Remembered Past: John Lukacs on History, Historians, and Historical Knowledge--a Reader


Lukacs, a renowned historian and prolific author, is as interested in thinking about consciousness as he is in history. He believes that no aspect of thought is more crucial to an adequate understanding of the modern age than the emergence of historical consciousness. This anthology serves as an introduction to Lukacs' diverse writings on such subjects as the process of historical thinking, the work of prominent historians, and the tasks of reading, writing and teaching history. Annotation ©2004 Book News, Inc., ...
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Lukacs, a renowned historian and prolific author, is as interested in thinking about consciousness as he is in history. He believes that no aspect of thought is more crucial to an adequate understanding of the modern age than the emergence of historical consciousness. This anthology serves as an introduction to Lukacs' diverse writings on such subjects as the process of historical thinking, the work of prominent historians, and the tasks of reading, writing and teaching history. Annotation ©2004 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"John Lukacs is an original. His opinions, whether on Winston Churchill, Tom Wolfe, or Alexis de Tocqueville, are stimulating, infuriating, profound, never dull. He is a marvelously agile writer who provides the reader great pleasure while he takes him plumbing for the truth." - Witold Rybczynski, University of Pennsylvania

"John Lukacs, a premier intellectual and a historian of enviable breadth and depth, is as wise, witty, and penetrating as he is sometimes infuriating. With clarity, grace, and power, he illuminates the course of modern history, while he disposes of the cant, fads, and silliness that mark much of today's historical writing."-Eugene D. Genovese, author, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made

"It was about time that a John Lukacs Reader should be brought out, to show the public the range and depth of this great living historian's contribution to knowledge, his importance as a thinker and attractiveness as a narrator of events. The editors' generous selection of types of work and subjects warrants changing Reader to Treasury."-Jacques Barzun, author, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present

"Remembered Past is an indispensable volume for the student of John Lukacs's thought ,and more broadly, for any student of history. These collected essays and reviews are as relevant today as they were when first published-indeed, in some cases, even more so. In a field dominated by ideologues who view human beings as simply cogs in the great historical machine, Lukacs restores man to his central place in history and reminds us of the grave moral responsibilities that accompany our free will."-Scott P. Richert, executive editor, Chronicles

"John Lukacs is inimitable; no other elder of our profession can handle such a variety of problems, persons and episodes with a touch so personal and an intelligence so profound."-Geoffrey Best, Fellow of the British Academy

Library Journal
The prolific Lukacs will probably be remembered as a critic of historical method as well as a historian of World War II and the Cold War, and this collection of various essays, reviews, and book chapters is indispensable to anyone wanting a strong and well-supported opinion on significant controversy in the field. However, Lukacs is not everyone's historian; his dismissal of the American "puerility of the 1960s... [which] existed already in the 1950s" signals the deeper problem of a temperament at emotional odds with much historiography of the recent past-which limits judgment rather than sharpening it. Still, this characteristic (which, arguably, he shares with other EmigrE Central and East European intellectuals) can be remarkably useful in some areas. Lukacs's sympathy for Lord Acton, Tocqueville, and Churchill, among others, brings insights to familiar subjects, and historians should appreciate his resistance to the confusion between bourgeois and middle class, for instance. Taken together, these essays are insightfully cautionary at their best and petulantly scolding at their worst, but somehow the good in Lukacs's self-confessed "reactionary" views well outweighs the bad. Recommended for larger academic libraries.-Zachary T. Irwin, Sch. of Humanities & Social Science, Pennsylvania State Univ., Erie Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781932236286
  • Publisher: ISI Books
  • Publication date: 7/31/2004
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 650
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 2.10 (d)

Meet the Author

John Lukacs Was born in Budapest, in 1924, came to the United States in 1946. Until his retirement, he taught history at Chestnut Hill College near Philadelphia. He also held visiting professorships at Columbia, Johns Hopkins, Tufts, and the University of Pennsylvania. A prolific writer, Lukacs's best-known works include The Duel (Yale University Press, 2001), Five Days in London (Yale Nota Bene, 2001), The End of the Twentieth Century and the End of the Modern Age (Ticknor & Fields, 1993), A Thread of Years (Yale University Press, 1999), and Historical Consciousness (Transaction Publishers, 1994).

