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Chapter Introduction

HIS 301 Chapter Notes - Chapter Introduction: Thrall, Cultural Turn, Metanarrative

Course Code
HIS 301
Abigail Firey

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~ Historians on History ~
o History is studied and read because it feeds to certain human aspirations, and our response to a
particular work of history will inevitably be influenced by its writer’s stance in this regard.
o Historians do not inhabit a self-contained a professional niche.
o Some of the concerns documented here are traditional to the discipline of history.
For example, the aspiration to re-create the past, or the search for trajectories of
change and growth.
o Others reflect the place of historians in a wider political and cultural milieu.
Socialism, feminism, and multiculturalism have each of their initial impact on
historians to the efforts of activists committed to a radical political agenda.
o Historians have long taken up varied attitudes to the status of their subject
o Serious attempts have been made to practice history as a social science, employing both rhetorical
models and quantitative methods.
o Amid this confusion of influences, it is easy to see history as lacking an agreed definition or continuity
over time.
o Closer examination reveals that the discipline continues to be formed around a number of
concerns which have long attracted both heartfelt endorsement and searing critique.
o Three longstanding and influential aspirations of historians and to what extent they continue to be
reflected in current practice:
o To discover what happened in the past and what it was like to live in the past.
This is a prerequisite for any attempt to make use of the past, but it can also be an
end in and of itself.
The process of research then becomes like a detective enquiry or venture in
Laid down rigorous procedures for the interpretation of the primary
The documentary emphasis was combined with an appeal to the powers of
the imagination and stepping into the shoes of the past.
o Without this effort of empathy, the aspiration to re-create the past
would be in vain.
Command of the sources continues to be the principal test of historical scholarship.
o A much older reason for studying the past is the completely antithetical one of uncovering
the shape of human destiny.
What patterns does history fall into and to what goal is it proceeding?
o Uncovering the shape of human destiny has certainly been the most ambitious way in which
historian have sought to claim a broad significance for their work, but much more
widespread has been the subordination of historical writing to immediate political
Since classical times, the legitimacy of political institutions and political leaders has
been thought to depend on their demonstrable connection with a glorious past.
No society can sustain an identity or a common sense of purpose without social
memory,that is, an agreed picture of a shared past, which in most cases will be
positive if not inspiring.
History writing has been most in thrall to nationalism when the nation-state is new
or in the making.
But these are often cast in a nationalistic framework and they invite the charge of
politically motivated distortion from the very groups which they exclude or
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