What Isn't History? The Nature and Enjoyment of History in the Twenty-First Century

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Abstract

For decades historians have worked against a backdrop of questions about the nature of their discipline. Since the 1970s this backdrop, influenced by postmodernism, has increasingly been in conflict with their work. Yet relatively few attempts have been made to justify history theoretically. This article attempts to do so in a universally applicable way. It does not directly engage with any particular philosophical critique; rather it attempts to transcend such critiques by redefining history, relocating it from an exclusively professional domain to a wider public one, and relating it to those who ‘enjoy’ it. In order to facilitate this relocation, the concept of ‘free history’– the totality of possible human engagements with the evidence relating to a past event or state of being – is introduced. This allows historical research to be contextualized as the relationship between the public on the one hand and, on the other, those extant objects and texts which can be located at certain points along the central axis of time. In this way, free history highlights the importance of public trust in historians and the crucial role played by objects and texts in limiting the possible re-descriptions of the past. This trust, it is argued, combined with public interest, amounts to a social mandate for historians to explore and write about the past, enabling society to gain a view of itself over time, not just in the mirror of the present moment.

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