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The questions I want to raise here ﬁrst presented themselves to me in a pointed way during an undergraduate class on historiography. I had recently published a social and intellectual biography of a little-known mid ﬁfteenth-century Florentine merchant and memorialist named Marco Parenti, whose anonymous history of a failed revolt against the Medici I had discovered in the Florentine archives.1 The collapse of the antiMedicean faction must have made it expedient to hide the narrative, and over time both the unﬁnished history and the would-be historian had faded into nearly total obscurity – a condition that seemed to make Parenti an ideal subject for microhistory, that favourite form of late twentieth-century historical writing. My students had perhaps not taken away from the book as much as I would have wanted about the forms and traditions of Renaissance historical writing. Still, they appeared to have enjoyed the more concrete elements of this narrative of ideas, especially the mix of political intrigue, intimate social detail, and strong personality preserved in the family correspondence that was my chief biographical resource. But alongside these narrative pleasures, there was also some nervousness about how much to trust this Rosencrantz and Guildenstern vision of a period they were accustomed to thinking of in grander terms. One student in particular stays in my memory because he was prepared to put his doubts quite bluntly, as well as to extend them to other, more notable representatives of the genre – the lousy Cathar peasants, massacred cats, deluded millers, and returned ‘husbands’ he had encountered in more than one of his undergraduate history courses. My protestations that these microhistorians had found a new way to represent ordinary lives and everyday experience were simply waved away: ‘Aren’t you really saying that your generation came too late to get the really important stuff – the lives of people like Cosimo de’ Medici or Lorenzo the Magniﬁcent – so really there was not much left over for you to write about except this bunch of odd balls and small potatoes?’ Since my ﬁrst defence had met only limited success, I improvised a new direction that in retrospect has come to seem more fruitful because more historical. I asked them to consider a choice between two quite different accounts of the battle of Stalingrad. The ﬁrst book presents this crucial battle in a form that is traditional to military histories: that is, it provides a tactical narrative of the conﬂict and analyzes the success of the Soviet command in outmanoeuvring the German army, so that the invaders found themselves encircled and cut off from all supplies, surrender ﬁnally being their only option. Alternately they might want to read a rather different sort of narrative, one that, deliberately ignoring the larger strategic
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considerations, uses the letters written by the trapped German soldiers to recreate the increasingly desperate condition of these ordinary men as they found themselves facing starvation and grim defeat in the depths of a Russian winter. This time there was no doubt where their sympathies lay: most of us, they readily agreed, were simply more interested in the plight of the common soldier than in the tactics of the general staff. There was some recognition, however, that readers who had been closer to the actualities of these decisive events – especially those who retained a sense that the war could have gone another way – might have been less interested in the common humanity of enemy soldiers and more intent on understanding just how this extraordinary reversal of military fortunes had come to be. This was not, of course, the ﬁrst time that I had recognized that historical sensibilities change over time, or applied what I knew of historical writing in other ages to the outlook of my own generation. But it was, I think, the ﬁrst time that I consciously applied the idea of ‘distance’ to this problem and that I did so in the enlarged sense that now informs my work. For both the historian and the reader, I have come to realize, distance, is not only a given, but also a construction – and one with many dimensions. There is no doubt, for example, that the chronological interval that separates the present-day historian from the momentous events of 1942–3 has a powerful role in determining his or her potential understandings of the battle. As time goes on, therefore, we can certainly expect to ﬁnd new vantage points on this history and the result may in some sense be a clearer or a better picture. But as the choice of readings I offered the class seemed to illustrate, chronological distance is just the beginning, since the effective distance can be diminished or augmented in ways that can fundamentally change our sense of what that history represents. Consequently, what we sometimes call the ‘perspective of history’ is surely a much more variable and complex construction than we sometimes like to pretend, and one that would be worth thinking about in a more serous, more systematic, and (above all) more historical fashion. * * *
Some degree of temporal distance is always present in historical writing, and in practice an enormous amount of patient effort goes into coping with the problems of research that ensue. In the abstract, however, this interval has not seemed especially problematic since it is evidently a necessary condition of historical research and in many respects a very productive one. Historians accept that increased temporal distance can mean the loss of valuable information, but we also point to the fact that posterity is often able to have access to documents not generally available to contemporaries. More fundamentally, we share a wide commitment to the idea that the losses that come with the passage of time must be balanced against compensatory gains in clarity and perspective. In any case, isn’t this interval between the historical moment and its eventual representation one of the
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crucial things that sets history as a discipline apart from more presentist studies like journalism or sociology? If temporal distance is a deﬁning condition of all forms of historical representation, an analysis of the ways in which histories of different types have confronted the problem of distance in all its modiﬁcations would seem to be an important focus for historiographical study. The very ubiquity of distance, however, has tended to render it invisible, and over time certain canonized ideas about the proper forms of distance have become so much a feature of our historiographical tradition that we are hardly aware of their inﬂuence. In this respect, what is sometimes called historical perspective bears a strong resemblance to its visual counterpart, where a particular form of spatial construction has come to seem a natural way of seeing the world, rather than the outcome of speciﬁc traditions of representation. For historians, in fact, it has become difﬁcult to distinguish between the concept of historical distance and the idea of history itself. If we want to defamiliarize our common-sense idea of historical distance, it will be useful to begin with the recognition that historical accounts not only function at a received distance from events; they also reconstruct and reshape that distance in a variety of ways that bear upon every aspect of our view of the past. Every history, after all, has to