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Posts Tagged ‘European Union’

“The future is dark, the present burdensome. Only the past, dead and buried, bears contemplation.” Thus G.R. Elton in The Practice of History, a book that I read at an impressionable age and so can still quote large chunks verbatim despite disagreeing with most of it. This line has always struck me as particularly, but interestingly, wrong; it encapsulates, tongue in cheek, the essentially conservative view of history as a means of escape into a past that is always conceived as preferable to the present – if only because it’s already over, so human suffering is more bearable (echoes again of Hegel’s account of history as the view from the shore of a distant shipwreck). It’s also linked to an explicit anti-determinism; there is no underlying logic to historical development, so the past speaks only to itself, not to the present, let alone to the future. Stuff happens, and we can grasp it properly only in retrospect. (more…)

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The two most distinctive cries of the professional historian are “the simple answer is, we’re not sure” and “actually it’s rather more complicated than that”. This is how it should be: the past is complex, fragmentary and always in dispute, and it should go against all our instincts and training to pretend otherwise, however much this then annoys other people in dinner party conversations, let alone our colleagues in the social sciences. Of course, this does mean that our potential usefulness to others is strictly limited, unless we bite our tongues a lot; too much damned equivocating (I always think of the famous meeting of historians of Germany summoned by Margaret Thatcher to tell her whether reunification would be a Good Thing or a Bad Thing; well, of course it depends…). (more…)

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