Sunday, April 26, 2009

RVA’s Response to “Does History Have any Utilitarian Value?”

Here is RVA’s response to my recent post on the purpose of history specifically and the humanities in general. This is part of a running conversation going over a number of posts and I encourage readers to go back to the beginning. One of the perks of writing a blog is that one gets to come in contact with many interesting people. It has certainly been a pleasure talking to RVA, though he has chosen to maintain his anonymity, which I respect.

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 lets 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).

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?

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