HIS 301 Chapter Notes - Chapter Introduction: Thrall, Cultural Turn, Metanarrative
SchoolUniversity of Kentucky
Course CodeHIS 301
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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
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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