The University Bookman


Volume 44, Number 3 (Summer 2006)

Historical Consciousness and Its Enemies

The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past, by John Lewis Gaddis (Oxford 2004)

The Limits of History, by Constantin Fasolt (Chicago 2003)

Mark G. Malvasi

During the eighteenth century history flourished as literature. By the 1770s, however, a German school of “scientific history” had begun to emerge in Göttingen, where August Ludwig von Schlozer argued that history involved more than the arrangement of facts and verification of dates. Not a mere chronicle or a simple narrative, the study of history, Schlozer declared, was instead a branch of philosophy that identified causes and explained effects. Although “scientific history” added a critical and analytical rigor to the study of the past, the concept of history as science promised more than it could deliver–much more. The historians of the nineteenth century believed that application of the scientific method would, in time, enable them to establish an objective, indisputable, and irrefutable interpretation of the past to which all rational persons could assent. Overwhelmed by the prestige of the natural and social sciences, historians in the twentieth century continued to find solace in the illusion that they, too, employed complex methods and possessed arcane knowledge inaccessible to the uninitiated. Even now, at the outset of the twenty-first century, when post-modernist thinkers have denied the objective reality of truth, some historians cling to the diminishing hope that history will one day become more scientific.

book cover imageJohn Lewis Gaddis and Constantin Fasolt do their utmost to refute such misconceptions, though their alternate proposals yield equally dubious and vexing results. Addressing himself principally to social scientists and post-modernists, each of whom after their fashion disavows the scientific character of history, Gaddis asserts that the transformation of modern science has effected a rapproachment with history. “The connection . . . between science and history now seems quite feasible,” Gaddis writes, “and in a way that does violence to the work of neither scientists nor historians.” The natural sciences, he acknowledges, have “changed dramatically during the twentieth century,” and, as a consequence, it turns out historians are physicists in disguise. “Metaphorically at least,” Gaddis concludes, “historians have been doing a kind of physics all along.”

Gaddis no longer expects the study of history to confirm definite, unqualified, and absolute truth. His argument, by contrast, rests on the observation that the indeterminacy of twentieth-century physics, specifically of quantum theory, approximates the indeterminacy of historical interpretation, which, he suggests, is “the historians’ equivalent of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.” Invoking chaos and complexity theory, Gaddis insists that “the old scientific perspective, in which one could assume the absolute nature of time and space, objectivity in observation, [and] predictable rates of change . . . was about as outdated in the natural sciences as the Ptolemaic model of the universe had been in Newton’s day.” Yet, Gaddis also proclaims that chaos and complexity theory can show how “the predictable becomes unpredictable, . . . orderly systems can become disorderly, or the other way around, patterns can still exist when there appear to be none, . . . and that these patterns can emerge spontaneously, without anyone having put them there.” Finally, by “visually representing relationships between predictable and non-predictable phenomena,” chaos and complexity theory provides “a new kind of literacy, and hence a new set of terms for representing historical processes” (italics in the original).

Although Gaddis is right to dismiss scientific objectivity and certitude and to confirm that historians are not, and have never been, capable of the definitive precision formerly attributed to the natural sciences, he wrongly insinuates that the association with science lends to history a cachet and validity that it would not otherwise have. With the introduction of such words and expressions as “con-silience,” which he borrows from Edward O. Wilson, “particular generalization,” “contingent causation,” “sensitive dependence on initial conditions,” “phase transitions,” and “punctuated equilibrium,” Gaddis alleges that science offers historians something else that they do not need: a new vocabulary. As Marc Bloch observed in The Historian’s Craft (1953), history neither has nor requires a specialized, technical language. Whenever historians have adopted and applied esoteric language, they have too often been guilty of substituting vocabulary for thought.

Even more troubling than Gaddis’s quest for a new vocabulary is his reliance on the visual at the expense of the verbal. In the central visual metaphor of his book, Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818), Gaddis imagines the historian elevated above the landscape he surveys, abandoning “the normal” and “the familiar” to attain “a new perception of what was real.” Friedrich’s painting evinces for Gaddis “what historical consciousness is all about,” representing from a lofty perch the landscape of the past. To be fair, Gaddis admits that, whether literally or metaphorically, standing on the precipice of a great mountain brings not only a sense of mastery but also of insignificance. Although humility is among the cardinal virtues, Gaddis’s concession is irrelevant, for he fails repeatedly and consistently throughout Mapping the Past to recognize the historicity of his own thought, knowledge, and consciousness, and to accept the inevitable limitations that such a recognition entails.