establish relationships of engagement and detachment, insight and overview, which connect it with the past it describes, and every subsequent reading of a history (or, to change the scene, every visit to a historical monument or a museum) effectively requires a return to these same issues. Nor is distance in this enlarged sense conﬁned to the poetics or rhetoric of historical representation. Style, structure, and affect are, of course, involved, but so are the moral, political, and methodological commitments of the work. In the last analysis, what we think we can know about past societies and what we think it important to explain are just as much at stake as the means by which the story is told or its power over the reader’s emotions and allegiances. Historians have no need for abstract theorizing to be reminded that style, rhetoric, politics, and method all have a part to play in shaping the impact of historical narratives. Typically, however, we have addressed each of the different dimensions of historical writing in its own terms, without thinking too strenuously about what they have in common, or, indeed, what beneﬁt there might be in being able to keep them all clearly in view. Each element of historical representation has tended to acquire its own vocabulary, leaving us without an obvious way of aligning the different dimensions of historiography. Like traditional systems of measurement, which counted every commodity by its own standard (grain by bushels, oil by barrels, wine by hogsheads, herring by cran) our working vocabulary for historical criticism has supplied us with a useful lexicon for every part of the mixed cargo of historical navigation, but no common measure by which to weigh the full contents of the hold. In reference to expository style, for example, a history might be
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considered as either ‘detailed’ or ‘sweeping’, a ‘narrative’ or an ‘essay’. Thinking about the same text’s emotional tone, however, we change our terms and call it ‘warm’ and ‘evocative’, or perhaps ‘cool’ and ‘austere’. Ideological engagement might be ‘detached and objective’, or, on the contrary, ‘committed’, ‘forceful’, or even ‘polemical’. Method, for its part, can be seen as ‘micro’ or ‘macro’, as ‘thick descriptive’ or ‘long durational’, as a matter for ‘case studies’ or for ‘statistical’ approaches, as ‘hermeneutic’ or ‘positivist’. Uncertainties are also generated by the fact that the terms we adopt to describe one dimension of historical accounts often migrate to another, crossing easily from style to emotion, or from emotion to politics. In itself this is no bad thing and it reinforces the important point that we never encounter any single element in isolation. Often, indeed, we look for an overarching term that will tie everything together, bundling formal issues with affective ones, moral stance with cognitive style. A fussy critic might object, but in practice no one is really confused if we speak of the emotional tone of a history as ‘scientiﬁc’ or of its method as ‘novelistic’. These shifting vocabularies simply represent a practical recognition of the fact that every level of historical representation has important implications for the others. No-one can hope to legislate this sort of profusion into a simple order, but since issues of distance arise on every level of historical narrative, distance may provide us with a central axis for analysis. This means, of course, widening the meaning of ‘historical distance’ well beyond its usual temporal sense, but I want to defend the idea that this is only an enlargement, not a distortion of the original terms. If we accept that temporal distance is a deﬁning characteristic of historical work, but that in practice historical distance is always a much mediated construction, then the elementary dimensions of historical representation I have outlined – form, affect, ideology, and cognition – can be understood as crucial mediations of that initial distance. They stand, we might say, as a series of distances (or even distance-effects) that modify and reconstruct the temporality of historical accounts, thereby shaping every part of our engagement with the past. Another, less radical, sort of enlargement is also required, since in ordinary speech we use ‘distance’ to refer to detachment or separation. Distance, in other words, is generally deﬁned in simple opposition to proximity – as a single location, rather than a range of experience. This usage, however, is too inﬂexible for present purposes. In this study, therefore, ‘distance’ will refer to the entire continuum from proximity to detachment, while ‘distantiation’ – awkward term though it is – will be used to refer to whatever has the effect of ‘putting things at a distance’. Both the bungalow and the skyscraper have height; equally, we can say that every representation of the past organizes distance, however foreshortened or extended. It remains to say something very preliminary about the kinds of questions a discussion of distance may help to address. As I have indicated, the
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point of thinking about historiography in terms of a balance of multiple distances is to create a more systematic framework for exploring the connections between the various dimensions of historical representation. The aim, in other words, is to shed light on the relationship between the formal properties of historical accounts and their affective, ideological, and cognitive commitments. In saying this, however, I am aware of a strong possibility of seeming to promise something that I do not actually wish to deliver. In particular, readers might well assume that – in the manner of Hayden White’s Metahistory – the goal is to arrive at a theoretical prescription that would match formal modes to particular ideological or cognitive stances. This sort of structuralist project, however, is very far from what is intended, and my own approach to these matters will be historical, rather than predictive, diachronic rather than structural. White concentrates his attention on a handful of ‘masterworks’, and, following on Northrop Frye, he treats these in the manner of a universal anatomy, not a history. His analytic focus rests on decoding the structure of these great texts, and insofar as he deals with historical change, it is to posit a closed cycle of historical emplotments that begins and ends the nineteenth century in the mode of irony. My own interest, on the other hand, moves in a different direction, having less to do with isolated texts (however great) than with studying the evolution of larger formations – the schools and genres of historical writing, whose periodic reconﬁguration, I would like to suggest, constitutes the essential material of the history of historiography. For the sake of economy, let me state the direction of my argument in the form of three very brief hypotheses about the history of historical thought. First, I want to suggest that schools of historical thought are marked by broadly characteristic forms of engagement with the past, and that these engagements can be understood as a commitment to particular stances in relation to the categories of distance I have outlined. Second, it follows that in the history of historical thought signiﬁcant changes are associated with reconﬁgurations of some or all of these characteristic distances. To put this another way, the history of historical representation is punctuated by periodic distance-shifts. Third, I want to suggest – though with due caution – that the types of distance I have put forward to this point as though they were of equivalent weight in fact represent an ascending scale of signiﬁcance. As we move closer to the cognitive end of the scale, the stakes get deeper, with the result that reworkings of these forms of distance can be expected to have larger, more disruptive consequences for the history of historiography. FORMS OF HISTORICAL DISTANCE I have already suggested that an analysis of distance needs to encompass form, affect, ideology, and cognition – a mix, in other words, of narrative form or genre, emotional impact, political or moral commitment, and
