Sam Seitz

I just started reading an excellent book that came out about a decade ago. It’s titled The Purpose of the Past and is composed of a collection of essays written by the author, Gordon Wood, who is himself an academic historian. The essays that make up The Purpose of the Past are book reviews written by the author for popular outlets like the NYRB and The New Republic, and this means the book functions as a kind of historiography. In other words, by collecting reviews of books published over the course of many years, Wood’s volume allows one to see how the discipline has evolved (albeit in a limited, narrow range of topics). To me, this is immensely valuable because it reveals that our understanding of history is neither absolute nor static. Different scholars privilege different factors and explanations, and there are academic fads that emerge over time. Most scholars understand this (though sometimes selectively), as I think these types of crazes exist in most academic disciplines. However, I increasingly believe that the contingency of historical interpretations is something underappreciated by both the public and policymakers.

This is a serious problem, as it means that many people believe history to be something that is completely known and knowable. As a result, people develop schema for explaining the present that are often based on faulty or incomplete understandings of the past. They’ll say, for example, that “history teaches us to never appease aggressors” while nodding sagaciously and providing some inane commentary on Hitler and the Munich Agreement. Of course, history teaches us very little because most of history is either a fluke attributable to random chance or so overdetermined as to be inevitable. This certainly does not mean that history cannot provide us with valuable lessons, but these lessons are contingent and extremely context-specific. To return to the example of Hitler, it is certainly true that appeasing him proved ineffective. However, one could just as easily point to the Vietnam War and say that “history shows that punishing aggressors too zealously can lead to serial policy failure and complete disaster.” The problem is deeper, though, as it is not even clear we understand the past that well. For example, there are several prominent historians and political scientists who suggest that Britain did not appease Germany in any meaningful way, and there are other scholars who are utterly convinced that Vietnam was a winnable war.

The point is that one should have a high degree of intellectual humility when discussing issues of the past. Frequently, even experts disagree about the particularities of an event, so nonspecialists would do well to refrain from overly certain commentary on historical events. I’m certainly not arguing that those of us who are not historians abstain from ever holding an opinion about previous events. Nor am I advocating for some nihilistic reading of history in which there is no objective truth and everyone’s opinion is equally valid. Instead, I’m suggesting that we be more cautious about drawing lessons from master narratives of the past. Events are usually more complicated than they are presented in basic textbooks or popular histories, and it is therefore risky to make sweeping judgments from these fairly underdeveloped historical arguments. The great joy of history is untangling all the different causal factors that contributed to certain events occurring and others being relegated to counterfactual fictions. To impose a strict, overly-simplified and doctrinaire reading of historical events is, therefore, to lose the very essence of historical scholarship, and that would be a great shame.