To establish the facts is always in order, and is indeed the first duty of the historian; but to suppose that the facts, once established in all their fullness, will ‘speak for themselves’ is an illusion. –Carl Becker
Carl Becker (1873–1945) was an American intellectual historian and a member of the Progressive School in American historical thought. Along with his mentor Fredrick Jackson Turner and close ally Charles Beard, Becker challenged the methods of the Scientific School, established in an earlier generation by Henry Adams, Herbert Baxter Adams, and William A. Dunning. Becker’s principle works were his presidential address to the American Historian Association, “Everyman His Own Historian” (1931), and The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers (1932—a fascinating discussion of the Enlightenment that we cannot, for reasons of space, discuss here, but that may be the subject of a future article.)
The basic question in this dispute was whether the historian’s principle obligation lay to the past, or to the present. We have already seen, with Herbert Butterfield, the argument for giving priority to the past, and it must be said (not to worry) that this has always been, and remains, the majority opinion among historians, professional or otherwise. There is, however, a case to be made for giving priority to the present. We have already seen Nietzsche’s views on this, and similar opinions seem to resurface about once every other generation. They have always found a sympathetic hearing among a minority, sometimes more substantial than others, of practicing historians. Carl Becker made his case in an American context, and under very different circumstances, when an atmosphere of crisis and mass discontent had destabilized the confident assumptions of an earlier era, and paved the way for far-reaching criticism.
“Everyman His Own Historian” began by defining history as “the memory of things said and done,” and by observing that, without such a memory, knowledge of any kind would be impossible. From this it followed that everyone—“Mr. Everyman”—was a historian at least some of the time. Mr. Everyman wakes up, remembers he was supposed to remember something, checks his coat pocket, finds a note to himself, and remembers that he was supposed to pay a bill. In that moment, he is a historian, for he has consulted documents in order to recover knowledge that would otherwise be lost to him. Mr. Everyman goes to the store to pay his bill, but the clerk checks his records and discovers that no such bill is owed—then Mr. Everyman remembers his bill is owed at a different store, and he pays it there. In other words, Mr. Everyman is again a historian, for he has checked one document against another in order to refine and correct that knowledge.
Crucially, the point of Mr. Everyman’s historical research has not been mere curiosity; he wants knowledge for practical purposes. If he found, let’s say, a receipt from a grocery store in his coat pocket, he would not inspect it with the same care and attention as his note to himself. He would ignore it, or perhaps throw it away, unless it had some special significance for him. So he is again a historian, for historians do not research all topics with equal care and attention. Rather, the decision of what to research, and how to do it, is a decision of how one will spend years of one’s life, and it is always in some sense a personal decision. Or, suppose a historian did spend ten years of their life writing the definitive history of, let’s say, swimming pools in Saskatchewan, 1893–1901, or sheepherding on the Mongolian steppes in the sixth century. Who would read it? Why would anyone care? Mr. Everyman has no more use for such a history than he has for yesterday’s grocery receipt, and he would not pay it any more mind. He may, however, want to read a biography about Abraham Lincoln, because Lincoln was a leader who rose to the challenge of his times, and guided the nation through a grave crisis. At the time Becker wrote, the United States had been struggling with the Depression for about two years, and would continue for another seven or eight. The life of Abraham Lincoln was just the kind of history that the nation needed in that moment, and Becker saw no reason why historians should not produce it, or histories like it, as a way to help meet the national emergency.
However, it was not simply the theme on which the historian wrote that was at issue—what could be more innocent? It was the way that historians wrote, and why, that would necessarily influence their selection, arrangement, and presentation of the facts. If we recall Butterfield’s advice, he considered it the historian’s obligation to view the situation in toto—Galileo and Inquisitors, Protestants and Catholics, heroes and villains, all working at cross purposes, out of which emerged a present that none of them could have foreseen, and that they may not have wanted. A history of Abraham Lincoln designed to encourage people in hard times could not give equal weight to Lincoln and Davis, Grant, and Lee, Free and Slave. Lincoln would have to appear as the hero, Grant as an ally, Davis and Lee as enemies, Free and Slave as a chorus. It would be Lincoln’s story. And, further, since people would not, on Becker’s advice, be reading simply because they were curious about Lincoln, but because they wanted a history that would help them make it through the hard times, not all the events of Lincoln’s life could receive equal weight. Becker’s Lincoln would never appear, as the actual Lincoln often did to his contemporaries, a country bumpkin, an incompetent, or, as his Secretary of War called him, “the original gorilla.” He would be Honest Abe, the country lawyer whose folksy charm hid a shrewd intelligence, and whose plain integrity shamed the crafty viciousness of the East Coast money men.
In short, where Butterfield wanted “technical history” which was not, and did not need to be, good for anything, but was simply true to the facts, Becker wanted “living history,” which, though certainly true to the facts, selected them for a purpose, and the entire point of which was that it was good for something. To let him speak in his own words, historians are a part of
that ancient and honorable company of wise men of the tribe, of bards and storytellers and soothsayers and priests, to whom in successive ages has been entrusted the keeping of sacred myths. Let not that harmless, necessary word ‘myth’ put us out of countenance. In the history of history a myth is a once valid but now discarded version of the human story, as our now valid versions will in due course be relegated to the category of discarded myths. With our predecessors, the bards and storytellers and priests, we have therefore this in common: that it is our function, as it was theirs, not to create, but to preserve and to perpetuate the social tradition; to harmonize, as well as ignorance and prejudice permit, the actual and the remembered series of events; to enlarge and enrich the specious present common to us all to the end that ‘society’ (the tribe, the nation, or all mankind) may judge of what it is doing in the light of what it has done and what it hopes to do.
By contrasting these two approaches to philosophy of history we can see the basic burden of the field. If a historian’s first allegiance is to the past (the orthodox position), how is he to avoid writing himself into the past, consciously or not? What other basis for the interpretation of the evidence but his own lived experience? If he cannot avoid writing himself into the past, then is he not also a present-minded historian, but one who refuses to admit it? If, on the other hand, a historian’s principle obligation is to the present (the heterodox position), how can we trust that his history is “the way it really was,” and not just the story he thinks we want to hear about ourselves? Who appointed him soothsayer and wise man? If we grant that it is unavoidable that a historian will see the past through his own eyes, and not of those who lived through it, why should we conclude that this is desirable, or that the historian does not owe us at least an honest effort to control his bias?
For the strand of historiographical thought running through Ranke, Adams, and Butterfield, the point is to understand the past “as it really was.” The usefulness of that history is none of the historian’s concern—Mr. Everyman can go fly a kite. For the strand running from Nietzsche to Becker, and, as we shall see, to Hayden White and the Postmodernists, the usefulness of history is the entire concern, and the dictum that the historian should “only say how it really was” is the dead hand of the past. History, they tell us, should serve living people, not the will-o’-the-whisps of the historian’s imagination, which only exist, like the historian, in the present. There is another, and in its way an even more radical heresy, than that of the Nietzscheans—the historian’s principle obligation, we learn from Marx and Carr, is to the future.
In philosophy of history, as in philosophy more generally, we cannot satisfy all of the competing imperatives the situation presents us with. We have to make choices, and with those choices, sacrifices. What we gain by considering such questions is not, as we perhaps told ourselves when we were younger, a way to satisfy all of those imperatives. What we gain is understanding of the choices we, and others, have made, and through that understanding the ability, if we decide to exercise it, to choose differently.
This post is the nineteenth is a series on the philosophy of history; the previous article in the series is here.
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the history of Science and Technology of nineteenth-century Germany. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.