What Is History?

Often I come across quotes about what history is or how it works. If I find them insightful, provocative, funny, or just weird, I usually write them down. Here’s a selection (please note that I don’t necessarily agree with all of these definitions):


“Always historicize!”

Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious (1981)


“The special and salutary benefit of the study of history is to behold evidence of every sort of behavior set forth as on a splendid memorial; from it you may select for yourself and for your country what to emulate, from it what to avoid, whether basely begun or basely concluded.”

Livy, History of Rome (ca. 20 BCE)


“History . . . means an act imagined as being situated in the context of other such acts and as it will be perceived by others; it arises from a social imagination of how one’s private act fits into public life. History is carried in the mind to the remotest places to determine what one’s acts mean even there, and who can say how much it weighs for those who carry it?”

Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust (2000)


“In returning to the moment when things were decided, and making it clear that they could have taken a different turn, history represents the quintessential tool for denaturalizing the social; as a result, it goes hand and hand with critique.”

Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism (1999)


“All history is the history of thought; and when an historian says that a man is in a certain situation this is the same as saying that he thinks he is in this situation. The hard facts of the situation, which it is so important for him to face, are the hard facts of the way in which he conceives the situation.”

R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History (posth. 1946)


“The definitive biography, English-style, is among the most admirable genres of historiography. Lengthy, thoroughly documented, heavily annotated, and generously splashed with quotations, it usually comes in two large volumes and tells more, and more vividly, about the historical period in question than all but the most outstanding history books. For unlike other biographies, history is here not treated as the inevitable background of a famous person’s life span; it is rather as though the colorless light of historical time were forced through and refracted by the prism of a great character so that in the resulting spectrum a complete unity of life and world is achieved. This may be why it has become the classical genre for the lives of great statesmen but has remained rather unsuitable for those in which the main interest lies in the life story, or for the lives of artists, writers, and, generally, men and women whose genius forced them to keep the world at a certain distance and whose significance lies chiefly in their works, the artifacts they added to the world, not in the role they played in it.”

Hannah Arendt, “Rosa Luxemburg” (1966)


“Would you know the sentiments, inclinations, and course of life of the Greeks and Romans? Study well the temper and actions of the French and English: You cannot be much mistaken in transferring to the former most of the observations which you have made with regard to the latter. Mankind are so much the same, in all times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange in this particular. Its chief use is only to discover the constant and universal principles of human nature, by showing men in all varieties of circumstances and situations, and furnishing us with materials from which we may form our observations and become acquainted with the regular springs of human action and behaviour.”

David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748)


“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852)


“We must rid ourselves of the delusion that it is major events which most
determine a person. He is more deeply and lastingly influenced by the tiny catastrophes of which everyday existence is made up, and his fate is certainly linked predominantly to the sequence of these miniature occurrences.”

Siegfried Kracauer, The Salaried Masses (1930)



You who celebrate bygones,/Who have explored the outward, the surfaces of the races, the life that has exhibited itself,/Who have treated of man as the creature of politics, aggregates, rules and priests,/I, habitan of the Alleghanies, treating of him as he is in himself in his own rights,/Pressing the pulse of the life that has seldom exhibited itself, (the great pride of man in himself,)/Chanter of Personality, outlining what is yet to be, I project the history of the future.”

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1855)


“All history is contemporary history.”

Benedetto Croce, History as the Story of Liberty (1938)


“Is not the pastness of the past the more profound, the more legendary, the more immediately it falls before the present?”

Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain (1924)


“Of a single history you can have more than one correct notion. What happens in the world is seen by various people in various ways: if many people were to describe a single history, something special would be encountered in each, assuming they had correctly envisioned the same exact thing. This variety is due in part to the situation of our body, which is different for each person; in part to the various connections that we have to the thing; and in part to our previous way of thinking. One person is accustomed to paying attention to this, another to that. Indeed, people generally believe that each thing could have only one correct conception, and thus when there is some disparity between two stories, one must be totally right and the other totally wrong. However, this rule accords neither with other common truths nor with a more exact knowledge of our souls. . . . With all histories it’s the same: a rebellion is seen differently by a loyal subject than by a rebel, or a foreigner, or a courtier, or a city-dweller or farmer, even if each of them should know nothing other than what’s in accordance with the truth. . . . Those circumstances of our soul, our body, and our whole person, which make or cause us to imagine a thing one way and not another, we call the point of view [Sehe-Punkt].”