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analytic method. Though there is necessarily a degree of arbitrariness in separating a set of categories that in practice always occur in combination, an analytic grid of this kind can help to bring quite disparate elements of historical representation under a single framework and provide some consistency of approach. It is important to be clear, however, that the intention is purely descriptive and historical. The payoff of the analysis does not come from being able to establish ﬁxed patterns of relationship between different sorts of distance. Rather the point is to appreciate the combinatory possibilities that give individual works – or perhaps whole schools and genres – some of their characteristic features. Historians are most likely to think of distance in terms of emotional identiﬁcation and detachment – and, by extension, of the political or social loyalties that engage both historians and readers with their stories. These affective and ideological dimensions of the subject are certainly important, and in many historical accounts – or for many historical audiences – they are utterly central. But something signiﬁcant will be missed if we conﬁne distance to its most obvious affective and ideological meanings and fail to see its purchase on a wider range of issues. For this reason, I want to expand a little on the idea that, alongside of its formal, affective, and ideological dimensions, distance has a cognitive function as well. Among recent historiographical movements, microhistory provides a striking example of the emergence of a new historical genre deﬁned in part by distance – a shift in perspective made particularly dramatic when viewed against the ‘longue durée’ of the Annales school. Microhistory’s preference for close focus is, on one level, a matter of narrative technique, but it is obvious that purely formal considerations alone would not take us very far towards describing Montaillou or The Midwife’s Tale, or relating them to a wider contemporary sensibility.2 Rather, to analyze the attraction of such works we would need to explore the ways that, in the political climate of the late twentieth century and especially the politics of gender, micronarrative allowed historians to pursue closer emotional and ideological identiﬁcation with the experiences of women, peasants, religious nonconformists and others whose lives seemed to have been erased from largerscale narratives.3 For historians and their readers alike, the thick contextualization and biographical detail made possible by microhistory seemed to humanize historical writing, drawing a new and wider audience to the work of social and cultural historians – and even, occasionally, to the history of ideas. If a number of leading microhistorians were attracted by the affective and ideological proximities of the new genre, comparatively few advanced distinctive cognitive claims for the method of small-scale observation. One outstanding exception, however, is Carlo Ginzburg, who allied his work to a fundamental approach to human knowledge that he called ‘clue-hunting’, claiming for it both deep roots in human experience and a methodological status equivalent to the generalizing methods of natural science. Thus,
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although Ginzburg shared many of the ideological motives that were common to contemporary microhistory, the cognitive claim he made for what he called the ‘evidential paradigm’ gave coherence of a different kind to his scholarship and led to a stiff battle against the anti-positivism that is so widespread in contemporary scholarship.4 Ginzburg aside, the most remarkable examples of microhistory as a shift in cognitive distance come from recent studies in the history of science, where – post Thomas Kuhn and Michael Polanyi – historians have turned away from grand narratives of scientiﬁc reason to emphasize the localness and tacitness of scientiﬁc traditions.5 All histories, of course, incorporate affective and ideological dimensions, but in the ﬁrst instance at least we are not invited to a closer acquaintance with Robert Boyle and Thomas Hobbes, for example, because the former belonged to an oppressed class or because we wish for a closer sentimental bond with the latter, but rather because it can be argued that there are aspects of scientiﬁc practice that can only be observed on this particular scale.6 Rather than continue with recent historiography, however, let me illustrate the point with a less familiar example drawn from the unlikely context of early nineteenth-century theological controversy. The work I have in mind is Richard Whately’s Historic Doubts Relative to Napoleon Bonaparte (1819), a satirical pamphlet published anonymously only four years after Waterloo purporting to cast doubt on the genuine existence of the exiled Emperor. Using a deft parody of Hume’s genially sceptical style, Whately explored a range of reasons why a man of common sense and independent mind might want to question the evidence that so extraordinary a ﬁgure as Napoleon had ever really existed. He pointed to inconsistencies of alleged fact about Napoleon’s military exploits, the contradictory assessments of his character, the self-interestedness and partiality of the newspapers which were the main sources of information, the convenient ﬁction that this epic hero was now imprisoned on a far-off island where no credible authority could speak to him (followed later by the even more convenient report of his death in this far-off exile), and, of course, to the sheer unlikelihood of such unprecedented events, evidently belonging to the realm of romance rather than of fact: All the events are great, and splendid, and marvellous; great armies, great victories, great frosts, great reverses, ‘hair-breadth ‘scapes’ . . . – everything happening in deﬁance of political calculation and in opposition to the experience of past times. . . . Every event, too, has that roundness and completeness which is so characteristic of ﬁction; nothing is done by halves; we have complete victories, total overthrows, entire subversion of empires, perfect re-establishments of them, crowded upon us in rapid succession.7 So improbable was all this, Whately concluded, that anybody ‘not ignorant
