The Discipline of History
Tbe Problem Here is Institutional Scattering

History is the study of the past. So far so good. The problem is that, due to the curious history of academic disciplines, there is no one corner of the modern academy which is responsible for the historical enterprise in its fullness. History, in the sense of the thing we are here discussing, is scattered all over. The result is that those wishing to become competent students of the past will have to cross departmental lines while in school, and also in their later professional life. The pressures of time and professional identity not to do these things are enormous. That is just too bad. Competence in history can only be achieved by overcoming the pressures.

Here is where some of the pieces, or the problems, are to be found.


The pull between inherited classicism (the idea that all wisdom was to be found on the pages, or between the lines, of Homer and Vergil) and modernism (the idea that our modern world requires a different wisdom) came to a crisis in the Renaissance. The Renaissance is usually thought of as a rebirth of the classical past. That is not correct. The essence of the Renaissance is that it distanced itself from classical wisdom, especially wisdom about the operations of nature. Renaissance science is not a rediscovery of Aristotle, it is a rejection of Aristotle and of other booklearning, and a new reliance on direct observation. Galileo, not Aristotle, is the paradigmatic scientist of the Renaissance. That same new consciousness affected the study of the classical texts themselves: it was realized (it had long been known, but now it was realized with special force) that they had been handed down by a complex and flawed process of transmission. The science of philology was developed to solve the problem of getting back to the obscured originals. Thus arose what is sometimes called "source criticism." Its home area was texts in Greek and Latin. Within Greek, its two areas of primary achievement are the study of the classical Greek writers, and the analysis of New Testament documents, which are written in a later form of Greek. These studies themselves went back to classical times, but in the Renaissance they acquired a new character. They became allied with history in general in the more conscious, more systematic, study of the past.

The partnership of philology and history, in the criticism and the interpretation of the source documents for earlier times, became the standard view during the 19th century. It is embodied in the classic manual of Langlois and Seignobos (1894, and still in print), and in later works down to the middle of the 20th century. That way of thinking, however, has not continued strong. At present, text philology is not generally recognized as a concern of historians, and it is taught, if at all, only in Departments of "Classics" and Schools of Theology, where Greek in particular is still a working language. This isolation of a key technique from its practice as part of history has impoverished both philology and history, but perhaps especially the latter. Naïveté among historians about the dangers of the sources they use, and how to deal with those dangers, is more widespread now than at any time since the Renaissance. To get back on the wagon, students of History will have to reclaim this heritage outside the course offerings of the Department of History.


A related and also injurious development in the structure of academe is the abandoning of ancient history in History departments. What replaced it was modern history. It took a long time, and a great deal of academic debate, before modern history was recognized as a valid subject. When it was so recognized, it proceeded to oust ancient history, more or less completely, from the departmental agenda. The average History Department today tends to agree with its Political Science counterpart, which holds that time began with the Peace of Westphalia (1648), considered to be the end of the Holy Roman Empire and the beginning of the modern way of doing things. It also holds that the modern way of doing things can be studied in a vacuum, without reference to anything older. Modern history as an autonomous discipline has no place for anything before 1648. It has little enough place for anything more than twenty years removed from the present. Now, the value of philology increases as we work at an increasing distance from the present. Its usefulness to more recent subjects, though real, can to a certain extent be downplayed or successfully overlooked. On the whole it has been overlooked. It is widely assumed that recent documents are in principle unproblematic, that when you have gotten hold of them, your troubles are over. Hence it is that manuals of research tell you how to find documents, but don't caution you about what may still need to be done with them once you have found them. That documents may lie, or may be difficult to interpret, is not a concern that weighs heavily in the regular practice of modern historians.

