Historical Consciousness and Mapping the Discipline

“Historical Consciousness” by Mark Gilderhus is essentially a history of history. That is, it attempts to trace different interpretations and understanding of history by historians through the Early Modern Period coming into the modern world. It begins with Petrarch (after broadly painting the Medieval world) and ends with Marx.
It’s my understanding that Petrarch is responsible for coining the term “Dark Ages” to refer to what is now called the Medieval Period. It’s relieving to me to see scholars breaking from the term. Certainly not a good term to use to refer to the time Oxford University was founded and Sainte-Chapelle was built.
I like Collingwood’s insight a lot, referring to Enlightenment historians as: “polemical and antihistorical.” It’s funny to see Voltaire and other Enlightenment philosophers insist that humanity has entered a new age of reason when their time saw such massive bloodshed, and in the case of conflicts like the French Revolution, the Enlightenment philosophers themselves formed part of the inspiration for widespread violence.
Due to my personal interest my favorite parts of this essay were the references to the 17th Century and the English Civil War. It states: “This subject over the years has preoccupied many students of English history as the nation’s central and formative experience.” I would take it a step further and claim it’s not only the central and formative experience of England, but in many senses the United States as well. I would agree with Hume that the Puritans’ dogmatism is case in point in terms of overthrowing the monarchy in favor of a disconnected abstraction (though Cromwell eventually distanced himself from the more radical flavors of the revolution). I would say however that the French revolutionaries were just as dogmatic and dangerous, but with faith in “reason,” whatever that meant, rather than Puritan Christianity.
As for the other essay, “Mapping the Discipline,” it was, as the name suggests, a broad overview of history as an academic discipline. A part that stood out to me early on was this: “Most obviously, for a long time countries have generally been led by individuals, together with small elites, in many parts of the world. Thus ‘politics’ is easily identified and is often seen as what really counts.” The implication here seems to be that in modern, more democratic systems the government is less transparent and that there is widespread doubt about which forces “really count” in contemporary politics. It’s an interesting thought.
The line: “There are a lot more posts in the USA, where academic life built on politicised identities has been considerably more successful.” I have to wonder whether this is a good thing. It could be because the very foundations of the USA, unlike Britain, as a country are political and ideological (Whig).
I liked the insights about the difficulties of analysing history by country, especially when dealing with recently united countries like Germany and Italy. There doesn’t seem to be an obvious solution, but the problem is definitely there. The note about the British not always having beenĀ laissez-faireĀ reminded me of how much English and American revolutionaries would invoke the myth of the “free” Anglo-Saxons, suppressed by the Norman Yoke.
Interesting that Marxism is waning in developments. I wonder what the future holds if Marxist interpretations continue to decline and/or not develop.

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