Chladenius, Einleitung zur richtigen Auslegung vernünftiger Reden und Schriften (1742)


“Historians who live in democratic times . . . not only deny to a few citizens the power to act on the destiny of the people, they also take away from peoples themselves the ability to modify their own fate, and they subject them either to an inflexible providence or to a sort of blind fatality. . . . They render generations interdependent on one another, and thus going back from age to age and from necessary events to necessary events up to the origin of the world, they make a tight and immense chain that envelopes the whole human race and binds it. ¶ It is not enough for them to show how the facts have come about; they also take pleasure in making one see that it could not have happened otherwise. They consider a nation that has reached a certain place in its history and affirm that it was constrained to follow the path that led it there. That is easier than instructing us on how it could have acted to take a better route. . . . ¶ In running through the histories written in our time, one would say that man can do nothing either about himself or his surroundings. Historians of antiquity instruct on how to command, those of our day teach hardly anything other than how to obey. In their writings, the author often appears great, but humanity is always small. . . . ¶ I shall say, furthermore, that such a doctrine [of fatalism] is particularly dangerous in the period we are in; our contemporaries are only too inclined to doubt free will because each of them feels himself limited on all sides by his weakness, but they still willingly grant force and independence to men united in a social body. One must guard against obscuring this idea, for it is a question of elevating souls and not completing their prostration.”

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Book II (1840)


“A good historian resembles the ogre of the legend. Wherever he smells human flesh, he knows that there he will find his prey.”

Marc Bloch, Apologie pour l’histoire ou Métier d’historien (posth. 1949)


“It has always seemed to me that those who believe they can obtain a just and well-proportioned view of history as a whole by reading separate and specialized reports of events, are behaving like a man who, when he has examined the dissected parts of a body which was once alive and beautiful, imagines that he has beheld the living animal in all its grace and movement. . . . The fact is that we can obtain no more than an impression of a whole from a part, but certainly neither a thorough knowledge nor an accurate understanding. We must conclude then that specialized studies or monographs contribute very little to our grasp of the whole and our conviction of its truth. On the contrary, it is only by combining and comparing various parts of the whole with one another and noting their resemblances and their differences that we shall arrive at a comprehensive view, and thus encompass both the practical benefits and the pleasures that the reading of history affords.”

Polybius, Histories (ca. 150 BCE)


“It is quite true what philosophy says: that life must be understood backwards. But then one forgets the other principle: that it must be lived forwards. . . . [T]emporal life can never properly be understood precisely because I can at no instant find complete rest in which to adopt a position: backwards.”

Søren Kierkegaard, Papers and Journals (1834-55)


“The present continually hovers before the backward-looking glance, because it is by the aid of analogies drawn from the life of to-day — however little this may be consciously before the mind — that we reach the causal explanations of the events of the past.”

Ernst Troeltsch, Protestantism and Progress (1911)


“For the departmentalization — whether by subjects, periods, nationalities, or languages — of the study of the history of thought corresponds, for the most part, to no real cleavages among the phenomena studied. The processes of the human mind, in the individual or the group, which manifest themselves in history, do not run in enclosed channels corresponding to the officially established divisions of university faculties; even where these processes, or their modes of expression, or the objects to which they are applied, are logically discriminable into fairly distinct types, they are in perpetual interplay. And ideas are the most migratory things in the world. . . . Historiography, in short, for excellent practical reasons, is divided, but the historic process is not. . . . ¶ If you wish to prophesy about the future, . . . the actuarially safest working rule would seem to be to take what are now venerated idols and predict that they will sooner or later become hobgoblins — and still later, idols once more. . . . ¶ An idea, in short, is after all not only a potent but a stubborn thing; it commonly has its own ‘particular go'1; and the history of thought is a bilateral affair — the story of the traffic and interaction between human nature, amid the exigencies and vicissitudes of physical experience, on the one hand, and on the other, the specific natures and pressures of the ideas which men have, from very various promptings, admitted to their minds.”

