THE WORDS OF HISTORY

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ABSTRACT

In From History to Theory, Kerwin Lee Klein writes a history of the central terms of the discipline of theory of history, such as “historiography,” “philosophy of history,” “theory of history,” and “memory.” Klein tells us when and how these terms were used, how the usage of some (“historiography” and “philosophy of history”) declined during the twentieth century, and how other terms (“theory” and “memory”) became increasingly popular. More important, Klein also shows that the use of these words is not innocent. Using words such as “theory” or “historiography” implies certain specific ideas about what the writing of history should be like, and how theoretical reflection on the nature of history and its writing relates to the practical issues of the discipline.

In the second half of his book, Klein focuses more on the concept of memory and the memory boom since the later part of the 1980s. He observes that “memory” came to be seen as a kind of “counterhistory,” a postcolonial, fragmented, and personal alternative to the traditional mainstream discourse of history. Klein does not necessarily disagree with this view, but he does warn us about unwanted side effects. More specifically, he argues that the discourse of memory is surprisingly compatible with that of extremist right-wing groups, and should be treated with suspicion. Although Klein certainly has a point, he presents it in a rather dogmatic fashion. However, a more nuanced version of Klein's criticism of memory can be developed by building on Klein's suggestion that there is an intimate connection between memory and identity.

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