History And Human Nature

July 15, 2009

The study of history is only fruitful, or even possible, to the extent one understands human nature.

Of course, we naturally and reasonably turn to history in order to understand human nature. Yet while we may use what we know of history to assist in our study of human nature and we may use what we know of human nature to assist in our study of history, the latter operation is prior to the former. You have to assume or take something to be true about human nature in order to learn about human nature through history. And you know something about human nature . . . since, well, you are one.

Historians spend much of their time investigating and verifying past thoughts and actions, but when these are examined and analyzed one cannot escape relying on an understanding of human nature in order to explicate the “bones” one has dug up. Of course, even in the pursuit of simply discovering what was, this same understanding of human nature will also guide one’s approach in choosing where and how to dig. It will, in fact, direct the entire historical enterprise in light of the fact that your understanding of human nature is necessarily a crucial element of the purpose for which you are acting as an historian in the first place.

The overarching point gets lost so often its hard to keep a grasp on it. History is about the past thoughts and actions of human beings, and how we understand such thoughts and actions will hinge upon how we answer the question: “What are we?” What is human nature? Do we have a nature? What is nature? When these questions go unanswered and/or are assumed in a facile manner any presentation of history ought to be tainted or suspect.

If we have seriously meditated upon human nature, and the extent to which we are ignorant on this score, I think most people readily understand the notion that history is not a science in the sense that, say, geometry is. Or, at least, not understandable as such a science to any of us humans living life as we know it. There are two extremes in this respect. Although the notion that history is such a science (perhaps even the highest science) is still with us (Progress!), the opposite notion is perhaps more prevalent these days, or at least its influence is rapidly growing. The explicit or implicit rejection of the very possibility of any sort of coherent understanding of history is now commonplace.

The first extreme relies on the explicit or implicit assumption that human beings are gods: functionally speaking or otherwise the highest thing in the universe. The second extreme relies on the explicit or implicit assumption that human beings are animals or worse, inherently worthless, and value-free. The universe in which human beings live in the first extreme is ordered to them, or should be made to. The universe in which human beings live in the second extreme is devoid of order, or functionally so in that we are not able to know one way or the other. Both views are obsessed with human beings flexing their wills for their own self-created purposes, but the variation on human nature betwixt them dictates different notions of history.

Something like that. The last paragraph is a tad too cute. Examples from experience anon.

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