They Weren't Doing History

At the Oakeshott conference, Ken McIntyre just said, "It is wrong to say that pre-modern thinkers were making historical mistakes, because before 200 years ago, no one was doing history."

Just so.


  1. Contemporaries certainly thought their peers were guilty of historical mistakes.

  2. Yes, but not yet understanding what critical history is, how would they know?

  3. Did my comment get lost? That seems to happen every time I use my smartphone. It was something like this:

    Discriminating between sources requires the skills of the court room and not much more. But whatever the source of their judgments, the fact that they made them tells us that they saw accuracy as a goal of their genre.

  4. I'm at a conference connecting via phone as well, but my answer will point to the different *types* of past, and note that one can be accurate about the practical past, but that doesn't mean one is doing history! More anon.

  5. The distinction here, PSH, is that if I say, "I had a roast beef sandwich for lunch," I am being accurate about the past, but the past I am dealing with is not the historical past, but the practical past. The historical past only differentiated out of other possible pasts in the 19th century.

  6. Notice, PSH, what Ken did *not* say: "Two hundred years ago, no one made mistakes about the past."

    That, however, is what you have responded to.

  7. In what sense does a work like Ammianus Marcellinus's Res Gestae (4th cent.) or Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (18th cent.) not touch on the historical past?

  8. I haven't read those works, but I think you expressed it well yourself: earlier writers on the past sought to be edifying, and the past seen as a source of edification is the practical, not the historical past.


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