on 18 March 2012
John Lukacs, after sixty years of writing and teaching history, has written a book that is a summing up of thoughts about the meaning of those activities. He attempts to describe what history does, how it did that in the past, how that has changed since the rise of a scientific method of enquiry at the time of the Renaissance, and how the study and practice of history might look in the future.
Lukacs stresses the literary nature of history. It is a description of the past, a branch of storytelling (page 1). Writers in the classical period of Greece and Rome described people and events; this tradition was continued by the chroniclers of the Middle Ages, many of them members of monastic orders. With the Renaissance, there arose a consciousness of the past and its significance within western Europe, including England. This affected the concept and practice of history. There was a desire to 're humanise' history (pages 3 to 4), to introduce a more human element into an account of events involving rulers and their courts, to include accounts of the lives of people outside that circle. There developed purposive notions of writing about the past: ideas of development and progress; the concept of epochs of time; a notion of the self as acting upon historical processes as well as being acted upon by them. During the eighteenth century there was a growth of interest in history as literature, alongside a growth of reading for pleasure. Society as a whole became increasingly the subject and object of historical enquiry. History became increasingly subject to the claims of the social sciences, not only their methods, but also their purposes. History as literature became subsumed by scientific method and its notions of research and verifiability according to sources. In Germany and the United States during the nineteenth century, along with the development of universities and the study of history in them, there arose the idea that history as a social science was subject to scientific laws. The most obvious consequence of this was the creation of a 'professional historianship', entry into which was controlled by doctoral research. Another consequence was the growing influence of Marxism, with its own scientific laws about 'economic man' and a deterministic concept of social development (pages 11 to 12).
Lukacs seeks to stand outside from and criticise the shortcomings of these developments. For him history is rooted in literature.It is a description of events, rather than a definition of them (page 47). The professionalisation of academic history has led to its 'bureaucratisation' within universities (page 19). Lukacs turns to Alexis de Tocqueville, whose study of American society provided a thoughtful reflection on the transition of societies from aristocratic to democratic structures ( chapter two), stressing the importance of individuals as well as 'general causes' (page 41), a desire to 'rehumanise history'.The determinism inherent in scientific method, including Marxism, can be counterbalanced by seeing history as literature, and also by considering chance and contingency, the possibilities of alternative narratives. Lukacs is dismissive of 'counterfactual' history (page 46) if what is potentially possible is not plausible, although he does not fully consider the challenges of trying to define what is plausible, except insofar as the gap between an actual and a potential event is too wide to be given credence.
The reading of history has increased in popularity in recent years. This is reflected by the number of books published for a general readership by both academic and non- academic historians. Local history and genealogy are particularly popular. Yet at the same time the study of history has decreased in American colleges since 1970 (pages 64 to 65). This may have coincided with a disillusionment with the ideal of progress away from the past inherent in Marxism and the social sciences.
Lukacs makes an interesting observation in chapters 4 and 5 about the links between history and literature, especially the novel. During the nineteenth century the novel became the pre-eminent narrative and descriptive form of art. During the twentieth century this place occupied by the novel moved in two directions, towards poetry and history (page 127). History moved from the background, as in historical novels such as "War and Peace", to the foreground (page 133). Readers approached history as a source of meaning about social lives as they had previously approached the novel. There are risks here though. Lukacs seems to imply that history as literature, as an imaginative search for meaning, will avoid the determinism and rigidity of history as subsumed into the claims of the social sciences. And yet fiction is a construct (page 111). Epic literature celebrates an idealised rather than a remembered past (page 113). Niall Ferguson, in his introduction to the approach to counterfactual history "Virtual History" (1997), puts his finger on the issue: 'To write history according to the conventions of the novel or play is...to impose a new kind of determinism on the past: the teleology of the traditional narrative form' (page 67). He uses Martin Amis's novel "Time's Arrow" as an example of this, which 'makes explicit what is implicit in all narratives: the end literally precedes the beginning' (page 66).
Lukacs does not entirely succeed in resolving this tension between contingency and determinism in the study of history, but "The Future of History" is a plea for a recognition of history as an imaginative as well as an investigative process, of a return to notions of disinterested scholarship and the eschewing of fads. He quotes Jacob Burckhardt: history does not have a method; 'You must know how to read' (page 10). Lukacs is mercifully free of postmodernism and critical theory, which have done so much to undermine scholarship as the life of the mind, and which have bewitched intellectuals in western Europe and north America. History is necessarily revisionist (chapter 6); one would also say sceptical, including of grand systems of ideology. Lukacs ends with an "Apologia" which states his view that historical knowledge is a 'historical philosophy that is the obverse of a philosophy of history', and that is 'neither wholly objective nor subjective' (page 175).
This is a profoundly thoughtful book, critical and humane in its reflection on a lifetime's study of history. It is an encouragement to others who are also committed to that task.