Sunday, January 02, 2005

The Failure Of The Historicists

Thanks to Matt Welch for passing along this George Will column, the relevant part being

... many small historians believe their function is to deny large men any laurels. [Historian David Hackett] Fischer sternly reprimands such historians who have ``served us ill'':

``In the late twentieth century, too many scholars tried to make the American past into a record of crime and folly. Too many writers have told us we are captives of our darker selves and helpless victims of our history. It isn't so, and never was.''

One reason Americans have made so much history is that they have never believed in History. One of the unfortunate intellectual developments of the 19th century, principally in Europe, was the transformation of history into a proper noun. It denoted a vast impersonal force with its own unfolding logic, governed by iron laws of social development. Marxism was the most consequential doctrine of historical inevitability, but there were others.

Such theories, which are varieties of ``historicism,'' induce fatalism by diminishing mankind's sense of agency. The theories mock the idea of great persons, and the belief that the free choices of small groups could knock History out of its preordained grooves.

Such ideas have largely lost their ability to seize the imaginations of people other than intellectuals, who often are the last to learn things. Still, it is exhilarating to be reminded by historians like Fischer just how radically wrong the historicists were, and are.

Which is to say, if the economists refuse to listen when the geologists tell them oil is becoming scarcer and we have no alternatives lined up, neither do the doomsayers listen to the economists when the latter say that alternatives are possible. Millions, billions, even, don't have to die.