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of history and human nature’ would surely have to wonder ‘how far they are conformable to Experience, our best and only sure guide’. Whately’s satire cleverly estranges the recent past in order to retrieve the historical reality of an ancient one – the past of the Christian Gospels and of the early Church. In this sense, Historic Doubts works in the opposite direction from so much romantic historiography, whose ﬁrst impulse – ‘to make the distant near’ – might have been to overcome Humean scepticism by evoking the age of Christian miracles in an emotionally direct and palpable way. Whately does nothing to bring the age of faith in front of his readers. Rather, he makes historical testimony itself the subject of historical enquiry, and in the undeniable reality of the life of Napoleon, he ﬁnds a way of questioning the ‘evidential paradigm’ (to adapt Ginzburg’s phrase) by which modern sceptics put the Gospel narratives beyond history. Whately succeeded brilliantly in his manipulation of cognitive distance, but the success with which the Historic Doubts appropriated aspects of Hume’s urbane and ironic style for its own ideological purpose also underlines a second important point, namely the need to distinguish between the formal procedures that create effects of proximity/distantiation and the affective, ideological, or cognitive ends they serve. Since very similar devices can be put to very different social or political uses, the analysis of distance should not be seen as an invitation to create elaborate taxonomies of the sort that made White’s Metahistory seem initially inspiring but ultimately unworkable.8 Close description, for example, has often been employed as a way of engaging the reader’s sympathies, as Edward Thompson explicitly does in ‘seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver . . . from the enormous condescension of posterity’.9 Yet detailed narration is not always a strategy for creating sympathy, nor is immediacy always paired with ideological identiﬁcation. Thus Michel Foucault’s grisly description of the dismemberment of Damien the regicide in the opening scene of Discipline and Punish (1977) is not calculated to spur us to sympathy with efforts of penal reform; on the contrary, this horriﬁc close-up of judicial retribution is intended to shock us into abandoning our comfort with other, much more familiar regimes of punishment. Though historians do not use this sort of language, the death-spectacle could be called an ‘alienation effect’, a device that forces on us the necessary detachment to recognize what is at stake in other forms of punishment, speciﬁcally (as Foucault saw it) in the new, apparently more humane regime of surveillance instituted by the reforms of the Enlightenment. DISTANCE-SHIFTS AS ELEMENTS OF HISTORIOGRAPHICAL CHANGE Both Thompson’s gesture of humane inclusion and Foucault’s repudiation of any such resort to historical pathos presuppose the norms of historical
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description from which they dissent. Each of these works, in fact, has the effect it does in part because of its willingness to revise these norms, and the most successful repositionings of this kind have helped to set the terms of new historical schools or genres. Thompson’s own historiographical politics, for example, is divided in this way from the work of earlier, more economistic work in the marxist tradition, just as LeRoy Ladurie’s Montaillou (1976) or Ginzburg’s Cheese and the Worms (1980) clearly belong to a new generation of historical studies that radically transformed the longdurational procedures that had dominated the work of the Annales since Bloch and Braudel. Shifting norms of distance played an important role in the historiographical changes that took place around the beginning of the nineteenth century – a moment that is often regarded as constitutive for the emergence of a modern historical outlook. When we look more closely at the multiplicity of distances at stake, however, the conventional contrast between Enlightenment and Romantic sensibilities becomes more complex and rewarding. The philosophical historians of the Scottish Enlightenment modelled their aspiration to create a science of human society on the inductive generalizations of the natural sciences. This cognitive stance, however, only gives us one part of the picture, since these historians also subscribed to a moral psychology that stressed the importance of the passions and employed ideas of distance to speculate on the dynamics of sympathy and reason. The result was an effort to join together two compatible but differently centred commitments. On the one side, historians held a theory of knowledge that demanded a fairly high degree of abstraction: only then would history be properly ‘philosophical’. On the other hand, they also maintained a view of narrative which assumed that the moral effectiveness of historical writing would depend upon its power to evoke the reader’s sympathy.10 The combination of representational immediacy and explanatory abstraction helped to set the rhythms of the most ambitious narratives of the day: David Hume’s History of England (1754–62), for example, or William Robertson’s Charles V (1769). On a still larger scale, it also expressed itself in the way various historical genres staked out their claims: a process that pitted ambitiously-titled conjectural histories like Hume’s The Natural History of Religion or Kames’s Sketches of the History of Man against the counter-claims of literary biographers that, in fact, the truest sense of an earlier age was to be found by cultivating an acquaintance with the thoughts and feelings of its poets.11 Enlightenment historiography drew a good deal of conﬁdence from the elevated station from which it viewed the history of humanity, a vantage that made the political narratives of earlier generations seem parochial and bitty. To a new generation of historians, however, this pretension to a higher perspective seemed pompous and empty, and the Enlightenment’s deep interest in the passions was lost in a general critique of its ‘philosophical’ method. Nineteenth-century writers created a new historical outlook by
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setting themselves against what they understood as Enlightenment norms of historical knowledge and representation. Working under the inﬂuence of Romantic ideas of the imagination and of liberal or nationalist ideologies, historians not only deepened history’s emotional and ideological engagements, but they also cultivated a view of historical understanding that stressed the need for empathetic absorption in the materials of the past. The result was a historical vocabulary that was soaked in metaphors of presence or proximity. Carlyle famously called history the ‘essence of innumerable biographies’ and he mocked the philosophical historians as owls hooting from a rooftop. Even more extravagantly, Michelet identiﬁed himself so closely with the France that he made his own body and mind the register of its travails. (No wonder that he chose to call his own distinctive contribution to history ‘resurrection’.)12 Macaulay, in turn, poured out a stream of images to argue that history’s most important task would be to recapture its power to make the past seem present and actual: To make the past present, to bring the distant near, to place us in the society of a great man on an eminence which overlooks the ﬁeld of a mighty battle, to invest with the reality of human ﬂesh and blood beings whom we are too much inclined to consider as personiﬁed qualities in an allegory, to call up our ancestors before us with all their peculiarities of language, manners, and garb, to show us over their houses, to seat us at their tables, to rummage their old-fashioned wardrobes, to explain the uses of their ponderous furniture, these parts of the duty which properly belongs to the historian have been appropriated by the historical novelist.13 Macaulay’s invocation of the novel as a rival to history suggests another facet of the