human societies work to such an extent that he is able to predict the future with mathematical precision. He foresees the collapse of the Galactic Empire and a Dark Age lasting thirty thousand years. Through the creation of the Foundation, Seldon hopes to preserve the knowledge of the Empire so that the Dark Age would last only one thousand years. (Asimov essentially took Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and turned it into a series of science fiction novels.) No historian can do what Seldon does. We are just as clueless as everyone else. History as a science, therefore, is going to have to stay, for now, in the same realm as hyper-space travel, in science fiction.

So what purpose does history serve that we bother to have students waste some of their valuable time studying it? The most obvious answer, and in my view the least important, is that history is useful for giving context for present day events. For example it is reasonable to expect that young people participating in our recent election of Barack Obama should know something about the civil rights movement and of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It may also be reasonable to expect that they know something about the history of American slavery, about the Civil War and about Abraham Lincoln. It is reasonable to expect that with all the discussion about the recent downturn in the economy that people should know something about the Great Depression. Again this is not learning lessons from the past, this is just being able to put events into a certain context. The key difference between lessons and context is that context does not point and say that this happened in the past therefore you should do … . (whatever action fits into the ideology of the speaker) This understanding of history justifies at the very least that students in elementary school and high school should have to take some basic history courses taught by a teacher with a degree in education but not history.

For me history is important for three reasons. The first is that history is a method of thinking, a way of interrogating texts that is of vital importance for processing present day issues. When I read a newspaper or listen to a public speaker, because I filter everything through the historical method, I read and hear a very different text. One that the authors of the text usually do not want me to pick up on. This interrogation of texts is quite similar to a police interrogation of witnesses and suspects. While it is possible to learn this method without studying history, I would say that history is a very useful setting because it allows you to step away from the issues of your day. For example most people living in modern America have no particular strongly felt convictions one way or another as to who was right in the Hundred Years War, the English or the French.

This leads to my second reason. History, when properly taught, encourages one to transcend issues. While the English and the French fought the Hundred Years War, for the historian, neither side is right or wrong. Both sides are products of their specific place in history. The historian, in his own mind, gets to bring both sides together and make a sort of peace between them. Imagine a generation of politicians trained on this sort of historical thinking and imagine how different our public discourse would be. (For more on this concept see Herbert Butterfield’s The Whig Interpretation of History.)

The third important thing that history does is that it forces one to confront a culture whose values are not one’s own. Not only is one forced to confront this different culture but one also finds oneself, in some sense, being drafted to defend this culture, now dead and buried, to a world that has passed on. In one sense this is very conservative as one is defending the past; in another sense this is very liberal as it involves challenging present norms in society.

With these three reasons in mind, I can affirmatively say with a clear conscious that history is an important field of study. Important enough that not only should children study it in elementary school and high school tbut that hey need to be taught it by a teacher trained in the historical method and not an education major staying a chapter ahead of them in the textbook. Furthermore history is something that should be a requirement in universities. Finally, for a select few, history and the historical method should become a way of life that they devote themselves to mind, body and soul.


RVA said...

I'm very much intrigued by your assertion that the "humanities have no utilitarian value." I often struggle with this question and have not come to a conclusion, although I sympathize with your position. I would argue that whether the humanities have any utilitarian value ultimately depends on your conception of what a "legitimate" society should look like.

To play the devil’s advocate, I’ll venture a counter-argument, noting at the outset that I don’t necessarily agree with the following theory. The discipline of history has intrinsic utilitarian value because it insulates “history” from political and social propaganda by government and organized factions. If we assume that historians strive to be honest and earnest, objective inasmuch as possible, then they serve two important roles (which I delineated from your Part III post): 1) preservation of primary sources, 2) creation of objective secondary sources. (Assuming that the creation of an “objective” body of discourse is itself possible.) These two functions have practical value, not for the scholarly or academic issues they study and analyze, but because the work of historians collectively creates a body of discourse that strives for an authentic recitation of historical events. Each individual historian is himself superfluous, but the collective construction of history becomes the fruit of their labor. This body of discourse will then be protected by historians from outsiders (e.g. governments) and other historians who seek to “falsify” or “distort” history to suit their own political or social ends. The mere fact that than an objective body of discourse exists let’s an individual in society make a comparison between “history” and “interpretations of history” by outsiders.

If one's conception of a "legitimate" society requires it to sincerely acknowledge its own history, then preservation of its history becomes vital, and therefore History has a utilitarian function. The utilitarian value DOES NOT emerge from learning lessons from the past, but from preventing the manipulation of a society's history to suit political/social ends (e.g. Eastern European autocrats selectively constructing Nationalist ideologies to suit their political ends in post-Communist Europe).

(to be continued)

RVA said...

- Some more thoughts I had, some of which may be poorly thought-out at this point -

On a related note, I sometimes wonder what it would be like living in a world without formal historians. Informal and ad hoc history would be similar to how American Law treats "out-of-court statements presented for the truth of the mattered asserted": hearsay. It would be distressing to encounter a society where history would have no more depth than a wikipedia entry.

Is formal History inevitable in any advanced human society? Not sure, but probably not. I think stable societies are a fragile phenomenon and there is no guarantee of their continuance. Thus even if History becomes formalized in a society, its continued operation is always premised on the continued stability of the State, which is never a guarantee. I can also imagine police states in the distant future which are repressive far beyond anything the 20th century encountered. When societies begin to disintegrate, there's a strong possibility of losing substantial portions of the accumulated knowledge of a civilization (which was why Seldon thought an Encyclopedia Galactica was necessary in light of the coming collapse of the Empire, even though this was only the Foundation's purported purpose).

Is formal history necessary for a legitimate society? Murky. I would say probably because it would otherwise be difficult to combat the construction of self-serving narratives by social, political and religious factions. In some respects, attempts at formalizing History would be inevitable because there would always be skeptics and dissidents (at least I hope there will be!) who would challenge self-serving historical narratives, and some skeptics would in turn attempt to formalize the History to prevent its usurpation by others. Or it could be that skeptics would merely create their own counter-self-serving narratives to advance their own interests?