I’ve been thinking a lot about Gordon Wood’s ideas on the differences between history and political theory. In his book The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History, Wood briefly reflects on his conception of these differences. One passage in the book is particularly noteworthy and worth quoting in full:
Political theorists, especially those influenced by the ideas of Leo Strauss, tend to believe that the history of political thought can be studied as a search for enduring answers to perennial questions that can enhance contemporary political thought. Historians, on the other hand, tend to hold that ideas are the products of particular circumstances and particular moments in time and that using them for present purposes is a distortion of their original historical meaning. It doesn’t follow from this distinction that past ideas cannot be legitimately used in the very different circumstances of the present; of course, they can be used and are used all the time. Jefferson’s idea of equality, for example, has been used time and again throughout our history, by Lincoln as well as Martin Luther King, Jr. Historians contend that such usages violate the original historical meaning of the ideas and cannot be regarded as historically accurate, but they don’t deny the rationality and legitimacy of such violations.
Such distinctions and violations are indeed necessary for contemporary discussions of political thought and are no great sin, as long as the theorists are aware that they are not being historically accurate. It’s the theorists’ claim that their present-day use of past ideas is true to the original way they were used in the past that historians quarrel with. Ideas, of course, do not remain rooted in the particular circumstances of time and place. Ideas can, and often do, become political philosophy, do transcend the particular intentions of the creators, and become part of the public culture, become something larger and grander than their sources. Political theory, studying these transcendent ideas, is a quite legitimate endeavor; it is, however, not history (162-163).
Wood expresses his concern that historians run the risk of thinking “unhistorically” by manipulating past ideas to fit our understanding of political conditions in the present. He worries that holding people from the past responsible for a future they could never envision or conceive in their own time leads to a poor understanding of past ideas within their own historical context – “the original way they were used in the past.” Thus, when politicians like Lincoln and MLK use the past to justify their political philosophies in the present (a common, rational practice then and now), they are distorting and violating the values of historical thinking, according to Wood. Historians analyze change over time and help us understand how our contemporary world came into being, but to use past ideas as a framework for establishing political theories in the present is not history. As Wood comments later in the book, “I suppose the most flagrant examples of present-mindedness in history writing come from trying to inject politics into history books . . . Historians who want to influence politics with their history writing have missed the point of the craft; they ought to run for office” (308).
These are sharp, intelligent reflections on the historian’s craft, but I think the extent to which politics plays a role in historical thinking is more of an open question than Wood would like to acknowledge. For one, it’s hard to imagine a history book free of politics because the past and present hold a reciprocal relationship with each other that makes it nearly impossible for us to get our politics out of the past. It is often assumed that the past shapes how we view the present, but less often do we acknowledge that the present shapes our conception of the past. It’s probably true that a place like Ferguson, Missouri, has been shaped by a past legacy of racist government policy and white supremacy, but it’s also true that the political ramifications of a 2014 police shooting of a black teenager by a white cop in Ferguson (regardless of the case’s final outcome) shape our conceptions of what, exactly, that legacy of racist government policy and white supremacy means for our history.
Public historians must also face these sorts of questions because so much of what they do is inherently political. The National Council on Public History defines public history as a set of practices aimed at “describ[ing] the many and diverse ways in which history is put to work in the world. In this sense, it is history that is applied to real-world [i.e. present-day] issues.” And a recent essay on the NCPH’s blog, History@Work, praised the efforts of a federal district court judge to provide a historical context for explaining her opposition to a 2011 Texas Voter ID law, arguing that this case was an example of putting history to work in the world. These sorts of present-day uses of the past seem to contradict Wood’s distinction between history and political theory.
What is a historian of racism, Jim Crow, and the police state supposed to do with a political hotcake like Ferguson? If that historian embraces Wood’s avoidance of politics in history writing, he or she may choose to focus solely on the political ideas surrounding these topics from around 1830-1890 or a period of that sort, focusing on how these ideas materialized within the context of that period without mentioning or connecting them to present-day politics. But a critic of this approach might argue that limiting a discussion of these topics to the nineteenth century is in itself a political act that also leaves out a crucial piece of the historical narrative. Critics might also invoke the arguments of other historians like Howard Zinn, who asserted in 1970 that “we can separate ourselves in theory as historians and citizens. But that is a one-way separation which has no return: when the world blows up, we cannot claim exemption as historians.”
Food for thought.