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Men and Ideas
By Johan Huizinga, James S. Holmes, Hans van Marle
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1959 The Free Press
All rights reserved.
THE TASK OF CULTURAL HISTORY
In the theses that it requires to accompany a doctoral dissertation, Dutch law has retained a relic of an earlier era of learning. Posting and defending theses is an activity that belongs to the days of Abelard, the days of Luther. In the medieval university the thesis and the disputation were the natural media for formulating questions of scholarship. They fitted in that system as intellectual vehicles and in that sphere as spiritual forms. The medieval university was in the full sense of the word an arena, a palaestra, completely parallel to the lists of the tournaments. In it one played a serious and often dangerous game. The activities of the university, like those of knighthood, had the character either of a consecration and an initiation or of a contest, a challenge, and a conflict. Constant disputations in ceremonial forms constituted the life of the medieval university. Like the tournaments, they were one of the serious forms of social play out of which culture springs.
As techniques the thesis and the disputation answered perfectly to the structure of medieval thought and medieval society. Scholars fought with the weapon of syllogism. In its threefold construction it reflected, as it were, the triad of the lance, the shield, and the sword. The doctor and the bachelor, like the knight and the squire, carried noble, matched weapons. The thesis presupposes a well-defined and delimited system of thought, shared by both sides, within which every concept is precisely determined rationally — in other words, a scholastic system. It also presupposes a high degree of cultural conformity among the thinkers. There needs to be a code by means of which people understand one another. Everyone is assumed to have mastered the rules of the game and the art of sparring with formal logic. And finally, the thesis presupposes a certain degree of dogmatism, of rigidity in thinking, an absence of the awareness of a general interdependence and relativity of all our concepts and notions which is the constantly present characteristic of modern thought.
In the present day not a great deal remains of the cultural preconditions for a flourishing of the thesis. These preconditions were still maintained at the time of humanism and the Reformation, and they were even valid to some extent, though less so, in the days of the enlightened rationalism that in the Netherlands inspired the belated and rigid decree on higher education of 1815. They now no longer obtain, and as a result the thesis has become an antiquated medium, a goose quill in the hands of the typist. It retains its value as a pedagogical aid in mathematics, but for the rest its usefulness is limited to that of a convention in the academic ritual. In the nature of things it is more in place the more normative in character the discipline it serves. The less systematic a discipline is, the less use it has for the thesis. In dogmatic theology and in law it can perhaps be of good service now and then. Philology and linguistics have room for it on the fringe of their activities. The historian can easily get along without it. His conceptual world is much too fluid, his conclusions are much too loose, the configuration of his individual notions deviates too much from that of his neighbor for him to be able to catch them in the snare of a thesis or the nets of a syllogism.
Unless, perhaps, it is purely a question of criticism or methodology that is involved. There the form of the thesis, if not necessary, can nonetheless prove practical for history. One can propose a thesis regarding a question of genuineness or falsity, of priority, of derivation. Or regarding questions of the propriety or desirability of a certain method. Such questions, however, are basically not of history itself; they belong only in the forecourt of history.
The author who, after this prologue, attempts to arrange a group of reflections on cultural history under the headings of five theses must almost arouse the suspicion of vain bravura. It all seems like a new proof for the affinity of the doctor and the knight, who also liked to tread the lists with an old, rusty weapon or an unprotected arm. It is, in any case, not as a dogmatist that he enters. Or if one should prefer to justify the form that has been chosen as a hypermodern one, recognition should be given to the value of its concision and definiteness, its ability to attract attention, in brief its "headline" value.
The discipline of history is suffering from the defect that the issues are insufficiently formulated.
Anyone who has the habit of "keeping up" with several historical journals finds it hard to escape a feeling of discomfort now and then on glancing through the references to the flood of countless monographs, articles, and source publications that are being added to the material of history from month to month in every country. He sees the scholars of the whole world working their way further and further into the most minute details. Some letters of an insignificant diplomat in a small state here, the accounts of a pitiful monastery there — a stream of trivia. Each of these studies is a contribution to the historian's knowledge only to the extent that he is interested in the subject as a result of his own study. He hesitantly asks himself: How many minds does each of these countless, laborious products of historical thought reach? And the answer can only be: For each separate study only a few. If it were possible to collect statistics indicating how thoroughly and how widely everything printed is read and absorbed, or what the true ratio is of the labor spent on scholarly production and the intellectual consumption-value of the product as a whole, then we would often shudder. The attention devoted, expressed per page of print, the number of readers per month of research — can one imagine that the figures and graphs would be anything but appalling? If the parable of the seed fallen on stony ground gives us no consolation, then the question cannot be avoided: Is the labor expended by the machinery of scholarship not a hopeless waste of energy?
