The Two Purposes of History

Longreads

Underlying the entire conversation was a tension between the two purposes of history, the philosophical or scientific, and the civic. The philosophical or scientific perspective considers the pursuit of historical truth to be of highest value. Like any organized scientific activity, historical research is corrupted when oriented to immediate public ends. Its public value ultimately depends on its autonomy.

The civic purpose of history, on the other hand, is to help a community—a nation, a religious or ethnic group—understand the present in ways that orient that group to the future. The questions asked, and the answers offered, will be ones relevant to the community at large rather than a scholarly community of inquiry.

We need both; in fact the civic depends on the scientific if history is to avoid becoming propaganda or having the preferences of the reading public drive the discipline’s priorities. Before historians can engage the public…

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