Like E. H. Carr, whose work he admires, Gaddis cannot quite detach himself from the language of objectivity or quite surrender the conviction that history is a science. He quotes with approbation Carr’s remark in What Is History? (1961) that “it does not follow that, because a mountain appears to take on different shapes from different angels of vision, it has objectively no shape at all or an infinity of shapes.” (Gaddis does not explore the significance of Carr’s objectivist vision, but instead digresses to explain that the statement implies “Carr instinctively understood the concept of fractal geometry and saw its connection to history.” Gaddis leaves to the imagination how and why he has reached this conclusion.) Yet, the question of historical objectivity lingers. Perhaps it is not too much to say that among twentieth-century thinkers perspective became one of the essential and intrinsic components of reality, making impossible the sort of objectivity that Carr espoused. “A reality which would remain always the same when seen from different points,” wrote the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset in The Modern Theme (1923), “is an absurdity.” The more objective the image of the mountain, the more abstract and thus the more incomprehensible and unreal the actual mountain becomes. To demonstrate the limits of objectivity and, indirectly, the importance of perspective and historicity, the English philosopher Owen Barfield, coincidentally writing of mountains in Saving the Appearances, advanced a deeper and more cogent interpretation than Gaddis’s or Carr’s objectivism can sustain:

The economic and social structure of Switzerland is noticeably affected by its tourist industry, and that is due only in part to increased facilities of travel. It is due not less to the condition that . . . the mountains which twentieth-century man sees are not the mountains which eighteenth-century man saw.

Another of Gaddis’s visual metaphors elucidates, even as it compounds, the problem. To illustrate the importance of abstract representation to the study of the past, Gaddis compares “two well-known artistic representations of the same subject,” one, Jan van Eyck’s Marriage of Giovanni Arnolfini (1434), which he sees as specific and literal, the other, Pablo Picasso’s Lovers (1904), which he sees as abstract and general. Elaborate and detailed, Van Eyck’s painting, Gaddis supposes, is “from a particular time,” while Picasso’s sketch, austere and elemental, is “for all time.” The eyes deceive and the mind boggles. The subject of these two works is not the same. Van Eyck depicted a formal betrothal; Picasso rendered the act of copulation. Moreover, The Marriage of Giovanni Arnolfini is far from the “photographic realism” that Gaddis assumes it to be. The painting betokens more than a marriage. It also signifies the legal and financial alliance between two prominent commercial families. Giovanni’s raised right hand symbolizes the solemnity of this binding oath. His affianced, Giovanna Cenami, is pregnant. Was she, or does her condition, along with the bed that appears in the background, allude to the consummation, and thus the fulfillment, of the union between the couple and their families? Similarly, the oranges ripening on the table and the windowsill are symbols of fertility. The pair of shoes, pictured to Giovanni’s right, add a realistic element, but they also denote that the couple, about to enter the bonds of holy matrimony, stands on sacred ground. The little dog in the foreground is another emblem of fidelity and devotion. (In Latin, the words “dog” and “fidelity” share a common origin with “betrothal:” fides). Even this brief and superficial analysis of The Marriage of Giovanni Arnolfini indicates, contra Gaddis, that the significance of van Eyck’s painting is not immediately evident, but contains various, multiple, and nuanced levels of meaning that are subject to analysis.

Gaddis’s comparison of van Eyck and Picasso is itself historical, as much the product of a time and place as are the works of art themselves. The Lovers may appeal to, or at least may not offend, a twenty-first century academic, but it would surely, though for different reasons, have outraged the aesthetic and moral sensibilities of a seventeenth-century Puritan or a nineteenth-century Victorian. The significance of The Lovers is not “for all time,” and it does not, as Gaddis avers, portray “the essence of the matter,” whatever that may be.