problem. Distance assumptions are not only important to shifts in historical style, but they also play a considerable role in deﬁning the various genres of historical representation. Memoir and biography, to take two obvious examples, characteristically offer a sense of accessibility that is attractive to a popular audience, though these same readerships may also be drawn to epic narratives that reject academic niceties and sweep through entire centuries or even millennia. Much of microhistory’s attraction rests on a sense of closer identiﬁcation with the past, just as similar opportunities for intimacy probably accounted for the popularity of literary history and literary biography in the latter part of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth.14 Parallel considerations also apply to non-textual forms of historical representation: the waxworks and painted panoramas of the early nineteenth century, or (to return to the present) the immersive techniques of current museum displays and the spectacle of ﬁlm. These examples give a brief hint of some useful directions for exploring the texture of particular works or schools and they also point to the importance of distance-shifts as a factor in the evolution of historical practice. But
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on another level, the subject of distance-shifts also raises issues that have less to do with any speciﬁc work or period than with the need to reﬂect on this pattern of variability itself. It is evident that Western historiography (to say nothing of other traditions or other modes of representation) has incorporated strikingly diverse approaches to the central problems of historical thought and writing – the ‘natural history’ of Hume, as well as the ‘resurrection’ of Michelet, the ‘longue durée’ of Braudel, as well as the cluehunting of Ginzburg. This diversity might seem to argue for approaching the history of historiography in a spirit capable of appreciating so wide a variety of practice. In fact, the opposite has been the case. The history of historical thought has largely been written as a handmaiden to one particular philosophical position, with the result that its views on historical distance have become the standard by which other traditions are judged. DOGMAS AND DISTANCES IN THE HISTORY OF HISTORIOGRAPHY The great discussions of historical method that underlie so much of modern historical thought have come from a number of different quarters, most obviously historicism, positivism, and marxism. Of these, however, only historicism has had reasons to take a deep interest in the history of historical consciousness, with the consequence that historicism more than any other tradition has shaped our sense of the disciplinary past. Historicism, however, is too broad a term, and it would be more accurate to speak of a genealogy of European thought whose understanding of history is shaped by idealist views of culture and hermeneutic views of method. This tradition, which looks back to Vico and Herder in the eighteenth century, found its most systematic presentation in Dilthey and its historian in Meinecke. For historians in the English speaking world, however, the crucial ﬁgure was undoubtedly Collingwood, whose Idea of History long served as a key text in the education of professional historians.15 Commentary on the Idea of History has generally focused on its epistemological discussions to the exclusion of its account of the development of historical thought. For the present discussion, however, Collingwood’s narrative of the history of historiography is fundamental, because it shows the close connection between historicist doctrines about the proper forms of historical understanding and received truths about the character of historical writing in various periods and schools. And central to this doctrine about historical understanding, I want to argue, stands a commitment to one strongly-held version of cognitive distance – a commitment so strong, in fact, that failure to meet its criteria becomes grounds not simply for criticizing earlier historians but of excluding them altogether from the canon of proper historical practice. The core of the historicist idea lies in the assumption, codiﬁed by Dilthey, that there is a fundamental difference between the phenomena of nature
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and those of history. ‘Nature’, as one expositor sums it up, ‘. . . is the scene of the eternally recurring, of phenomena themselves devoid of conscious purpose; history comprises unique and unduplicable human acts, ﬁlled with volition and intent. . . . History thus becomes the only guide to an understanding of things human’.16 As a shorthand we can say that historicism assumes a view of society as expressive and developmental, while it proposes an idea of historical method whose distinctive quality is its empathy and reﬂexivity. These two propositions are complementary. Every society, it is argued, expresses its own individuality in the speciﬁcs of its cultural forms and institutional structures; reciprocally the part/whole relationship that links outward signs to inwardly-experienced meanings allows us to interpret the world of human actions. In this effort, the classiﬁcatory methods of the natural sciences are of no use because they remain on the outside of events. Rather, the historian’s ﬁrst reference is to the general fund of human experience, the same resource, in fact, that allows all of us in our daily interactions with other people to make sense of their actions. In scholarship, this everyday insight is reinforced by various scientiﬁc tools, prominent among them the techniques of textual criticism developed by philology. At bottom, however, historical understanding retains the character of a specialized form of human insight. These views lead to a concept of distance which resists both the abstraction of natural science and the simple immediacy of lived experience. Regarding the former as excessively abstract and the latter as naively unreﬂective, historicism attempts to combine elements of both in a hermeneutic process that leads from an initial recognition of difference to an ultimate position of identiﬁcation. Both difference and identity are essential to the movement of understanding, but identiﬁcation occupies the privileged position; its victories set the norm by which the quality of historical understanding is measured. Collingwood summarizes the essential point when he says that the historian’s work ‘may begin by discovering the outside of an event, but it can never end there; he must always remember that the event was an action, and that his main task is to think himself into this action, to discern the thought of its agent’.17 For Dilthey, similarly, the progressive development of this hermeneutic marks the path of historical knowledge towards scientiﬁc standing. As the human sciences mature, he writes, there is a tendency to demote the physical side of events to the status of conditions and ‘means of comprehension’. Dilthey calls this ‘the turn towards reﬂection, the movement of understanding from the external to the internal’.18 Its essence is the tendency to make use of every outward expression to understand the mental state from which it arises. When we read about war or economic activity, our minds are ﬁlled with images, ‘but what moves us, above all, in these accounts is what is inaccessible to the senses and can only be experienced inwardly . . . For all that is valuable in life is contained in what can be experienced and the whole outer clamor of history revolves around it’.19