In the historical discipline, with its necessarily unsystematical character, currents in thought are constantly moving in divergent directions. Only a very few of all these studies seem to point back toward a central core of knowledge. Here the critical scholar voices his opposition, expressing the opinion that they do. Every monograph, he says, is a "preliminary study" for later integration. The material has still not been made sufficiently available, and there has still not been enough critical sifting. Before the major problems can be taken up a great deal more of the details will have to be determined. We are providing the building stones. We are the willing hewers of wood and drawers of water. But our doubts respond: you are creating an illusion of humble unselfishness for the sake of others' future profit. But when the master builder comes he will find most of the stones you have laid ready for him unusable. You are not hewing and chipping, but polishing and filing. And you are doing it because you are not strong enough for more vigorous labor.
Fortunately such an Ecclesiastes mood is not the last word of historical methodology. It is worth the trouble to visualize the actual life-process of a field of study as clearly as possible. Realists that we are, it is hard for us to elude the notion that a discipline is realized somewhere in its entirety as a Gebilde, a "structure." Such a notion seems to prevail with regard to art, and why not with regard to scholarship as well? One can argue without exaggeration that the beauty and the essence of Gothicism are manifest in its chief products, and are realized in their entirety in the minds of quite a number of scholars, even if these have not visited every church. One involuntarily imagines something of this sort concerning the knowledge and the truth of a field of scholarship. I cannot judge to what extent such a concept would apply in a field such as physics. Perhaps it is conceivable that the knowledge of physics in its entirety can be contained in a single brain (which would not necessarily imply that that brain had a command over all the details of physics). Physics and history are natural subjects for comparison because each stands at a pole of the types of thinking obtaining in the sciences and in the humanities: the exact discipline par excellence and the inexact one par excellence. History's opposition to physics leads at once to the opinion that such a wealth of historical knowledge and understanding is in every respect inconceivable. The knowledge of history is always sheerly potential. Not only in the sense that no one knows the history of the world, or even the history of a great realm, in all its knowable details, but in the much more important sense that all historical knowledge of one and the same subject (it makes no difference whether that subject is called Leiden or Europe), has a different appearance in A's mind than in B's, even if both of them have read everything that is to be read. Even in A's head it appears different today from its appearance yesterday. Or rather it does not appear at all, it cannot take on a fixed form at any moment. It can never be more in a single mind than a memory from which images can be recalled. In actuality it exists only for the student who has identified it with what is in "the book."
To know the history of a country means in each particular instance to have so many live concepts at hand, to be so charged with knowledge of the past that one has grown conducive to new notions — that one reacts critically to them and is able to include them in one's conceptions, to assimilate them. In the person himself this situation creates the illusion that those concepts together form an "image." It can be that the conception of one aspect in the mind of one person has a higher cognitive value and even a more universal character than the concept of the whole in another's mind — one need not think in this respect of the scholar versus the schoolboy, but of two trained minds. There are wise historians among the amateurs of local history and dull gleaners of facts among the renowned professors of the universities.
This with regard to the "life" of a discipline in the individual mind. What does it mean when we think of that discipline as an objective spirit, an element in culture, when we speak not of what A or B knows, but of what "one" knows. To give an example, "one" knows nowadays that the Magna Charta was not a liberal constitution stemming from an enlightened and farseeing sense of political and civic responsibility. That is to say, the average cultured Englishman who went to school before 1900 probably does not know it yet. The average cultured foreigner knows only vaguely, if at all, what the term Magna Charta means. But in English education, thanks to the excellent way in which historical research and the teaching of history are being brought in touch with each other in recent years, the more accurate view will now have replaced the traditional one. In this case, then, the subject "one" means in practice either a certain number of minds or the historical discipline considered as an entity. With that we are back to the antithesis nominalism and realism.
