Some time ago we let a George Will piece on the magisterium of History (over philosophy) go by without comment. We were lazy and we regret it. For certainly our decisive critical analysis would have changed the future. But there is still time. We reserve the right to write about any op-ed at any time. In that sense perhaps we too are historians.
And so as historians, we were appalled to read
What is history? The study of it — and the making of it, meaning politics — changed for the worse when, in the 19th century, history became History. When, that is, history stopped being the record of fascinating contingencies — political, intellectual, social, economic — that produced the present. History became instead a realm of necessity. The idea that History is a proper noun, denoting an autonomous process unfolding a predetermined future in accordance with laws mankind cannot amend, is called historicism. That doctrine discounts human agency, reducing even large historical figures to playthings of vast impersonal forces. McCullough knows better.
Nevermind that the making of history is more than politics (in our view there’s a little geology [e.g., tsunami] and biology [e.g., black death] and probably more). Instead, imagine for a moment the position described by Will as “Historicism.” Such a view turns history into “Historywithacapital’H'”; discounts human agency; it’s deterministic; large historical figures are subject to forces stronger than them: Who would hold such a moronic view of history?
Probably nobody. This is has to be the view of Will’s imaginary academic friend Karl–he has more imaginary friends–liberals (Ted), non-strict constructionists (Ruth), and so forth. They stick around to provide him with silly and shallow arguments. And when they’re not actually imaginary, he makes them so by lampooning their arguments. But like all things imaginary, others can’t see them as clearly as you do.
Take for instance this historicism crap. What would show that historicism is a load of bunk? Why a ripping good yarn of course:
Using narrative history to refute historicism, McCullough’s two themes in “1776” are that things could have turned out very differently and that individuals of character can change the destinies of nations. There is a thirst for both themes in this country, which is in a less-than-festive frame of mind on this birthday. It is, therefore, serendipitous that “1776,” with 1.35 million copies already in print, sits atop the New York Times best-seller list on Independence Day.
So a really good narrative–like those so often narrated by McCullough himself on PBS (which, by the way, according to Will is so very unnecessary) shows that great men can change destinies (who believes in destinies?) and things could have turned out otherwise (gee, you mean history is not a deductive science?). But a narrative doesn’t show this–it can’t. And in this case it probably doesn’t even try. Mr.McCullough has done the study of the Past too great a service–both in his writing and his work on Public Television–to receive this kind of praise from George Will.