Note: This is the fifth post in the series: “Why Study History?”
In my previous post I argued that history provides the foundations for knowledge.
Beyond the foundations of knowledge, history also functions as possibly the only way students can understand the current world in which they live. For no one lives in a vacuum. A society’s current state of affairs is the result of a long process of changes and influences. Not to know the history of a society, is not to know the society. To understand ourselves, our cultures, our political structures, our way of acting, our way of thinking, etc. depends on the history of those things. As Aristotle pointed out, “we do not know a truth without its cause” (Aristotle, Metaphysics, 993b23). “Cause” here includes, but is certainly not limited to, past persons and events. Even the great champion of progressive education, John Dewey, noted that without a study of history, we cannot understand ourselves or our present condition:
But the achievements of the past provide the only means at command for understanding the present. Just as the individual has to draw in memory upon his own past to understand the conditions in which he individually finds himself, so the issues and problems of present social life are in such intimate and direct connection with the past that students cannot be prepared to understand either these problems or the best way of dealing with them without delving into their roots in the past.(John Dewey, Experience and Education)
For example, Herodotus seems quite conscious of the goal of using history to explain the current state of affairs in Greece and elsewhere. “The ancient feud between the Eginetans and Athenians arose out of the following circumstances…” (Herodotus, The History of Herodotus) These and numerous other such statements are found throughout Herodotus as he attempts to narrate the events which result in current political affairs. Similarly, Augustine’s City of God may be seen as an attempt to place the current decline of Rome into the cosmic history of mankind. Augustine’s defense against the charge that Christianity was responsible for the miseries of his own day, was to recount the historical processes and causes that led to Rome’s decline. That is, to understand the way things were at that time, it was necessary to understand how they arrived at those state of affairs.
Furthermore, the principle that “history enables one to understand the present” can be seen throughout the Old Testament. Again and again, the Israelites are called “to remember” what God has done in order to live correctly in the present. (Cf. Deut. 6:20-25; 7:6-19; 16:1-12; Joshua 24:1-27; I Samuel 12; Nehemiah 9; Jeremiah 2; Ezekiel 20) That is, apart from a “memory” or a “history” of God’s activities in the past, their present actions are meaningless: “When your son asks you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that the Lord our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your son, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand…’” (Deut. 6:20-22 ESV). In the Old Testament, moral imperatives are always connected with historical indicatives. Without first understanding God’s role and relationship to the history of Israel, His commands might be seen as arbitrary or capricious.
Beyond an understanding of culture and current states of affairs, history, as pointed about above, can enable one to better understand specific disciplines. Blaise Pascal pointed out that the scientific research of his own day had shown too much deference to historical scientists, particularly Aristotle, and that this deference had slowed scientific progress. However, unlike other philosophers of his time (like Descartes), Pascal did not advocate ignoring the ancients in conducting new fields of research. Instead, says Pascal, “Since their [the ancient scientists] perfection depends upon time and effort, it is evident that even if our effort and time had gained us less than the labors of the ancients, separated from ours, the two together nevertheless must have more effect than either alone” (Blaise Pascal, Scientific Treatises). That is, if the scientist is going to advance any field of science, he must know the history of how the current understanding of his field developed. This was precisely what Pascal himself did in developing his theories and proving the existence of vacuums. The kind of “chronological snobbery” that has become prevalent today, arguing that because such-and-such a philosopher / scientist worked prior to a certain time they may therefore be ignored, is flatly rejected by Pascal. “The ancients should be admired for the consequences they drew correctly from the little stock of principles they had, and they should be excused for those in which they lacked the advantage of experiment rather than force of reason” (Ibid.)
As Pascal argues for a history of science, so too does Kant argue for a history of philosophy. In his Preface to the second edition of The Critique of Pure Reason, Kant traces the relative progress of science versus philosophy going all the way back to the earliest Greeks. The purpose of this historical narrative is to discover why science had been able to make certain advances, but philosophy had not. That is, Kant conducts an historical analysis of philosophy in order to learn the nature of, current understanding of, and the way of progress in philosophy. As Kant saw things, without such knowledge of the history of philosophy, no philosophical progress would be possible.
So we see the educative value of knowing history in order to know the current state of affairs of a society, and of advancing knowledge in various disciplines. Without such historical knowledge the student is attempting to live in a vacuum of time and space that is disconnected from the reality in which he lives.