The metaphorical terms "scholarship recognizes," "scholarship has demonstrated," are of indispensable and vital value to us. Alongside our concept of the knowledge of the single individual we must also retain the concept of a dynamic magnitude called the discipline of history, which, despite the fact that it is nowhere and never realized in a human mind, nonetheless remains a coherent entity. Seen in this light, the amazing production working only in breadth and never in depth takes on a quite different appearance. It makes no difference whether a historical study is understood by ten thousand readers or by nine. It is quite unnecessary for each monograph to justify itself as a "preliminary study" for a later synthesis. An entity in the cosmos, it has within itself the same right to exist as every blackbird that sings and every cow that eats grass. The historical discipline is a cultural process, a function of the world, a paternal house with many mansions. Its specific subjects are innumerable, and each of them is known by only a few. But the spirit of each age determines anew a certain congruence, a harmony, a convergence in the results of research which only seem to diverge. In every intellectual period there is an actual homogeneity of historical thought, though that homogeneity is not realized in the brain of any one thinker. Manifesting itself in totally diverging knowledges of totally differing things, there is nonetheless a certain catholicity of learning, a consensus omnium, though one that admits an endless variety of knowledge and opinion. In every separate domain the results of diligent research aggregate into a like number of hearths of enriched learning. Not in the sense that the knowledge of details obtains its value only on the appearance of the man of synthesis who draws conclusions from it, but in the sense that the international exchange of scholarly products determines along which lines a newly defined concept of a certain historical subject shall be formed. For example, work is being done on the history of tithes in France, in Italy, in Germany, and elsewhere. A definite, accurate knowledge of the subject in general exists in reality for a few and in potentiality for everyone. What is actually meant when reference is made to "the present state of knowledge" regarding a certain subject? Let the subject be Metternich. No one knows everything contained in Heinrich von Srbik's Metternich, probably not even the writer himself, if knowing means retaining in one's mind or one's memory. Yet it could be said that this book, balanced by the comments of Srbik's adversaries, represents the momentary state of knowledge regarding the subject Metternich. From this it is immediately apparent how vague the significance of such an expression as "the state of knowledge" must necessarily remain.
If, then, one recognizes the existence of a discipline of history as an objective spirit, a form of understanding the world which exists only in the minds of countless persons taken together, and of which even the greatest scholar has, to speak in the language of the old mystics, received "only a spark," that leads to a heartening consequence. Such a recognition implies the rehabilitation of the antiquarian interest spurned disdainfully by Nietzsche as an inferior form of history. The direct, spontaneous, naive zeal for antiquated things of earlier days which animates the dilettante of local history and the genealogist is not only a primary form of the urge to historical knowledge but also a full-bodied one. It is the impulse toward the past. A person thus impelled may want to understand only a small bit, an insignificant interrelationship out of the past, but the impulse can be just as deep and pure, just as gravid with true wisdom as in the person who wishes to encompass the heavens and the earth in his knowledge. And is not even the most humble labor enough for the pious man to serve his Lord?
Therefore it is not necessary for the researcher in details to justify the scholarly importance of his work with an appeal to its preparatory character. His true justification lies much deeper. He meets a vital need, he obeys a noble urge of the modern spirit. Whether his work yields tangible fruits for later research is, relatively, of secondary importance. In polishing one facet out of a billion he manifests the historical discipline of his day. He achieves the living contact of the mind with the old that was genuine and full of significance. Reverently handling the dead things of the past, he gradually realizes the value of small but vital truths, each of them as costly and as tender as a hothouse plant.
We seem now to have swung from an Ecclesiastes mood to a tone that is more optimistic than the negative content of our thesis would lead one to expect. So all's well with history, and every quack and historical plodder may look upon himself as a little arhat of the discipline. So it would be if everyone were wise, and if history were not a necessary of the schools as well as a necessary of life. Today every field of study is a gigantic national and international organization, quite aside from the value of the net product of its activities. And like every organization, it cannot escape the pressure of the system and the effect of the general process of mechanization, the result of our modern, perfected, all too smoothly functioning cultural media. Today the apparatus of historical study comprises not only universities with their system of seminars, examinations, and dissertations, but also academies of science, institutes and associations for the publication of source materials or the furthering of special historical studies, journals, educational publishers, congresses, committees of intellectual co-operation, and so forth. Each of these facilities wants to be and needs to be active, demands production, requires material. The new issue of the journal has to be filled, the publisher has to bring new books on the market, the publication institute has to forge ahead. The young historian must demonstrate his abilities in a dissertation and in articles, the older one must show that he is not napping. Summing all this up in its outward form as the apparatus of a discipline does no injustice to the sublimity or the fervent vitality of the aspiration impelling civilized man toward that discipline. An indomitable zest for knowledge is the foundation of all things, including the apparatus of a discipline. I am merely observing that the "business" of a discipline not only is based on the free intellectual labor of scholars; in order to make that labor possible a social vehicle is needed, one that works more impressively and compellingly the more the discipline is perfected. The mill is grinding and has to grind. What is it grinding?
Excerpted from Men and Ideas by Johan Huizinga, James S. Holmes, Hans van Marle. Copyright © 1959 The Free Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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