Why history?

Recently there has been much criticism of the utility, or rather lack of it, of the humanities in general and of history in particular. Reduced to its simplest clichéd form, history doesn’t have any practical application why should it be supported or financed? As today is the fourth birthday of this blog I have decided to wax a little philosophical about my own personal justification for doing history in general and the history of science in particular. This is neither intended to be an academic thesis answering all possible criticisms of the utility of history nor is it intended to be a universal solution justifying the pursuit of history for everyman. It is a loose collection of personal thoughts about why I do what I do, nothing more and nothing less.

I was born loving history I can’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t captivated and enthralled by one or other aspect of humanities past. Now I’m quite happy to admit that as a little boy growing up in post war Britain my initial enthusiasm was for tales of daring do of warriors and heroes. I loved the Wild West, the Vikings, the Roman legions as well as the recent World War and its not so distant predecessor. However it was not all too long before I began to read historical accounts of the Earp Brothers and what really happened at the OK Corral, to learn about the constitution and structure of those Roman Legions and to trace the routes of those Viking voyages. I yearned to learn the historical facts behind the stories. Whilst still at primary school my deepest historical studies concerned the tanks and planes of the two World Wars spurred on by the construction of those plastic Airfix kits. I didn’t just build tanks I researched them. I knew all about Little Willie and Big Willie the first British tanks developed in WWI and even de Mole’s tank, the vastly superior model suggested by an Australian engineer in 1911, but never built. I took my war history very seriously, supported I have to say by a father who was a professional historian.

The next sentence should be approached with caution by any mathophobics who might have wandered on to the page. I was also born loving mathematics. I had a passion for numbers and all that you can do with them from the very first time I encountered them. I love all things mathematical and always have and always will. As I’ve mentioned more than once when I was about sixteen my historian father gave me a copy of Eric Temple Bell’s Men of Mathematics, a terrible book as I now recognise, but one that opened up the world of the history of mathematics to me. My two great loves had got married. Now possibly the greatest failing in my life was that nobody suggested to me that I could become a historian of mathematics something that never occurred to me as a teenager searching for a direction in life; what happened instead needs a little explain.

First off there was a minor disaster as I took my O-levels at my very elite grammar school. In that year about 80% or more of the pupils who took history O-level on that particular examination board failed the exam dismally. I was one of the few that actually passed although with an abysmal grade. There was of course the expected groaning and gnashing of teeth with headmasters and concerned parents petitioning, cajoling and threatening the examination board who remained impervious to their pleas refusing to even consider changing their grading. Having achieved excellent grades, as expected, in maths, physics and chemistry I now went on to study them at A-level. Now in my first year sixth and my second as a boarder at said elite grammar school I was not a happy bunny. In fact I was deeply unhappy for various reasons and heading straight on into disaster. It came as no surprise when I was summoned to the headmaster’s study. Now being an incredibly ancient and extremely elite grammar school being summoned to the head’s study was the mental equivalent of being forced to walk the plank but in my then mental state I didn’t really care a damn. During the ensuing interview between headmaster and bloody-minded schoolboy the headmaster asked, not unreasonably, “what do you want to study when you leave school?” This was a school that assumed automatically, if you were doing A-levels you would go to university. My spontaneous answer, and it came without any thought whatsoever, was “history”. The, again not unreasonable, response, “so why are you doing science A-levels?” “Because that’s what I’m good at!” Now said headmaster could have told me to stop being silly and thrown me out on my ear but he didn’t. Instead he suggested I could become an archaeologist, as this could be studied with science A-levels leading to a BSc instead of a BA and so it came about that I spent the Easter school holidays on my first excavation in Chelmsford.

This proved to be rather enjoyable and was followed by more digging in the evenings and at weekends on the bank and ditch of Colchester Castle. In the summer I packed my things and went off to dig on the Roman fort at Usk in Monmouthshire, a Cardiff University dig and at that time the second largest excavation in Great Britain. The following summer having finished my A-levels I returned to Usk now an experienced and seasoned digger at the tender age of eighteen. That summer I got to know many of the first year Cardiff archaeology students who were serving part of their compulsory twelve weeks of digging, then part of the Cardiff degree course. One of these was a brash, exuberant, loud mouthed young man by the name of Peter Hill who would go on to become a good friend over many years. One day Pete was pontificating, as was his want, on the subject of archaeology when he pointed out that our principle function as archaeologists was to entertain the public/tax payers who paid the money that made our existence possible. In those days excavations were still financed by the government. Now I have never forgotten Pete’s words and I still consider them to be one of the justifications for doing history, one that some of my fellow historians might reject, we are entertainers.