Everything, whether the creations of painters or the judgments of historians, has a history. Nothing in this world is unchanging, complete, eternal, and perfect. Gaddis appreciates the correspondence between science and history. This condition, however, reveals that science has become more historical not that history has become more scientific. All thought is dependent on the limitations of the eye, the mind, and the nature of human beings; all knowledge is inseparable from human observations, perspectives, descriptions, and purposes. In Physics and History (1958), the German physicist Werner Heisenberg clarified this situation, writing:

we cannot disregard the fact that science is formed by men. Natural science does not simply describe and explain nature; it is part of the interplay between nature and ourselves; it describes nature as exposed to our method of questioning. This was a possibility of which Descartes could not have thought but it makes sharp separation between the world and the I impossible.

More than thirty years before Heisenberg wrote, the Danish physicist Niels Bohr commented that it was “wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature.” Just so, history concerns what we can say about the past. The validity of historical truth is not diminished by its fragmentary and unscientific character.

book cover imageExhilarated or terrified, humble or proud, the historian does not and cannot, as Gaddis would have it, scale the mountain and stand over and above the welter of events. Fasolt’s recognition of “the limits of history” thus presents a welcome corrective to Gaddis’s misjudgment. Yet, Fasolt regards history “as a dangerous form of knowledge” that now holds the mind in thrall. He laments that history has lost the revolutionary character whereby it formerly opposed tradition and authority and championed liberty and progress, and has instead become an intellectual cul-de-sac from which men must retreat. “History allowed us to create a new kind of humanity,” Fasolt writes, and “now we cannot think of any other kind. The knowledge on which we called in order to assert our freedom now limits our liberty. We are possessed by history.” In Fasolt’s view, the ascendancy of history has effected a cultural paralysis or, as he puts it, “a kind of cultural auto-immune disease,” to which he seeks the cure. (Elsewhere Fasolt exchanges medical for mechanical imagery, determining that the “historical machine” has become “so unwieldy that merely to prevent its creaking gears from grinding to a halt requires more energy than would be worth the effort if we could do without.”) By whatever metaphor he proceeds, Fasolt’s aim is to break the spell by which “history keeps human beings in bondage to themselves.”

History so fascinates and beguiles, Fasolt reasons, because a knowledge of history has become inseparable from the conduct of politics; both express the will-to-order and the will-to-power. The union of history and politics involves much more than the political convictions or biases of historians. The deliberate, conscientious study of the past, shorn of overt political motives, is in itself a political act. “Nothing keeps history more firmly in the grip of politics,” Fasolt affirms, “than the self-discipline with which historians devote themselves to the pursuit of historical truth.” Acceptance of the historical perspective commits men to a particular view of human beings as free, independent, and responsible agents commanded neither “by divine providence nor condemned to the thoughtless repetition of custom, much less compelled to obey mere animal instinct or do battle with the devil.” Through their free choices and purposeful actions men make history. “That,” resolves Fasolt, “is the historian’s fundamental creed,” which establishes the link between history and politics.

To identify and explain these past decisions and the actions that followed from them, to write history as it actually happened or as it actually was, is a political venture that requires historians to invade, assail, violate, conquer, occupy, and govern the past. The study of history, according to Fasolt, is an exercise in imperialism no less vicious than the subjugation of colonies. “Historians are just as active in invading that foreign country [of the past], conquering its inhabitants, subjecting them to their discipline, and annexing their territories to the possessions of the present as any imperialist who ever sought to impose his power on colonies abroad. To call their activity a conquest is no mere figure of speech. It is a perfectly accurate description of history’s political effect.” Historical consciousness, Fasolt adds, has also at times been the source of real violence in the here-and-now. The Renaissance humanists were the first to evince and articulate a historical perspective, and did so to carry out the violent overthrow of medieval universalism. They carved “the world into manageable pieces,” ordained “a new periodization” that rent the past into ancient, medieval, and modern eras, and placed “history at the service of European princes and republics seeking to emancipate themselves in fierce campaigns from the authority of pope and emperor. . . . In the process they ruined the foundations on which the medieval universe had rested, and they built new ones for the inhabitants of modern, territorial, sovereign states.” The humanists’ exaltation of human agency and intelligence, along with their redefinition of the past, destroyed the medieval synthesis and completed the violent transformation of the West. From these events, Fasolt speculates that “the study of history is bound to violent upheavals by more than sheer coincidence. . . . There exists some subterranean connection between great contributions to history, imperial expansion, revolt, and civil war.”