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Remembered Past

John Lukacs on History, Historians, and Historical Knowledge-Reader
By John Lukacs

ISI Books

Copyright © 2007 John Lukacs
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-932236-28-6

Chapter One

The Presence of Historical Thinking (2002)

When I say that "I am a historian," what does this statement mean? What do people understand by it? Three hundred years ago they would have been unaccustomed to such a designation. Now their first, and most probable, association is: it is this man's occupation. Or, more precisely: it is his professional affiliation. "A historian"-so he is probably employed in some institution of higher education.

I do not wish to object to such a professional designation of myself: but it is not entirely to my taste. Yes, early in my life I chose to become a professional historian, to acquire a necessary degree of certification to enable me to seek such employment, to teach in a higher institution of learning, to be admitted into the guild of professional historians, to be recognized as such. All of this has been of course preceded-and succeeded-by something deeper: by an interest in history, but also by my developing sense of a vocation. Interest, inclination, vocation: three overlapping but distinct phases. The consciousness of such a distinction may appear only in retrospect. But that there is a difference, though of course not necessarily an opposition, between a vocation and a professional identification or certification, ought to be obvious.

A sense of vocation, though perhaps rare, is not necessarily good. Fanatics have such a sense; obsessive minds may have such a sense. At the same time a sense of vocation ought to involve at least some self-searching. Very early in my life and in my professional career I began to be interested not only in certain matters of the past about which I wished to know more and more; not only in certain periods of the past, but also in certain problems of their history; in problems of our historical knowledge. The motives of such questioning are almost always mixed and not easily ascertainable. They may not be separable from personal disillusionments and disappointments (in my case from the pretended objectivism in the writings and from the gray ice on the faces of certain professional historians); but, as in everything else, one may know one's purposes better than one's motives. In my life, this led me, perhaps at an unduly early stage of my "professional" career, to think and read and gather material and plan for a work dealing with problems about our very knowledge of history itself, questions including a few novel and radical propositions. They are there in Historical Consciousness, a book that took me-with various interruptions-almost thirteen years to complete. It was during my work on the first, often convoluted, draft of Historical Consciousness that, sometime in the late summer of 1958, I suddenly found that I might have arrived at what seemed to me an intellectual discovery of considerable magnitude. In any event, that was a crucial stage in my intellectual pilgrimage and in my historical vocation.

This is a personal record. Yet it is not autobiographical. I cannot but cite a great Hungarian Catholic poet, János Pilinszky, who wrote how he had been inspired to recognize this condition by reading St. Augustine and Simone Weil: "There are the personal, the non-personal, and the collective areas of life. One cannot reach the non-personal except from what is personal; from the collective, never. Something must become personal first; after that one may go forward to what is no longer personal."

* * *

All living beings have their own evolution and their own life span. But human beings are the only living beings who know that they live while they live-who know, and not only instinctively feel, that they are going to die. Other living beings have an often extraordinary and accurate sense of time. But we have a sense of our history, which amounts to something else. Scientific knowledge, dependent as it is on a scientific method, is by its nature open to question. The existence of historical knowledge, the inevitable presence of the past in our minds, is not. We are all historians by nature, while we are scientists only by choice.

Modern scientific thinking appeared about three or four hundred years ago, together with a then-new view of the globe and of the universe. It meant the methodical investigation of nature, and eventually the manipulation of a kind of knowledge which, once applied, changed the world and our lives in unimaginable ways. Eventually Science came to mean (mostly, though not exclusively) the Science of Nature: our knowledge of things and of organisms other than ourselves. At the same time, about three or four hundred years ago, there occurred another evolution, first in Western Europe: a passage from a kind of historical thinking that had existed for a long time to a kind of historical consciousness that was a relatively new phenomenon. Of these two developments the importance of the first, of Science, has of course been recognized-with every reason, given its successive and successful applications; the second, hardly at all. Yet it may be argued that the second, involving man's knowledge of man, may have been-perhaps more and more evidently now-as important, if not more important, than the first.

