‘Accidental causes cannot be generalized; and, since they are in the fullest sense of the word unique, they teach no lessons and lead to no conclusions.’
E.H. Carr’s remark in What is History? was intended as a warning for the historian who would see the past as a fortuitous sequence of events and mishaps without meaning or direction.
But it was taken up, seemingly, as the animating spirit behind much revisionist historiography of the 1970s and 1980s.
In a notable case, writers such as Conrad Russell and François Furet sought to challenge existing scholarship on the English and French revolutions. The then-ascendant Whig and Marxist-inspired interpretations had located the ultimate source of Europe’s early-modern convulsions in deep-seated social or juridical-constitutional conflict. But revisionists now attributed the genesis of these events to surface contingencies: clerical ambition and religious parochialism, personal stubbornness and court intrigue.
The high tide of historical revisionism, at least with regard to the bourgeois revolutions, has since passed.
Yale’s Steven Pincus has recently published a history of the so-called Glorious Revolution that echoes Marx’s interpretation in his critical journalism of 1850:
M. Guizot does not think it worth mentioning that the struggle against Louis XIV was simply a war of competition aimed at the destruction of French naval power and commerce; nor does he mention the rule of the finance bourgeoisie through the establishment of the Bank of England under William III, nor the introduction of the public debt which then received its first sanction, nor that the manufacturing bourgeoisie received a new impetus by the consistent application of a system of protective tariffs.
(Pincus, though, retains the requisite contempt for the significance of the Civil War and Interregnum. Their achievements, he suggests, were reversed entirely by the Restoration Stuarts.)
But the historical discipline as a whole — along with most of the humanities and social sciences — has retained a broad intellectual preference for the fragmentary and immediate. The social basis for this is diagnosed here — with some success — by Paula Cerni.
This movement has its theoretical touchstone in Nietzsche’s late jottings, in The Will to Power, against what he saw as arbitrary classification of the world’s untameable ontological flux:
The entire apparatus of knowledge is an apparatus for abstraction and simplification… In the formation of reason, logic, the categories, it was need that was authoritative: the need, not to “know,” but to subsume, to schematize, for the purpose of intelligibility and calculation… Knowledge and becoming exclude one another… A world in a state of becoming could not, in a strict sense, be “comprehended” or “known”; only to the extent that the “comprehending” and “knowing” intellect encounters a coarse, already-created world, fabricated out of mere appearances but become firm to the extent that this kind of appearance has preserved life — only to this extent is there anything like “knowledge.”
Hence the postmodernist historiographical dictum, courtesy of Foucault, which repudiated and reversed Carr’s methodological advice:
The forces operating on history are not controlled by destiny or regulative mechanisms, but correspond to haphazard conflict… the true historical sense confirms our existence among countless lost events, without a landmark of point of reference.
If this is how establishment thought treats its past, what of its present?
But that will be taken up in this blog’s next post.