Now when I use the word entertainer I am not making the modern distinction between art and entertainment, the one highbrow the other low. Here the word entertain encompasses the arts, literature, music and also history. It’s a variation on the old Bible saying, “man shall not live on bread alone”. Just as art or music fulfils some inner, dare I say spiritual, desire in many people so too history. The truth of this can be found all over our society and I think needs no further justification. However I think it is a truth often forgotten, or even suppressed, by academic historians, we are entertainers.

Of course history functions as more than entertainment and I would now like to turn my attention to another aspect based on a play on words. History is his story or her story or our story or their story or maybe just my story. In German the relationship between history and story telling is even more direct as the German word for history is Geschichte and the German word for story is also Geschichte. If I were just to remain by history as story telling I would be repeating my previous point of history as entertainment but I want to take this thought in a different direction provoked by the English play on words, history is his story.

Central to the mental health of all human beings is their sense of identity both as an individual and as part of a whole, a society, a people, or whatever. Implicitly and explicitly we define ourselves and in so doing we create our identity. Our history, that is the story of where we come from and how we got here is a major part of that defining process. We talk of roots and traditions and of belonging to groups that have histories. History plays a major role in identity. Now I realise that this claim comes dangerously close to sounding like the pedagogical idealism of people like Britain’s current Minister of Education Michael Gove, who wishes to impose a narrow nationalist history curriculum on English school children because they should learn what it means to be British. However what Gove is proposing is actually a perversion and a misuse of what I am trying to express. By manipulating and editing history he is trying to create a false identity. Using falsified history, even if only falsified through selective presentation, is a propaganda weapon used by many politicians over the centuries and one which historians must, if necessary, be prepared to confront and expose for what it is by presenting the real uncensored history.

Turing to my own small area of history’s vast canvas, the history of science, it was traditional to restrict history as identity to political history, often called scornfully the history of kings, in the twentieth century this was often expanded to include first social history and then cultural history but history of science is usually left out and ignored. I think that at no other time has an awareness and knowledge of the history of science been so important exactly because of the role that history plays in defining identity. We live in a society that is totally defined and dominated by science and technology in a way that has never before been the case. Above all technology has for several millennia played a significant role in defining the various and myriad human societies but a society that has been so completely dominated by its science and technology, as ours is has never before existed. I believe passionately that an understanding of the historical process that brought us to this situation is necessary if we are not to become alienated from this all-dominant aspect of our society and thereby lose an important facet of our own identity. Science and technology play an important role in defining us we need, in my opinion, to understand how this came about in order to maintain control of our own identities.

Before I close this already overlong series of meandering thoughts there is one last aspect of the history of science that I wish to briefly elucidate. As all ready stated we live in a society dominated by science and technology and as a result there exists a major desire to understand how science develops or as I prefer to say, evolves. The reasons for this are largely political, how can we control that evolution, direct it to solve the problems we need to solve? How can we invest our money in science to get the best returns for our investments? How should we best educate the next generations to obtain the scientists of the future that we will need? The answers to these and other similar questions are searched for in a discipline now called science studies the core of which is a mixture of philosophy and sociology of science. I belong to that group who believe that any such studies that ignore the history of science and the examination of how science actually evolved throughout history is doomed to fail. History is the laboratory that allows us to examine and dissect the evolution of the scientific disciplines. As Lakatos said without history of science philosophy of science is empty, a dictum that continues to inform my own endeavours.

As I stated at the beginning the thoughts expressed above are my personal answer to the question, “why history”. Anybody who has a different answer or wishes to criticise, refute or ridicule my answer is, as always, welcome to do so in the comments. That’s what they’re there for.

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17 Comments

Filed under Autobiographical, History of science

17 responses to “Why history?

  1. I can’t imagine criticizing such a charming essay.

    I will add that for a terrible book, E.T. Bell’s Men of Mathematics inspired a lot of people, myself included. To mention a rather more illustrious example: Julia Robinson, one of the key contributors to the solution of Hilbert’s 10th problem.