Arthur O. Lovejoy, “Reflections on the History of Ideas” (1940)


“[I]f the study of intellectual history is to have any ultimate justification, it is its capacity to rescue the legacy of the past in order to allow us to realize the potential of the future.”

Martin Jay, Marxism and Totality (1984)


“[T]he reconstruction of worlds is one of the historian’s most important tasks. He undertakes it, not from some strange urge to dig up archives and sift through old paper, but because he wants to talk with the dead. By putting questions to documents and listening for replies, he can sound dead souls and take the measure of the societies they inhabited. If we lost all contact with the worlds we have lost, we would be condemned to live in a two-dimensional, time-bound present, and our own world would turn flat.”

Robert Darnton, The Literary Underground of the Old Regime (1982)


“The basic colors of history are not black and white, its basic pattern not the contrast of a chessboard. The basic color of history is grey — unending shades of grey.”

Thomas Nipperdey, Deutsche Geschichte, Vol. 2 (1992)


“The very fact that every event and every element of meaning in history is bound to a temporal, spatial, and situational position, and that therefore what happens once cannot happen always, the fact that events and meanings in history are not reversible, in short the circumstance that we do not find absolute situations in history indicates that history is mute and meaningless only to him who expects to learn nothing from it, and that, in the case of history more than in that of any other discipline, the standpoint which regards history as ‘mere history,’ as do the mystics, is doomed to sterility.”

Karl Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia (1929)


“[T]he events and history of a village and of a kingdom are essentially the same; and we can study and learn to know humanity just as well in the one as in the other.”

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation (1818/48)


“[T]o seize the essence of history, it suffices to compare Herodotus and the morning newspaper.”

Walter Benjamin (attributed apocryphally to Schopenhauer), “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century” (exposé of 1939)


“It is . . . not true, as outsiders might assume, that one can merely observe the richness of life in the past, whereas one can participate in the present. Doing history means building bridges between the past and the present, observing both banks of the river, taking an active part on both sides.”

Bernhard Schlink, The Reader (1995)


“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun (1951)


“The first condition of the possibility of historical science is that I myself am a historical being — that he who studies history is the same as he who makes history.”

Wilhelm Dilthey, The Formation of the Historical World in the Human Sciences (1910)


“Scholars in a number of disciplines are urging us to understand the peculiar historicity of every person, event, value, or ideal, to acknowledge once and for all that there are no truths outside of that historicity. So blatant, so prevalent have these calls for a ‘new historicism’ become that even historians have become aware of them — historians being usually the last to know about avant-garde theories, which is, of course, their saving grace.”

Gordon S. Wood, The Purpose of the Past (2008)


[If history were a text:] “The hermeneutical situation is not a regrettable distortion that affects the purity of understanding, but the condition of its possibility. Only because between the text and its interpreter there is no automatic accord can a hermeneutical experience make us share in the text. Only because a text has to be brought out of its alienness and assimilated is there anything for the person trying to understand it to say. Only because the text calls for it does interpretation take place, and only in the way called for. The apparently thetic beginning of interpretation is, in fact, a response; and the sense of an interpretation is determined, like every response, by the question asked. Thus the dialectic of question and answer always precedes the dialectic of interpretation. It is what determines understanding as an event.”

Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (1960)


“Just as the extension of contemporary conflict back to the beginnings of history retains a merely heuristic character, so too the anticipatory presupposition of history’s end remains hypothetical. The philosophy of history creates the fiction of historical subjects as the possible subject of history, as though objective tendencies of development, which actually are equivocal, were comprehended with will and consciousness by those who act politically and were decided by them for their own benefit. From the lofty observation post of this fiction the situation is revealed in its ambivalences, which are susceptible to practical intervention, so that an enlightened mankind can elevate itself then to become what up to that point it was only fictitiously. . . . The root of the irrationality of history is that we ‘make’ it, without, however, having been able until now to make it consciously. A rationalization of history cannot therefore be furthered by an extended power of control on the part of manipulative human beings, but only by a higher stage of reflection, a consciousness of acting human beings moving forward in the direction of emancipation.”

Jürgen Habermas, Theory and Practice (1963)

  1. William James’ term for the quality of any historical event  (back)