* * *

Shakespeare in Henry V: "There is a history in all men's lives." This poetic phrase has a wider meaning in the democratic age, issuing from a recognition that every person is a historical person (and that every source is a historical source). This is-or rather, should be-obvious. No less obvious is one result of the democratic development of the world. This has been the widening of the nineteenth-century practice of largely political history toward social history, from the history of governments to the history of the governed. (Alas, so many of the proponents and practitioners of the latter have been treating history as a kind of retrospective sociology.) Together with this widening there also have been attempts to deepen the scope and sharpen the focus of historical research. (Alas, so many of the so-called postmodern theoreticians of history have been writing analyses of texts and of statistics employing large quantities of words or numbers in the service of small amounts of thought.)

There is the past; there is the remembered past; there is the recorded past. The past is very large, and it gets larger every minute: we do not and cannot know all of it. Its remnant evidences help: but they, too, are protean and cannot be collected and recorded in their entirety. Thus history is more than the recorded past; it consists of the recorded and the recordable and the remembered past. The past in our minds is memory. Human beings cannot create, or even imagine, anything that is entirely new. (The Greek word for "truth," aletheia, also means "not forgetting.") "There is not a vestige of real creativity de novo in us," C. S. Lewis once wrote. No one can even imagine an entirely new color; or an entirely new animal; or even a third sex. At best (or worst) one can imagine a new combination of already existing-that is, known to us-colors, or monsters, or sexes. There is a startling and corresponding recognition of this condition in Goethe's Theory of Colors. In the preface of that extraordinary and difficult work he wrote that "strictly speaking, it is useless to attempt to express the nature of a thing abstractedly.... We should try in vain to describe a man's character, but let his acts be collected and an idea of the character will be presented to us." And: "As we before expressed the opinion that the history of an individual displays his character, so it may here be well affirmed that the history of science is science itself." This is a prophetic foretelling of Heisenberg and Bohr, who more than one hundred years later were compelled to conclude that the history of quantum theory is quantum theory; or that the best way to teach quantum theory is to teach its historical evolution. William James wrote: "You can give humanistic value to almost anything by teaching it historically. Geology, economics, mechanics, are humanities when taught by reference to the successive achievements of the geniuses to whom these sciences owe their being. Not taught thus, literature remains grammar, art a catalogue, history a list of dates, and natural science a sheet of formulas and weights and measures."

In sum, the history of anything amounts to that thing itself. History is not a social science but an unavoidable form of thought. That "we live forward but we can only think backward" is true not only of the present (which is always a fleeting illusion) but of our entire view of the future: for even when we think of the future we do this by remembering it. But history cannot tell us anything about the future with certainty. Intelligent research, together with a stab of psychological understanding, may enable us to reconstruct something from the past; still, it cannot help us predict the future. There are many reasons for this unpredictability (for believing Christians let me say that providence is one); but another (God-ordained) element is that no two human beings have ever been exactly the same. History is real; but it cannot be made to "work," because of its unpredictability. A curious paradox is that while science is abstract, it can be made to work. Abraham Lincoln (or one's grandmother) really existed; there was and will be no one exactly like him or like her. But the material elements of Science never exist in perfect or unalloyed form. [H.sub.2]O is a most useful definition of water; yet of a liquid that, in reality, does not and cannot absolutely exist: we may find, or produce, a distillation of 99.99 percent [H.sub.2]O but not of 100 percent "purity." Yet because of mechanical causality, scientific knowledge can be put to practical use: to a nearly incredible extent of precision and of predictability it can be made to "work."