The Enlightenment bred peace among the victors in, and the beneficiaries of, the “historical revolt,” enabling the professional historians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to ignore or deny the violent nature of their enterprise. They professed impartiality in surveying the evidence and detachment from whatever conclusions their investigations might support, acknowledging only the wish to gather information and pursue truth. Earnest and unimpeachable in their declarations of objectivity, historians nonetheless exhibited a “subliminal dishonesty” that prevented them from realizing their labors were not as innocent as they seemed. Historians, Fasolt admonishes, must now take responsibility for their actions and make recompense“for whatever exercise of force their work may entail.” For history is “a weapon . . . invented on a battlefield” that has wounded “both its subjects and its practitioners.” It suffers from a ”congenital deficiency tainting its very core.” Ambitious beyond its competence, history perpetually goes too far. Rather than being a guiltless means of understanding reality, history is a belligerent “form of self-assertion” that conceals the effort to rule the past and make it serve the present. Fasolt counters this onslaught against the past by exposing the limits of historical knowledge and, in the process, by revealing the violence that has accompanied the rise of historical consciousness.

The damage that history has caused originates in the fundamental distinction that history imposes between past and present—a distinction that sets “aside a piece of reality for historical inspection” and “assigns specific characteristics” to it. Whatever their quarrels, historians without exception agree that the past is absent and immutable. The present, by contrast, exists and changes, though no taint of the present must ever contaminate the past. Historians, therefore, refrain from indulging in anachronism. “Thou shalt place everything in the context of time,” Fasolt writes, for to commit anachronism is to “sin against the holy spirit of history.” However implausible, however much it may distort reality, the absolute separation of past and present, Fasolt contends, serves an indispensable purpose. It verifies and reinforces the existence in the present of autonomous, sovereign individuals who are not bound to the past and who are thus the masters of destiny in the present and the future. “Freedom and progress,” Fasolt avows, “depend on the distinction between past and present: The founding principle of history is . . . also a founding principle of politics. . . . The individual subject,” he continues:

with his presence, his autonomy, his freedom from all laws except laws of conscience, laws of nature, and positive laws sanctioned by the unconstrained expression of his own free will, with his ability to transcend all circumstantial limitations and to escape from time itself in order to claim a ticket of direct admission (as it were) to eternal life–this subject is the cause that history serves.

History thus gives to the present an integrity, coherence, stability, and order that it does not, in actuality, possess, and bestows upon the independent, imperial selves who occupy the present the power to know, to shape, and to alter the world that they could acquire in no other way and exercise by no other means.

The imperative that history must accomplish, the very reason that history exists, is to establish and preserve the distinction between past and present, which “does not exist apart from [human] activity” and which enables men “to have done with the past and to be rid of things that cannot be forgotten.” It ought by now to be apparent that Fasolt’s “guided tour to the limits of history” has veered into strange territory. Had he used the road maps that other thinkers provided, his journey (and ours) might have been less arduous, taken fewer wrong turns, and reached a more satisfactory destination.

Deluded by their “unacknowledged goal” of keeping the present forever isolated from the past, historians, Fasolt suspects, mistake the evidence of the past for the reality. They believe that the past is unchanging when, in fact, “only the information that was recorded in the evidence is immutable.” Captured, tamed, organized, and written down, the evidence of the past has “a significance that will remain the same until the end of time.” Can Fasolt be serious? Never mind that the past remains alive in the present and that history cannot be restricted to the archives. Does he presume that records have a universal and eternal meaning independent of the eyes that read them and the minds that contemplate them? If that were so, documents would require no interpretation or ever be subject to reinterpretation, and historians could then produce that heretofore elusive transcript of the past in the accuracy of which all would readily concur. For all their differences and disagreements, Gaddis and Fasolt commit similar errors by adopting the very objectivity that they elsewhere malign and reject.

Fasolt seems unaware that, writing in the 1930s, the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, to cite but one example, already appreciated the limits of history, which, he perceived, could neither overcome ambiguity and doubt nor impart clarity and precision. Although Huizinga still viewed history as “an inexact science,” his description hints that it is no science at all. History, as Giambattista Vico was the first to observe, comprises man’s knowledge of man–a knowledge that is always incomplete and imperfect. The complex tangle of human life does not lend itself easily to the application of laws, formulas, or theorems that afford transparent intelligibility. Locating the boundaries and confines of history, reciting all that we do not know, has long been part of historians’ discerning but subtle wisdom. Instead of directing violent campaigns to subdue, occupy, and exploit the past, sensible historians might well recoil at the difficulty of the task before them and surrender any hope of understanding the past at all.

