Reflecting on “Mapping History” & “Historical Consciousness”

Historical Consciousness in the Modern Age paints a very important evolution of the importance of history over time and how it has changed in the opinions of great thinkers over time. This essay is a fantastic opening to our second reading Mapping the Discipline of History, which provides the basic framework of academically approaching history. Both pieces are dense and thought provoking, especially when their ideas are set against current events. I found myself trying to use Gilderhus and Jordanova’s examples and build onto them in modern context- particularly about popular issues such as technology’s effect on history, movements like second wave feminism, or events involving both such as the popular hashtag Black Lives Matter. Overall, I think I have left these readings with a better understanding of how to not only approach subjects of the past but history as it is being made.

Gilderhus’ Historical Consciousness in the Modern Age was far more easy to navigate. Though I had no idea walking into it, there was a breakdown of medieval historiography and it shaped how we look at history today because the study of history departed from religion and became evidence based. Leopold van Ranke, a scholar of the Renaissance, and many other great scholars would put weight on various aspects of history and begin to treat it like a science before it could be academically acceptable. Enlightenment thinkers were torn over approaching history at all, Voltaire’s opinion of the study needing a purpose, specifically its need to contribute to the Enlightenment to be deemed worthy was apparently not alone. Better yet, some go on to disagreed that it needed to contribute but insist that it had no reoccurring purpose. I am looking at you David Hume. Better still, some of our most respected figures in history completely wrote historiography off, such as René Descartes. On and on Gilderhus went, explaining the struggle of embracing history as a field until he reached Giambattista Vico who truly approached history scientifically and created a theory of three steps of analyzing societal changes and declaring three ages of humanity.

Vico’s first, Sensation, was barbaric and cruel with a government as a theocracy. My first thought went to early Islamic Civilization, the first unity of Arabia being by the prophet Muhammad. Despite unity of clashing clans there was still a significant amount of violence, even for it being led by a self proclaimed peaceful religion. The second, Imagination, brought chivalry and an aristocracy focused on war. The Crusades could be seen as a shift into this and then the early monarchies of England and France could also fall into this category, or so I think. Vico’s last phased was Reason, Reflection, and Rationality with an egalitarian democracy. This is where I struggle to say that we have actually achieved the third step. There’s so much war going on in the world, even in the democratic United States, and has been for so many years, can we say that our government has left the term “warring” behind? I don’t think so, and like the Crusades, I find myself thinking that there are transition periods in societies between Vico’s ideas.

Overall I loved this piece, a bunch of great writers, thinkers, and politicos bickering about what matters. In the end it all matters but it truly paints what was important to every era up to our present day. Undoubtedly, this paints a picture that present methods and “important events” will shift in a century and more. As history became studied, Gilderhus explained that most people focused on the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, Germany, and professional history through archival researching. Ludmilla Jordanova would then explain that as the field grew academically focuses would shift, theories and approaches would expand, and the study of history would no longer be “doable” with its previous methods.

As dense as history itself, Mapping the Discipline of History tries to explain the most common and basic approaches to understanding history so that it can actually be studied. The first thing she lays out is that disciplines are composed of theories, methods, approaches, and bodies of knowledge, quickly striking down the concept of history being a body of knowledge because the field as a whole can not be explained as a whole because it doesn’t acknowledge historical perspectives or the blurry boundaries and layers of the field. I can agree with that, as she said and as my first thought was, if one is to look at history methodically it pulls from every which way. As long as there are people involved a mixture of experiences and opinions can change the shape of how a phenomenon is viewed, and even over time the viewers own experiences and changes throughout history will also blur those lines further. Jordanova explains these overlapping classifications need to be broken down to make the study navigable and breaks things down very heavily so that undergraduates can know how to focus their studies.

