“Not By Fact Alone”: The Making of History

Open—Year
History, like memory, is a reconstruction and, as such, does not call out to us to be seen or heard. Instead, we seek and discover only what our perspective illuminates. For the Puritans, history was the unfolding of providential design; purpose, like the seed of a plant, was always present in the unfolding of events. For Enlightenment philosophes, history was the story of progress effected by human reason; purpose in this case was a human triumph, such as the triumph of medicine over prayer. For Marx, history was the story of class struggle; in this case, purpose was no more than following the money trail coupled with the added optimism that, in the end, the scales of justice would be balanced. Each of these perspectives recognized and struggled with the notion that history is, in the final analysis, a fate beyond human control because of the paramount role of unintended consequences that counterpoints the history of societies no less than it counterpoints the life of the individual. In other words, is purpose an artifact of human understanding or woven into the tapestry of history? We will study the different ways in which American and European thinkers from the 17th to the 20th centuries grappled with this question in their writings on history. The course will examine the conflicts and changes in their views on both the nature of the historical process and the way that history should be represented by historians. We will look at how these differences both reflected and contributed to broader intellectual, political, and social changes in this period. Such an examination will demonstrate the ways in which conceptions of history were, themselves, the product of history.