This same confusion about the relation of past to present induces historians to associate the present with the future and join both to the expansion of human freedom. (Fasolt’s point of reference appears to be Ranke.) The past is dead and gone. The present, meanwhile, “opens onto the future” and together present and future unite “in opposition to the past.” The present may “open onto the future,” but the present also becomes the past. It may be that the line dividing the past (what was) from the present (what is) is less distinct that the line dividing the present from the future, which is unknown and unknowable and is, indeed, mere conjecture. Man, at least modern man, is by nature a historical being. To know himself means to know his history. He cannot escape himself, as Fasolt dreams, by relinquishing his historical consciousness. To do so would be his doom. Fasol would demure, since it is precisely the authority of history against which he rebels. He deems history a burden and a curse that must be lifted if men are ever again to be free.

As with all aspiring revolutionaries and iconoclasts, Fasolt disparages custom and convention. Such audacity is not inherently bad. He does well to criticize the offenses of professional historians, especially those who embrace a lingering positivism, though theirs would seem more to be the vices of timid bureaucrats seeking the rewards of office than the crimes of bloodthirsty warriors plundering the spoils of conquest. He is equally astute in pointing out that the study of history is not an impartial and objective undertaking that produces definitive truth. In his zeal to discredit the fallacy of scientific positivism and the unquestioned faith in history, however, Fasolt postulates that history has become a religion that compels absolute obedience to an established system of law and belief, tolerating no dissent. He intends to confront, even if he cannot resolve, the impasse that this entrenched orthodoxy has created. All possibilities seem to him foreclosed, all opportunities exhausted, all effort wasted, all freedom circumscribed, all progress halted. “Now history teaches human beings in a school whose doors are shut,” Faslot complains. “No one can seem to think of any way to open them again. . . . Outside, the world is surging. Inside, history demands attention while liberty and progress sit well-behaved on benches and study rules and ponder theory and gather information.” History is beyond reform and so must be eliminated; it does its worst when it works exactly according to its design and for its purpose.

Fasolt’s commentary both reflects and intensifies the dissolution of the West. Historical consciousness, arguably the most distinctive and important form of thought to emerge from Western civilization during the last 500 years, is not the reason for the prevailing cultural disarray. The historical perspective, on the contrary, makes us aware that a crisis exists and enjoins us to face ourselves while also affording us the most refined standards of judgment at our disposal to measure our accomplishments and our failures, our glories and our sorrows. It matters not at all that of its own accord the practice of “history cannot . . . validate historical thought.” That expectation has been fanciful since the twelfth century when Joachim of Fiore conceived the hope that the insecurities and predicaments of human existence could be transcended within history itself. Nor is recognition of the insurmountable limits of history a cause for frustration, anger, and despair. Rather, it indicates the emergence of a more mature understanding and a more contrite acceptance of the intransigence of reality, the mystery of life, and the impossibility of eluding the self.

Mark G. Malvasi is a professor of history at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia and is, most recently, the co-editor with Jeffrey O. Nelson of a reader titled Remembered Past: John Lukacs on History, Historians, and Historical Knowledge.

Posted: March 20, 2007

Did you see this one?

A Tribute to Jacques Barzun on His Centennial
Tracy Lee Simmons
Volume 45, Number 3 (Fall 2007)

All great systems, ethical or political, attain their ascendency over the minds of men by virtue of their appeal to the imagination; and when they cease to touch the chords of wonder and mystery and hope, their power is lost, and men look elsewhere for some set of principles by which they may be guided.

Russell Kirk


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The University Bookman is joining Fordham University in hosting the award-winning poet and critic A. M. Juster on Monday, February 6, 2017 at 6:00pm on Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus (McMahon Hall, Rm. 109; use the entrance on West 60th Street and Columbus Avenue in Manhattan). Juster will speak on “Riddles, Elegies, and Satires: Adventures in Translation.” The event is free and open to the public and registration is not required. We are also planning a second event in May on the humanities. Watch this space for more details. (27 Dec 2016)

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