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The movement of understanding from outer to inner is important to the way Dilthey makes his well-known distinction between the sciences of nature and the sciences of culture. In the natural sciences, he writes, man effaces himself ‘so that, from his impressions, he can map out this great object, nature, as a structure governed by laws’. In history, however, as in ordinary life, we return to experience, which Dilthey calls the only source of value and purpose in human life. ‘Here understanding penetrates the observable facts of human history to reach what is not accessible to the senses and yet affects external facts and expresses itself through them.’20 This contrast between the self-effacing knowledge demanded by the natural sciences and the interior understanding that deﬁnes the human sciences produces the problem of knowledge that is resolved by the stress given to the role of empathy. The basis of the human studies, he writes, ‘is not conceptualization, but total awareness of a mental state and its reconstruction based on empathy’.21 There is also a close parallel between the cognitive distances adopted by the two great branches of knowledge and their degree of engagement and disengagement with the social world. The natural sciences, he argues, had made themselves ‘remote’ from ordinary contact with the world, while in the social sciences there is an evident continuity between those acts of interpretation that make up so much of practical life and the disciplined analysis of the specialist. Indeed, no mere scholar could surpass Bismarck ‘in the art of reading intentions behind expressions’.22 ‘The past’, says Collingwood, ‘is never a given fact’ which the historian ‘can apprehend empirically, by perception’. Rather, our knowledge of history is always ‘mediate or inferential or indirect, never empirical’.23 In fact, Collingwood is so insistent on the inferential character of historical knowledge that he is prepared to say that if somehow we could revisit the past in a time machine – a fantasy which for most historians would represent the most secure conﬁrmation – the result would not be historical knowledge at all.24 The reason is that for the historian to have knowledge of the past, he must re-enact it in his own mind. Narratives that are not the product of this kind of rethinking may take the form of history, but in truth they are something else. They may be what Croce had called ‘mere chronicles’ or what Collingwood himself derides as ‘scissors and paste’ – a narrative assembled from various authorities without the essential element of re-enactment.25 In short, a description of the past that is not a product of reﬂection is not genuinely history at all. As we will see, the absoluteness of this judgement about what truly is or is not historical has far-reaching consequences for Collingwood’s narrative of the history of historical thought. COLLINGWOOD’S HISTORY OF HISTORIOGRAPHY In keeping with historicism’s commitment to read every type of human activity as belonging to its own expressive context, Collingwood insists on
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the necessity of historicizing even the greatest monuments of the Western intellectual tradition. Plato’s Republic, he writes, should not be read as an unchanging ideal of political life, nor is Aristotle’s Ethics an eternal morality. However remarkable in their own terms, these famous works of political thought simply reﬂect the ideas of their own times. Similarly, Hobbes’s Leviathan should be seen as an expression of seventeenth-century absolutism, just as Kant’s ethical theory expresses the moral convictions of German pietism. Limitations of this sort are not to be thought of as defects, as though Plato could somehow have removed himself from the atmosphere of Greek politics, or Aristotle could have anticipated modernity. Rather, we need to accept their writings as nothing more than ‘inventories of the wealth achieved by the human mind at a certain stage in its history’.26 In contrast to this tolerant inclusivity with respect to traditions of political thought, Collingwood’s extensive examination of the history of historiography is rife with harsh judgements on individuals and schools. Collingwood is warmly appreciative of Herodotus, but he regards Thucydides as having ‘smothered’ Herodotus’s invention beneath ‘anti-historical motives’. Herodotus has a keen interest in the events themselves, but Thucydides is really only interested in formulating the laws according to which they happen – something which Collingwood regards as a regression to the anti-historical thrust of most Greek thought, which considered only eternal and unchanging forms as genuinely knowable. Commenting on the famous harshness of the Thucydidean style, Collingwood writes: ‘In reading Thucydides, I ask myself, What is the matter with the man, that he writes like that? I answer: he has a bad conscience. He is trying to justify himself for writing history at all by turning it into something that is not history’.27 When Collingwood turns to the Roman historians, much the same pattern is repeated. Livy wins (mild) approbation, but in regard to Tacitus he confesses to being not quite sure whether he should be considered a historian at all. The charge against Tacitus, much like that against Thucydides, is that he is insufﬁciently engaged with the concrete and particular. Instead, Tacitus distorts history by making it a clash of good and bad characters, without due appreciation of their individuality or development. The historian must be able to re-enact his characters’ experience in his own mind, Collingwood writes; ‘Tacitus never tried to do this: his characters are seen not from inside, with understanding and sympathy, but from outside, as mere spectacles of virtue or vice’.28 Collingwood’s overview of the course of classical historiography provides a useful summary of his characteristic approach to the history of historiography. In Herodotus, he writes, ‘we have an attempt at a really historical point of view’. For him ‘events are important in themselves and knowable by themselves’. But already in Thucydides ‘the historical point of view’ is dimmed by what Collingwood calls ‘substantialism’, that is a theory of knowledge according to which only what is unchanging is knowable’. The result is that the stream of historical thought which ﬂowed so freely in
