Samuel Moyn, a professor of history and law at Harvard University, thinks history is in trouble, big trouble, and that its difficulties have been a long time in the making. Setting forth his reasons in a recent review-essay in The Nation, “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” he has started a minor skirmish in the larger debates over the parlous state of the humanities. Many of Moyn’s fellow historians have taken sharp issue with his argument, including Princeton University’s Anthony Grafton, whose mentor, the Italian historian Arnaldo Momigliano, represents what Moyn believes are the inveterate weaknesses of the discipline: namely, an excessive and antiquarian fealty to fact, and a discomfort with theory. Grafton, who has engaged in a fierce Facebook exchange with Moyn, hardly needs my support, but I too find reasons to quibble—and some reasons to disagree strongly—with Moyn’s attempted take-down.
First, the quibble: Is history—and let’s just leave it at historical work produced by professional academicians—really at such a low ebb? Moyn’s assessment, though he puts it in the words of the authors he is reviewing, is in the sweeping affirmative:
Today, historians worry that they have lost their audience, and their distress has made the search for the next trend seem especially pressing. At the beginning of her new book, Writing History in the Global Era, Lynn Hunt remarks that “history is in crisis” because it can no longer answer “the nagging question” of why history matters. David Armitage and Jo Guldi, in their History Manifesto, concur: in the face of today’s “bonfire of the humanities,” and a disastrous loss of interest in a topic in which the culture used to invest heavily (and in classes that students used to attend in droves), defining a new professional vocation is critical. History, so often viewed as a “luxury” or “indulgence,” needs to figure out how to “keep people awake at night,” as Simon Schama has said. Actually, the problem is worse: students today have endless diversions for the wee hours; the trouble for historians is keeping students awake during the day.
This professional anxiety may loom large for a certain part of the history professoriate—namely, academics who rely on theoretical trends to make up for their deficiencies in the craft. But does it pertain to the better historians of the last half-century who have had a large claim on the attention and interest of the educated public? Moyn names Simon Schama. But he could also name Gordon Wood and John Ellis in American history, or Robert Darnton and Lynn Hunt in European history, or Peter Brown on late antiquity, or Roy Foster on modern Irish history.
As far as declining student interest goes, it afflicts other areas of the humanities as much as it does history. In addition to a broad flight to STEM and more practical business-related studies, a general erosion and shallowing of attention is at least as much the problem as the intellectual poverty of trend-sniffling historians who have run out of theories to rest their facts on. More significantly, though, Moyn’s attack aims far higher and deeper than at the mediocrities of the field:
In the early days of Gibbon’s Enlightenment, most of the frameworks on which historians relied were theories about the origins and progress of society; in the two centuries since, historians have been willing to have their facts consort with a wide variety of suitors, from nationalism to Marxism to postmodernism. The discipline has gone through so many self-styled theoretical “turns” that it is frankly hard to keep up. It is paradoxically because most historians have looked on theory with suspicion—as a lamentable necessity, at best, to allow the facts their day—that they have often been avid trend-watchers. Precisely because they are so fickle, opportunistic and superficial in their attitude to speculation, historians seem to change popular theories often, treating them not as foundations to be built on, but as seasonal outfits to clothe the facts they have so assiduously gathered.
And it is precisely the larger, deeper swipe at the insufficiency of more than two centuries of historical practice that seems both baffling and wrong-headed. Theory—whether it is nationalist, Marxist, feminist, or postcolonial, whether it derives from one of another current of social theory or aspires to the longue duree vision of the Annales historians or the identity-based focus of postmodernists or the planetary reach of global historians—is in Moyn’s view, not simply an analytical tool, but the essential thinking process of the historian. Furthermore, and this is the crux of Moyn's explanation for the current emptiness of history, historians have always done theory badly because of their wariness about it—and about thinking and philosophy more generally:
Even our boldest trendsetters, then, do not see the wall between history and philosophy as the final frontier to breach, in part because it was the first one erected to define the discipline by antiquarians in love with their facts. Armitage and Guldi [the two authors of The History Manifesto] wisely remark that fashionable “critical turns” conceal “old patterns of thought that have become entrenched.” Of these, the most durable is not the affection for the short term, but the refusal to risk the certainty of facts for the sake of a fusion of history and philosophy.
What does Moyn even mean by facts? Are they the atomic units of evidence that historians supposedly believe will speak for themselves once they are found, buffed up a bit, and placed within some kind of narrative structure? But of course, every step in such supposedly theory-free, antiquarian fact work requires certain theoretical, ethical, or philosophical commitments. In even the driest, most austere chronologies, the facts do not simply leap forward and declare their self-evident importance. Their importance, their meaning, derives from their having been selected and arranged within the implied or explicit web of cause-and-effect that animates any and every historical narrative.
The historian works with and through the available evidence to construct a plausible account of what something or someone was or became, of how they were seen and understood in their own time—and subsequently, of their role and relative importance within and among those communities, institutions, and systems of belief and meaning that define and shape a place and time. Such accounts will of course be influenced, in greater or lesser degree, by theories. But even the most ideologically committed historians, if they are good historians, will not contort the facts to suit the theory.
No slouch of a historian himself, Moyn must surely know this. His longing for a more ethical and philosophical historiography is an understandable critique of shallow theoretical trend-hopping. But his ambition for the discipline undercuts its legitimacy as a distinct form of knowledge and denies the ethic of the craft. The historian, tethered to the particular and the contingent, cannot be the philosopher. He cannot ignore or minimize the particular or contingent facts for the sake of a theory, ideology, grand idea, or belief. He, or she, cannot be a philosopher in the usual sense.
One historian who resists easy pigeonholing, John Lukacs, has reflected deeply and wisely on the historical form of knowledge, nowhere more directly than in his invaluable book Historical Consciousness. Though first published in 1968, it elucidates those qualities that make historical thinking, historical consciousness, an increasingly indispensable mode of reflection:
I believe the future of Western thought will be historical, but, I repeat, this does not mean a philosophy of history, but a chastened historical philosophy, concentrating on the historicity of problems and of events, assuming the uniqueness of human nature anew, presenting no new definitions, no freshly jigsawed categories, emphasizing the existential--and not merely philosophical---primacy of truth: a more mature achievement of the human mind than even the mastering of certain forces of nature through the scientific method, and certainly more than the simplistic conception of causalities.
Lukacs believed that "history (including its knowledge, its thinking, its consciousness) is certainly larger than the activities of its professionals"—and this in 1968, mind you—but he felt that historical consciousness was, if anything, increasing in its importance to the diverse forms of knowledge, including the natural and physical sciences and philosophy itself. His reasons for this deserve reading, or re-reading, at a time that more than ever needs the unique ethical and epistemological standards of the true historian's craft.
Jay Tolson is editor of The Hedgehog Review.