Saturday, September 19, 2020

Marc Bloch's philosophy of history

Marc Bloch wrote The Historian's Craft: Reflections on the Nature and Uses of History and the Techniques and Methods of Those Who Write It. after the defeat of France in 1940. The title suggests that the book is a "how-to" manual for doing historical research, authored by one of the great historians of the twentieth century. But this would be to misunderstand the book. It is something better, more ambitious, and more important than a "users' guide" to becoming a historian. Instead, it is a thoughtful, innovative historian reflecting on fundamental questions in what we can correctly describe as a philosophy of history. It is a reflective book that considers and reflects upon some of the great historians of France and Belgium, often praising but also often criticizing and correcting.

Bloch begins with a fundamental question: what is history? And of course, this is not an easy question to answer. Is history no more nor less than "the past" -- everything that happened? This is not a particularly informative answer. Or more selectively, is history the sequence of important events, kingdoms, leaders, wars and revolutions, inventions, literary innovations, all set within a chronological framework? Even more abstractly, is history the study of great epochs -- feudalism, ancient Rome, the absolutist French state, the Industrial Revolution?

Bloch does not like any of these answers to the fundamental question. Instead, he offers a simple answer of his own: history is "human beings in time". He chooses this answer for several reasons. History is not simply "temporal sequence"; rather, it is the actions, creations, meanings, and life experiences of concrete human beings. Further, human beings are themselves historically conditioned; medieval serfs were different in deep ways from American farmers or contract software coders. They are different, in particular, in their mentalities, their mental frameworks through which they understand themselves and their relations to others. These differences are profound; they involve differences in beliefs, dispositions, ways of framing the world, attitudes towards neighbors, strangers, the gods, and their families. Their "histories" have shaped them into different sorts of human beings.

So for Bloch, the study of history is the study of individuals and groups in social settings in the past, striving, interpreting, and cooperating or competing with each other. Further, it is the study of some of the practices, structures, institutions, belief systems, and inventions that emerged from these forms of human action and interaction. There is no fundamental break between "the past" and "the present" -- rather, human beings and their actions and social relations create and propel change, whether in the year 1000 or the year 1940. And distinctively, Bloch underlines the fact that human actions influence the physical environment; for example, the silting of the river port of Bruges changed the nature of water-born commerce in that great market town.

If human beings and their actions are the key stuff of history, then Bloch is also dismissive of the importance of traditional "periods" of history. Periods are created by historians, not by the ebb and flow of historical events themselves. In Bloch's view of history, change is of fundamental interest to the historian; words change their meanings, place names change, patterns of habitation change, social relationships change, and it is a central task of the historian to chart and seek to understand these various processes of change.

Also of special interest are the creations of human beings throughout our histories. Ideas and ideologies; religious beliefs; social practices; technologies and scientific methods; social structures; and even wars and revolutions are all creations of human beings that the historian is especially interested in probing and investigating.

Bloch links the past and the present in an especially intimate way. The historian needs to be deeply immersed in the ordinary processes and activities of the present, if he or she is going to be ready to understand the actions and thoughts of the actors of the past. Bloch's own experiences of war in 1917 and 1940 provided him with forms of knowledge and understanding that enhanced his ability to understand the medieval world.

Another key question posed by Bloch is whether history is "useful". Can we "learn from history"? Can the study of history improve our chances for a happy and peaceful future? Bloch's view is that the central value and use of history is its intellectual interest for us as human beings, and the significance we human beings attach to our histories. We are historical beings, in the sense that we understand ourselves in terms of the stories and narratives we tell about ourselves. We understand ourselves in the present in terms of the ways that we have constructed and interpreted the steps of human action and meaning that led us to this point. So the key values of history include the intellectual interest we take in understanding the past and the meanings we create for ourselves by discovering and interpreting aspects of our history.

We want to understand the past. And in fact, this is what Bloch regards as the central challenge for the scientific historian: to understand and explain aspects of the past. Historians should discover the pathways and causes through which various historical features came to be. Why did the actors behave as they did in the circumstances? What were they trying to accomplish? What social structures or circumstances influenced their choices, and thereby caused some aspects of the outcomes we are interested in?

Bloch's philosophy of history is an inclusive and open-ended one. He encourages the historian to be multidisciplinary; not confined by periods or places; not focused on "great events and great persons: and to focus historical research on the circumstances of ordinary human beings. His approach is a "human-centered history". And of particular importance, Bloch argues for a wide range of kinds of evidence that are relevant to historical inquiry. He doubts the privileged position of "contemporary documents and narratives," and points as well to the value of non-text sources of historical insight -- ruins, inscriptions, monuments, archeological discoveries, place names, and other apparently mundane and unremarkable "markers" of historical meaning.

Bloch was a founder, along with Lucien Febvre, of the Annales school of historical writing and research. It is not surprising that The Historian's Craft captures eloquently some of the most important and innovative commitments of the Annales school in this important testament of the great historian.

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