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Herodotus is beginning to freeze up, a process that continues and intensiﬁes in Roman historiography, and ‘by the time of Livy history is frozen solid’.29 Similar dogmatism is evident in Collingwood’s review of the Enlightenment, another era in which a genuinely historical approach was made impossible by a ‘substantialistic’ view of human nature. Equally damaging was the anti-religious character of the Enlightenment, which prevented its leading historians, Hume and Voltaire, from entering into a sympathetic understanding of earlier, more religious eras.30 ‘A truly historical view of human history’, Collingwood writes in condemnation of this blindness, ‘sees everything in that history as having its own raison d’être and coming into existence in order to serve the needs of the men whose minds have corporately created it.’ If, on the contrary, the historian sees an age as wholly irrational (as the Enlightenment allegedly saw the Middle Ages) then he is no longer a historian, but a polemicist. ‘Thus’, Collingwood concludes, ‘the historical outlook of the Enlightenment was not genuinely historical; in its main motive it was polemical and anti-historical.’31 Collingwood’s crisp dismissal of whole eras of historical thought should not be mistaken for personal eccentricity. In fact, his criticism of earlier schools is simply an application to the history of historical writing of his equally strongly-stated views on historical knowledge, and similar judgements, if not quite the same tone, can be found in the work of Dilthey, Meinecke and others.32 Given the historicist concept of historical thought as requiring a ‘movement of understanding from the external to the internal’, it would be difﬁcult for anyone committed to this school to muster sympathy for periods of historical thought that operate from other, more externalized and distantiated concepts of historical knowledge – a wide category that includes not only classical historiography and the Enlightenment, but also nineteenth and twentieth-century positivism. Collingwood is certainly entitled to a frank preference for one group of historians over another. A genuine difﬁculty arises, however, when the historical critique takes the form of a judgement that whatever Thucydides, Tacitus, or Hume might have been writing, it was not really history at all. And yet it is hard to see how else the story could have turned out once the philosopher-historian became committed to the idea that there is something we can call a ‘really historical point of view’. If the subject had been any aspect of the history of thought other than historiography itself, Collingwood would have pressed himself to make the imaginative effort his own historicism requires – the effort, that is, to imagine a body of ideas as ‘coming into existence in order to serve the needs of the men whose minds have corporately created it’. But the subject here is not Aristotle’s ethics or Hobbes’s politics; it is historical knowledge, and on this score Collingwood has a prior commitment to a particular position that renders him incapable of extending his sympathies to those who construct a relationship to the past in other terms. At best, we might say,
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Collingwood writes philosophy when he claims to be writing history. But since the philosophy he writes from is also one that enjoins an openness to the history of thought, it is hard to see how he can escape confronting the challenge posed by his own commitment to historicize. Evidently, with respect to historiography, the tradition of thought most resistant to historical understanding would not be religion, as so many in the nineteenth century either hoped or feared; rather it would be history itself.33 NIETZSCHE AND THE LIMITS OF HISTORICISM Nietzsche’s famous polemic against German historicism, On the Advantages and Disadvantages of History for Life (1874), seems an appropriate place to end this preliminary look at the problem of distance. Nietzsche attacked what he called ‘the mighty historical orientation of our age’,34 but his aim was not so much to deny the value of history, as to destroy the complacency with which his countrymen regarded their much admired ‘historical education’. The Germans, he charged, look into the past only to seek comforting images of themselves – images which ﬂatter power, disarm action, and inhibit critical judgement. Against self-congratulation in all these forms, he offered his famous analysis of alternative uses of history, including the use of forgetting – a strategy that makes it clear that our relation to the past is potentially multiform and that it stands open to deliberate remaking. The result is a sense of the constructedness of historical engagements which would be hard to match in any other thinker. Nietzsche’s animus against the German view of history has a variety of sources and expressions. In part he repeats Machiavelli’s desire for a history that leads to effective imitation, not inaction; in part, he gives new terms to the Romantic myth concerning the harmony of the Greek spirit and the self-division of modernity; in part he protests against the slavishness induced by Hegelianism’s religion of historical power. (‘If every success contains within itself a rational necessity, if every event is a victory of the logical or of the idea, then quickly down on your knees . . .’)35 For our purposes, however, the crucial point remains that in protesting at the smugness of German ‘education’, Nietzsche attacks the assumption that only one stance can be considered properly historical, namely the allcomprehending relationship to the past ﬁgured by historicism. This is the context for Nietzsche’s famous division of history into three kinds: the monumental, the antiquarian, and the critical. The monumental answers the need for action by providing images of greatness. The antiquarian responds to the need to preserve and admire the past. The critical, which is destructive and emancipatory, brings the past to the bar of judgement. ‘It is an attempt, as it were, . . . to give oneself a past from which one would like to be descended.’36 Clearly each of these three types of history constructs its own chosen distance, with the unsettling consequences to received ideas of ‘education’ that have already been mentioned. But
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Nietzsche carries his protest against the pretensions of historicism still further, insisting that ‘men must know how to forget at the right time as well as how to remember at the right time’.37 Thus the choice becomes more radical: in its full range, it incorporates a choice for and against history, as well as a choice amongst histories – four positions, not three. Nietzsche’s inclusion of the ‘unhistorical’ and the ‘superhistorical’ – sometimes seen as the key concepts of his polemic – reﬂect his commitment to measuring ‘historical education’ against another, allegedly higher, standard (‘life’). But though his primary interest lies in setting bounds to historical thought, not in extending its terrain, Nietzsche also raises a different kind of critique that challenges historicism with its own weapons, and asks it to consider its own origins and history. For the ‘origin of historical education’, he writes, ‘ – and its inner quite radical contradiction with the spirit of a “new age”, a “modern consciousness” – this origin must itself in turn be historically understood, history must itself dissolve the problem of history, knowledge must turn its sting against itself.’38 In other hands, the Nietzschean message that history permits various forms of engagement might not be so pointed or unsettling. Much the same lesson, for instance, lies behind today’s often complacent discussion of memory and history, or the ever-growing literature on heritage, museums, and monuments. In Nietzsche, however, the recognition that history is open to a variety of uses never threatens to become a way of reinscribing professional hierarchies of knowledge. Amidst the many accusations he throws out against the ‘historical education’ of his own day, Nietzsche always retains the sense that behind its apparent catholicity, historicism concealed a dogmatic relationship to historical practice which prevented historians from subjecting their own discipline to historical scrutiny. This seems a promising place from which to begin to re-examine (albeit in terms far less heroic than Nietzsche’s) some basic structures of the Western historiographical tradition.