One reason for this paradox is the essential difference between mechanical and other historical causalities; that what happens is inseparable from what people think happens. Inseparable: but not identical, and also not enduring. People may be wrong in thinking what happens, and they may have been wrong in thinking what happened. A man thinks that the motor stopped because of the failure of the water pump, whereas it was the oil pump. When he then learns that the real source of the trouble was the oil pump, his realization of the source of the trouble means an increase in the quantity and in the extent of his knowledge. But when it comes to a human event, a later realization that what had happened was not what we thought happened usually involves an increase of the quality of our knowledge, together with a decrease of the quantity in our memory. (Something happens to us today, something bothersome, whereof we can remember the smallest details. A few years later we recall that day, having forgotten many of its details; yet we may say to ourselves: "Why was I so upset about that then?" Or: "Why had I not noticed that then?" The quantity of our knowledge of the details of that day has waned; but the quality of our knowledge-and understanding-of what had happened may have increased.)

Human understanding is a matter of quality, not of quantity. At times it is a (sudden, rather than gradual) synthesis of accumulated knowledge. But this happens not often. The purpose of understanding differs from the scientific purpose of certainty, and of accuracy. We also know that human understanding of other human beings is always, and necessarily, imperfect. There are odd and illogical elements in its functioning. One of them is that understanding may precede knowledge, instead of being simply consequent to it. Another is that understanding, too, depends on memory. We often think that a failure, or defect, of memory amounts to an insufficiency of knowledge. Yet there, too, there is some kind of understanding at the bottom of the trouble, since we both understand and know what we wish to recall, except that we cannot yet bring those words or names or numbers up to the surface of our mind clearly. Another example is the inevitable dependence of understanding on comparison and contrast. That contrast is an inevitable element of color, indeed, of the very act of seeing. An early proponent of this inevitable condition was the Renaissance painter, poet, philosopher, musician, architect Alberti. Critical of the categorical "definitions" of philosophers, Leone Battista Alberti wrote On Painting: "All knowledge of large, small; long, short; high, low; broad, narrow; clear, dark; light and shadow and every similar attribute is obtained by comparison.... All things are known by comparison, for comparison contains within itself a power which immediately demonstrates...." And just as our act of seeing depends on contrast, our knowledge of the present depends on our knowledge of the past.

This dependence of understanding on contrast and comparison does not necessarily mean the relativity of all human knowledge. "But where would we be if we could speak only of things we know with certainty?" asked the sixteenth-century French historian Henri Voisin de La Popelinière-who nonetheless proposed the necessity of advancing to a "complete" history, including much besides the recorded acts and discourses of rulers. Four hundred years later the solitary Russian thinker Mikhail Bakhtin wrote that neither human understanding nor creative thinking is the result of a synthesis. "On the contrary, it consists in the intensification of one's own distinctness from others; it consists in fully exploiting the privilege of one's own unique place outside other human beings." This is not solipsism, not subjectivism, and not even relativism. "This outsidedness must be preserved if solidarity with others is to be fruitful.... Our empathy with others [must be] completed with elements of our own perspective. Sympathetic understanding is not a mirroring, but a fundamentally and essentially new valuation, a utilization of my own architectonic position in being outside another's inner place." Outside, yes: but with the intention to understand the other one, to participate, even if to a necessarily incomplete extent. Of course: love is always the love of another.

But perhaps the most important element of historical thinking is the understanding that our knowledge of history (indeed, our entire knowledge of the past; indeed, even our personal memory) is not and cannot be restricted to "what actually happened," since potentiality is inherent in actuality. This is true of "great" historical events as well as of intimate human situations, because human inclinations, even when they do not mature into definite acts, are essentially potential signs of actualities. As Johan Huizinga wrote: "The sociologist, etc., deals with his material as if the outcome were given in the known facts: he simply searches for the way in which the result was already determined in the facts. The historian, on the other hand, must always maintain towards his subject an indeterminist point of view. He must constantly put himself at a point in the past at which the known factors still seem to permit different outcomes. If he speaks of Salamis, then it must be as if the Persians might still win...."


Excerpted from Remembered Past by John Lukacs Copyright © 2007 by John Lukacs . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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