What Does It Mean to Think Historically?

Historical thinking is an analysis that goes into writing a textbook’s account of a past event. As time travel is not possible, historical thinking helps to paint a picture of what happened and what this happening meant. This being said, merely studying names and dates is completely different from thinking historically. At the core of historical thinking is the impossibility of certainty. Historical thinking entails asking many questions from many sides and from many points in time, but always having doubts despite one’s best efforts.

It’s a challenging, complex, maddening, and multi-faceted practice.

Every event has at least two sides to the story. Historians have the difficult task of sorting through a haze of verbiage to sort out what is true. To arrive with confidence at a conclusion about any question under study, they must sift through data from different, and often competing, sources, none of which they can take at face value; even primary sources are suspect.

To further complicate matters, the tendency of time to alter both the memories and the perspectives of people makes finding the ultimate truth behind an event even more difficult. Paul Cohen, in History in Three Keys, describes the three main lenses historians look through to analyze the past: reconstruction (What happened and what were the event’s effects?), experience (What it was like to live during that time, what drove people, and what did these people think about what was occurring around them?), and myth (How do people of later eras talk about and remember the event?).

Get quality help now
Doctor Jennifer

Proficient in: Sociological Imagination

5 (893)

“ Thank you so much for accepting my assignment the night before it was due. I look forward to working with you moving forward ”

+84 relevant experts are online
Hire writer

Cohen writes that it’s not possible for a historian to ever construct a complete and total rendition of the past that covers all of its complexities, but that a historian can gain a higher level of perception about the past if he or she takes into account multiple perspectives. A detailed survey of an event coupled with a broad study of the experiences of people involved can help reduce problems in rebuilding an over-simplified reading of the past.

Not only is the theme of two-sidedness pervasive in historical thinking, but the theme of subjectivity is, as well. When Thomas Nagel asks “what is it like to be a bat?” he’s asking “what is it like for a bat to be a bat, living in a dark world and catching insects on the wing?” Nagel argues that science has changed how people think of the world. Science enables people to think very neutrally and study the world very precisely, but this type of cool analysis has sometimes been taken to imply that people’s subjective experiences are somehow primitive. Many modern philosophers have decided to view the human mind precisely in this way, as if to say, “Let’s explain the human mind without using any of those silly ideas about private thoughts and subjective feelings.” For Nagel, this approach to studying the mind is a dead end. Being able to measure a person’s brain mass and analyze, say, eating habits neither addresses people’s subjective perspectives on life nor how one person’s outlook compares with another’s. In other words, one can’t solve the mind-body problem by ignoring the mind and pretending that only the body is worthy of study. People can’t explain the minds of others if they struggle to value what it means to be themselves. To try to explain the mind of some other person or creature using only objective methods is to completely miss the target. R.G. Collingwood understood very clearly that the questions asked made all the difference. In his autobiography, he writes that one can neither understand an ancient philosopher nor a historical event without asking what problem the philosopher was asking (and what presumptions he had) or what problem a historical figure was trying to solve when he or she was making their decisions.

A third theme in the practice of historical thinking is the sheer commitment it takes to think historically. In studying history, one must go for broke. While Cohen does that it just isn’t possible to reconstruct completely, unearthing the complex aspects of the past isn’t difficult so long as one is willing to dig deep enough to find it. Nagel also addresses this by writing that, ideally, each scientist or philosopher should take into account how their life experiences have shaped their perspectives, but trying to objectively observe minds removes them from the very subjective quality that they’re trying to observe. In the appendix of The Sociological Imagination, C. Wright Mills calls for scholars to use their work as an occasion to reflect on their lives as well. “… The most admirable thinkers within the scholarly community … do not split their work from their lives,” he writes. There is no work-life division for the sociologist, which is why Mills calls sociology a “craft.” To understand someone’s thoughts, one must understand the historical context of the ideas and culture in which they were embedded. Mills calls this awareness of the relationship between the personal and the societal, “the sociological imagination” and it’s this “capacity to shift from one perspective to another and, in the process, to build up an adequate view of a total society and its components” that separates the mechanical technician from the creative social scientist.

To conclude, historians are constantly fighting the problems of bias and distortion in their search for the truth; at the same time, even after all the cross-referencing, the comparisons, and the analyses (along with the commitment and will that goes into telling history), historians can never truly conclude without being left with niggling doubts. The study of history is a matrix of vague connections. The past provides a vast warehouse of casual chains from which historians can (at least try to) assess causation, think about patterns of behavior, how the winners often slant history in their favor, and how those lessons might be applied now, but the study of history also is like chasing a horizon. A truly great historian doesn’t stop chasing, even if they know they’ll never reach it.

Cite this page

What Does It Mean to Think Historically?. (2022, Apr 27). Retrieved from https://paperap.com/what-does-it-mean-to-think-historically/

Let’s chat?  We're online 24/7