So also with languages. Modern European ones are often thought to suffice. Training in those and all other languages is delegated to other departments. Those other departments will sometimes also pick up responsibility for any study of the premodern histories of those cultures. So the Classics Department of a standard American university will not only teach the Latin and Greek languages, it will also be responsible for the subjects of Latin and Greek literature, and perhaps also of Roman and Greek history. But since for other reasons the perceived core discipline of these departments is linguistic, not historical, ancient history has a limited place in their planning too. The result toward which all this tends is that ancient history is abandoned or marginalized by all the departments that might be its logical disciplinary home. And without ancient history, modern history too readily imagines itself as technically no more complicated than reading, and remembering, the morning newspaper.

Dancers, Trobriand Islans


One relatively recent enthusiasm in the West has been for the study of cultures which have no written history, or written records of any kind. These are of two kinds: contemporary "primitive" cultures and remote or "prehistoric" cultures. Both were first envisioned as places where theories of the origin of civilization and the rise of humankind could be tested or discovered. Studying contemporary tribes requires direct observation, interview techniques, cultural immersion, and other skills not commonly possessed by standard armchair historians. Studying remote civilizations requires digging up and interpreting objects, and these skills are not part of the conventional historian's equipment. These enterprises therefore wound up in separate academic Departments of Anthropology or Archaeology, where the needed skills could be inculcated without having to argue with the conventional historians about whether they were worth the money.

A modern university department requires a raison d'etre in the form of a distinctive "disciplinary" methodology: a body of doctrines which are possessed only by members of that department, and which are both necessary and sufficient for its allotted tasks. Anthropology therefore formulated doctrines of interpretation which rely only on field observation and/or on material objects recovered from excavations. Self-sufficiency was the goal. History played no part in the self-definition of these disciplines.

The anthropological study of the Trobriand Island tribes, and the archaeological study of Cro-Magnon man, went their way without raising issues for conventional historians. But in the study of literate civilizations which are also known archaeologically, the two departmental doctrines do meet and clash. Both the historian (conventionally so called) and the anthropologist feel that their tools and body of evidence can give a complete account of, say, ancient China. As Finley long ago said of the study of ancient Greece, both are wrong. What is needed is a skillful interpretation of material and literary evidence, guided by firm technique and adequate method on both sides. Individuals may try to bring the evidence together, but no existing academic department is going to play the host to that combined effort.

The catch is this: it is only the combined effort that would deserve the name of History.

The Harder Sciences

Dating of objects by carbon 14 tests, dating of events by astronomical calculations of ancient eclipses, glimpsing the ecosystem as encoded in pollen remains and ancient climate as frozen in ice cores, reading ancient economic patterns from the composition of coin hoards and the statistical distribution of trade goods, are an increasingly vital part of retrieving the past. They use evidence that lies beyond the competence of the usual reader of texts. "History" as a department is usually situated in the Humanities, and Anthropology in the Social Sciences. These other methods take us even further away, into the domain of the so-called Sciences. As academe is now configured, none of these departments could legally take responsibility for the historical enterprise in all its range and variety.

Our suggestion, made elsewhere in these pages, is that history be reunified under the aegis of Physics, with Oppenheimer in charge. This may be difficult to realize in practice. For one thing, it is not absolutely certain that Oppenheimer would take the job.

In the absence of overall institutional coordination, and in the absence of systematic individual cooperation, and lacking an atmosphere of acceptance for all the relevant tools, interested individuals will have to equip themselves by their own efforts. They will not need to do radiocarbon dating, but they will need to learn to speak the language of those who report the radiocarbon results. What is worse, those making such an effort will have to anticipate that their effort will be not supported, and may even be penalized, by the thesis advisors and tenure committees which lie along the career paths of individuals. Those coming up the Anthropology side of the tree will need to develop, again on their own and against the grain of their disciplines, a collegial attitude for those who come to the common problems via the text-based side of the tree.

Such is the bottom line. We wish things were otherwise, but we feel obligated to report them as they are. Good news is always best. If we can't get good news, we will have to make our peace with accurate news. We hope that the pages of this section will be of some help to those individuals who are trying to reconstitute, in their own practice, a responsible and comprehensive science of history. May they and their students nudge the world a little bit toward putting that enterprise back together.

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27 Feb 2004 / Contact The Project / Exit to History Page