    Julia’s sister, Constance Reid, wrote a whole book, The Search for E.T.Bell. Worth a glance to anyone who retains fond memories of Bell’s (admittedly flawed) book.

    • Constance Reid is an excellent historian of mathematics her Hilbert is a classic but I didn’t know that she’d written a book on Bell.

    • For all the trouble that Bell’s Men of Mathematics has inspired, I’m a touch curious: why did it get to be such an iconic book? Granted, it’s an interesting read but it’s not like Bell had a unique ability to write interestingly, and the short-biographies-of-mathematicians format isn’t something Bell had the patent on. Is it just a case of sentiment running far ahead of the errata?

      (I could sympathize with that. Though if Will and Ariel Durant’s book of biographies of philosophers has got discredited I don’t want to know.)

      • I personally would not describe Bell’s book as terrible, but rather as flawed, even deeply flawed.

        First, Bell does get the math right — he was, after all, a professional mathematician (over 200 research papers). Second, he wrote well — if good writing style isn’t unique, neither is it as common as breathing. Third, the Galois chapter, deservedly lambasted in Tony Rothman’s essay, marks a low point rather than the average level. And finally, myths have never gone out of style.

        Here’s what Reid has to say about the appeal of the book in The Search for E. T. Bell:

        When Men of Mathematics appeared in 1937—lively, opinionated, its author writing about mathematics and mathematicians in a way that no one had ever written about them before—my younger sister, Julia Bowman [later Julia Robinson], was a mathematics major … As a college sophomore she read Men of Mathematics the year it came out. … it was through Bell’s book that she first realized there was something she could do besides teach it. She could become a mathematician.

  2. Will Thomas

    Congratulations, Thony — four years already?

    Also, nice to see a Julia Robinson reference. She makes a brief appearance in my book for her work on the Traveling Salesman Problem.

    • Thony C

      Thanks Will, as you know you and John Wilkins are to blame that RM exists at all so you share in any congratulations.

  3. Well stated. A pity the ‘Groves’ of this world probably will not see or read it!

  4. darwinsbulldog

    Congratulations, Thony!

  5. Tony Angel

    …. and I thought I knew the history of the tank – I was stationed, as a boy nearly fifty years ago, opposite the Bovington Tank Museum and spent many an hour in the library there. It just shows how an essay such as this can drop golden nuggets :)

  6. There are at least two questions: the autobiographical question of how a particular individual came to think that history mattered and the general question of why anybody else should be interested in history. The former question is easily answered in my own case. Having learned a lot of history at an early age from a bunch of old books acquired on the cheap, I discovered that I knew the kings of England and could quote the fights historical. Justly lampooned by friends as a walking encyclopedia, I was powerfully motivated to come up with some reason why all this information wasn’t rubbish. Accordingly, I eventually developed a philosophical justification of history in defense of what for me had obviously been motivated by mere promiscuous curiosity.
    The following amateur apology for history focuses on the history of science, but an analogous case could be made for history in general.
    How a theory or idea comes to be is obviously a different issue than how its validity is to be judged in the present. To use a distinction once common in the philosophy business, the context of discovery is different from the context of justification. Confusing the two contexts was thought to be a source of serious problems because, or so a great many people thought a hundred plus years ago, epistemology, which includes the philosophy of science, ought to be a pristine normative operation concerned with how inquiry should be conducted at any time. Epistemologists should not muck around with history since the subject is descriptive rather than prescriptive, a matter of ises rather than oughts, and, anyhow, is a shop whose wares are all past their sell-by dates. It doesn’t matter if you arrived at the ideal gas law in an attempt to read the message God left us in the book of Nature or if you pulled the equation out of your ass. Like the taxonomy of barnacles, the history of science is a legitimate area of inquiry; but it just isn’t important. To paraphrase Richard Feynman, the history of science is about as useful to philosophers as ornithology is to birds.
    There are two problems with this line of thought. First, the anti-historical philosophy of science is inadequate even if we restrict it to the context of justification because the available evidence shows that there is no timeless and universal logic of inquiry. We not only have to ignore history in order to act as if there were such a thing. We have to distort it. Absent an understanding of how the sciences actually developed, it will always be tempting to represent the current state of affairs as eternal truth—every kind of Conservatism, political or otherwise, represents the latest products of history as manifestations of an immutable nature. Of course everybody knows that “truth is the daughter of time,” but the crude and I think simply false view of scientific history is that it was an accumulative process with a clear and unchanging purpose and essence, i.e. that Newton and even earlier figures were already scientists, though sometimes imperfect ones. The great discovery of 20th Century history of science was that something did indeed happen in history, that inquiry cannot be adequately represented without addressing discontinuities as well as continuities. (The historiography of the history of science is reminiscent of what happened in mathematics in the 19th Century: just as mathematicians discovered rare and bizarre exceptions to normal functions only to eventually figure out that the pathological functions are the rule, some historians began to suspect that paradigm shifts just are normal science. Compare Kuhn and Latakos.)
    The second problem is subtler. When we speak of “justification,” we normally mean something regarding “evidence of truth;” but scientific ideas and practices need more explanation than that. In order to understand them and even more to value them, we have to find some way of representing their meaningfulness. The “spiritual” version of this issue involves finding some way to distinguish physics from stamp collecting. The “philistine” version of the issue involves finding some way of convincing nonscientists to pay for research. Like plays, ideas have to be staged; and historical narratives are the mise en scene of concepts. Of course narratives can and have been devised that devalue the sciences—for the cultural conservatives of my youth, for example, the gist of the story of empirical science is the forgetting of Being—but the point is that one needs some sort of story to make any kind of sense what’s going on. Even (especially?) the positivists had a grand narrative of history: a lot of what Thony does on this website is throwing rocks at retail versions of this tale of the triumph of virtuous objectivity over religious and philosophical obscurantism.
    If you can’t escape history, you may as well do it as well as you can. Besides, although it’s probably not the kind of thing that will ever have a mass audience, the serious history of science has been enjoying some of a golden age this past century. Besides being entirely more defensible empirically, the evolving view of how the sciences emerged is simply better dramaturgy than the Manichean melodrama of the Warfare of Science and Theology. It’s Game of Thrones vs Star Wars.