NOTES AND REFERENCES I am most grateful to Barbara Taylor for her generous invitation, as well as to Adam Phillips for his comments and subsequent conversations. Earlier versions of this essay were presented to seminars at Indiana University, the University of Chicago, the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, Cambridge University, and at King’s College, Cambridge. I want to thank Dror Wahrman, Steve Pincus, Simon Schaffer, Simon Goldhill and Stefan Hoesel-Uhlig for these opportunities. Among the many who responded so helpfully to the various seminars, I particularly want to acknowledge the comments of Stefan Collini, John Dunn, Stefan HoeselUhlig, Mary Catherine Moran, Steve Pincus, and Simon Schaffer. It is a special pleasure to thank Edward Hundert and John Burrow, two probing and generous readers. 1 Mark Phillips, The Memoir of Marco Parenti; a Life in Medici Florence, Princeton, 1987. 2 Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Montaillou: the Promised Land of Error (1976), transl. Barbara Bray, London, 1978; Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, The Midwife’s Tale: the Life of Martha Ballard, based on her Diary 1785–1812, New York, 1990.
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3 I have discussed the disparate forms of microhistory and the ways in which the multiple distances I am outlining here can help to clarify their different commitments in ‘Histories, Micro- and Literary: Problems of Genre and Distance’, New Literary History 34, 2003. 4 Ginzburg’s fullest exposition of this idea is in Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method, transl. John and Anne Tedeschi, Baltimore, 1989. His recent study, Wooden Eyes: Nine Reﬂections on Distance, transl. Martin Ryle and Kate Soper, New York, 2001, offers a series of stimulating essays concerned with distance, but in a rather different sense from that pursued here. 5 For a helpful overview of this shift in recent history of science, see Jan Golinski, Making Natural Knowledge: Constructivism and the History of Science, Cambridge, 1998. 6 Steve Shapin and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air Pump, Princeton, 1985. 7 Richard Whately, Historic Doubts Relative to Napoleon Buonaparte, ed. Ralph S. Pomero, California, 1985, pp. 24–5. 8 Hayden V. White, Metahistory: the Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-century Europe, Baltimore and London, 1974. See Bernard Williams’s remark: ‘it must be said that the fantastical elaboration of the scheme and its ability to process almost any possibility without much resistance do sometimes make it seem less like a machine than a picture of a machine’. Truth and Truthfulness: an Essay in Genealogy, Princeton, 2002, p. 243. 9 E. P. Thompson. The Making of the English Working Class, London (1963), Harmondsworth, 1968, p. 13. 10 For a larger treatment of this tension, see my essay ‘Relocating Inwardness: Historical Distance and the Transition from Enlightenment to Romantic Historiography’, Proceedings of the Modern Languages Association 118, 2003: pp. 436–9. 11 David Hume, The Natural History of Religion, 1757; Henry Lord Kames, Sketches of the History of Man, London, 1779. 12 Jules Michelet, Le Peuple, 1846, introduction: ‘Let it be my part in the future not to have attained, but marked, the aim of history, to have called it by a name that nobody had given it. Thierry called it narration, and M. Guizot analysis. I have named it resurrection and this name will remain.’ See Fritz Stern, Varieties of History, New York, 1973, p. 117. 13 Miscellaneous Essays vol. 1, p. 310. The essay, a review of Hallam, was ﬁrst published in Edinburgh Review in September 1828. 14 At a time when readers were increasingly drawn to the evocative side of historical writing, literary history in its various forms offered perhaps the most promising vehicle for exploring the sentiments and experiences of ordinary people in the past. See my: ‘Literary History and Literary Historicism in the Historical Thought of the Long Eighteenth Century’, in New Directions in Eighteenth-Century Literature, ed. C. Wall, Oxford, forthcoming. 15 This inﬂuence was especially pronounced in North America, where the idealist approach was strongly reinforced by Fritz Stern’s Varieties of History. 16 Georg Iggers, The German Conception of History: the National Tradition of Historical Thought from Herder to the Present, Middletown, CT, revised edn, 1983, pp. 4–5. 17 Robin George Collingwood, The Idea of History (1946), revised edn, ed. Jan van der Dussen, Oxford, 1994, p. 213. 18 Dilthey, Selected Writings, ed. H. P. Rickman, Cambridge, 1976, p. 172. 19 Dilthey, Selected Writings, p. 172. 20 Dilthey, Selected Writings, p. 172. 21 Dilthey, Selected Writings, pp. 181–2. 22 Dilthey, Selected Writings, p. 182. 23 Collingwood, Idea, p. 282. 24 Collingwood, Idea, p. 252. 25 Collingwood, Idea, pp. 257–8. 26 Collingwood, Idea, pp. 229–30. 27 Collingwood, Idea, pp. 29–30. 28 Collingwood, Idea, pp. 38–9. 29 Collingwood, Idea, pp. 42–3. 30 ‘The real cause of this restriction of interest to the modern period was that with their narrow conception of reason they had no sympathy for, and therefore no insight into, what from their point of view were non-rational periods of human history; they only began to be interested in history at the point where it began to be the history of a modern spirit akin to their own’. Idea, p. 78. 31 Collingwood, Idea, pp. 76–7. 32 Compare Dilthey’s judgement on the Enlightenment: ‘No real blood ﬂows in the veins
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of the knowing subject constructed by Locke, Hume, and Kant; it is only the diluted juice of reason, a mere process of thought’: Selected Works, p. 162. 33 Collingwood himself eloquently describes the kind of failure of sympathy that, in my own view, he himself commits. Whenever a historian ﬁnds certain historical matters unintelligible, he writes, he has come up against a limitation in his own mind. ‘Certain historians, sometimes whole generations of historians, ﬁnd in certain periods of history nothing intelligible, and call them dark ages; but such phrases tell us nothing about those ages themselves, though they tell us a great deal about the persons who use them namely that they are unable to re-think the thoughts which were fundamental to their life’. pp. 218–19. 34 Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Advantages and Disadvantages of History for Life (1874), transl. Peter Preuss, Indianapolis, 1980, p. 8. 35 Nietzsche, Advantage, p. 47. 36 Nietzsche, Advantage, p. 14. 37 Nietzsche, Advantage, p. 10. 38 Nietzsche, Advantage, p. 45.
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