Sources are a big focus of both pieces of reading. Gilderhus discusses the preservation of ancient documents helping historians and Jordanova calls primary source material that is preserved a bit of luck. Happenstance is probably more accurate in my opinion because as more material is preserved by technological advancements we are seeing that not everything that is saved is particularly meaningful. Jordanova discusses the “Anne Frank” effect in which the weight of a piece of source material is entirely dependent on the reader and could likely be used not to its original purpose. Furthermore, she goes on to say that as accounts grew of Anne Frank a larger image of the history could be provided. However, I must confess that I lean more towards all stories are relevant. No, I am not saying that Anne Frank’s story should change the meaning of the Holocaust or World War II, nor am I saying that it has any more weight than the stories of the millions of other people killed by Nazi Germany. Simply put, it does give a perspective of the events from an uncommon vantage point. Furthermore, I was surprised to learn that even the lines of the definitions of primary and secondary sources were blurred. However, no matter how blurred, we should always be focused on source credibility, an ever present hurdle in our field and a subject that she leaves to a few bullet points no more detailed than what is reiterated in grade school. Soon there after she really begins to break down the complexities of navigating history and separating its layers.

The basic kinds of history, according to Jordanova, include political, social, and economic history but can be further broken down to period, method, theories, places, type of human being, and institutions. Again, she also emphasizes that these layers tend to blur and overlay. Most political history is seen as history from above but the field is not complete without the little person’s view of political events and that would be bottom up history. She then argues that the more structured the institution the easier it is to separate layers. Once again I looked to Islam and theocracy, studying Islamic Civilization requires quite a bit of jumping from these three basic approaches. Social history is seen as an approach but the definition of this kind is heavily varied with some people seeing it as a study of the mundane, some as a study of society, others as a study of motifs, or a study of locational togetherness. A particular movement I can see further blurring the lines of social history would be the Black Lives Matter phenomenon.

Jordanova doesn’t stop here, she goes on to explain other approaches such as histoire totale, probably where an understanding of the Black Lives Matter campaign could best flourish. Here human phenomena are intermingled with other disciplines and there are two forms; biography and cultural history. However, is microhistory problematic because its divides? Is it too focused and therefore making too many assumptions about the bigger picture? Jordanova says assumptions are necessary and will shape the history’s scholarship, rightfully so, but it’s important to know your assumptions roots and the assumptions made by the content we study. This can be done by being aware of things like context, differences, process. All of these things are necessary, regardless of the approach.

She points out that place is the most common behind the aforementioned three basics but that there are pros and cons to this approach of division such as a disregard to constructions (too many assumptions) and that it encourages thinking about diverse historical events and how they relate to one another. Oral history and economic history are also briefly discussed, clarifying that oral is more mathematical but that data significance can be biased, so once again we are warned to approach with open eyes to where our sources are coming from and the context with which it is presented. Additionally, Jordanova warns that economic history isn’t mathematical but actually an acknowledgement of production and consumption as separate entities, arguing that it is poorly integrated to other disciplines. Thematic and theory-based history are also noted, the former being a study on high culture and the latter applying theorists, that are not usually historians, methods to history and allowing an understanding of unconscious behavior into understanding events. While thematic history is a look at things not usually interpreted as a unit it can still be insightful. Many historians argue that psychoanalysis, however, is highly problematic because individuals can not be mentally picked apart post mortem. As an introvert that has to forcefully act extroverted, no matter how exhausting behind closed doors, I cringe at the thought of being analyzed after my death but see it as a necessary evil to someone better understanding my work. Wouldn’t we rather have two different studies of psychoanalysis than none?

Overall, both these works created more questions than answers for me and I look forward to looking into the growth of the study, the methods of study, and the debates to come. I believe both presented a helpful explanation on why the field matters and solid methods for approach. While I may not have agreed with everything, particularly in Jordanova’s work, I think that it shows that the study and our methods are ever-changing just as Gilderhus presented. Unlike most, perhaps, my opinions may be slightly more pessimistic in that technology will only make our work harder as time marches on; however, harder does not have to be synonymous with any less worthy, as some pessimists used to think. As the ever elusive “they” say, onward and upward.

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