    • I think you have raised a crucial aspect of both history of science and philosophy of science. (I don’t think the two are orthogonal, but let that pass.) There are essential rhetorical functions for the working scientist, and both history and philosophy enter into them.

      First, it is not good practice to publish without caring that anyone reads. The scientist must attempt to engage his professional public in order to get his work a proper peer scrubbing and, one hopes, to get some influence.

      Second, the narrative about her work has to be fit into the larger scientific narrative to draw in the interest of the nonprofessional public. It is, after all, not for our own eudaimonia alone that we do this; we have a responsibility to try to elevate the rest of the world.

      And third, as Thony has described, we have an argument with ourselves that establishes our place within the course not just of science, but of the larger flow of the higher learning. We have a real personal need to know how our work stands as part of the larger conversation of human thought over space-time.

  7. Jeb

    “The answers to these and other similar questions are searched for in a discipline now called science studies”

    It sounds like an interesting subject but the history issue does not make it sound very appealing. Academic provincialism is much to the detriment of knowledge, learning and inclusion I think.

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  9. Pingback: Why History Matters—for Some People | Darin Hayton

  10. Jeb

    p.s I read Darin Hayton’s contribution which helped to put this article in perspective. Why history? Its a bit like arguing why breath? Its one vital strand if you want to understand human culture and how it evolved.

    Its possible to mount a strong defense of the subject less so to defend the institutions it is taught in. They have been closed worlds for too long and remain so. Ownership problems are rife and the culture has to an extent spilled online where it often looks more like an exercise in policing, control the usual restricted privileged accesses and disdain for any perspective other than the academic group and identity individual academics pledge allegiance to .

    I worked very hard spent a total of 8 years in advance education. The digital age has meant I can bypass to a large extent the old system and accesses sources with ease. I am trained to work with sources directly, why have anything to do with petty identity disputes between modernists and post modernists, historians and archeologists or science and humanities?

    Its an elderly and highly fragmented system. These disputes seem little different to me than the fictive identities and the cultural battles of the past you see as you’re role to expose. They are a hindrance to study rather than helpful.

    Academics seem to like to form tight fictive kin groups that then have a tendency to self reference each other and ignore competing opinions. That culture they increasingly bring with them online. Its a one perspective, one methodology fits all approach that is so often preached.

    History and humanities are vital subjects the culture and identity of institutions is not yet they seem to refuse to die and continue to replicate with little change.

    Question speaks to me of a highly fragmented world of knowledge at war with itself. Its not very attractive, fortunately it can be bypassed to a large degree.

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