On enquiring into history and writing about history

Among the books I managed to finish reading in my Christmas holidays was a fascinating historiographical work by Sebastian Olden-Jørgensen, Ludvig Holberg som pragmatisk histroriker-En historiografisk-kritisk undersøgelse (Museum Tusculanum Press, 2005).

The Danish-Norwegian playwright, Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754) who, among others, wrote some of the funniest plays in the Danish language, was also an essayist, moral philosopher and historian. And it is the reception of his historical works, both among his contemporaries, and subsequent generations of historians, that Olden-Jørgensen addresses so well.

Midway through this thought-provoking historiographical work, the author raises the question that lies at the heart of our discipline – the professional historian who enquires into history and the other, who writes about history. Kristian Erslev (1852-1930), whose methodology all history students in Denmark are introduced to at the onset of their studies, in 1911 described how one was science and the other art; one objective, the other subjective.

This prompted two different lines of thought. Where would one place the memoirs of professional historians like George Iggers, Felix Gilbert, Peter Gay, Saul Friedländer and others who bear witness to the terrible historic events of their childhood or youth? (fn. see Jeremy Popkin’s History, Historians, and Autobiography (2005), Chapter 8, footnote 1, pp. 300-301 for a comprehensive list- and thanks to Albert Baumgarten for recommending Popkin’s book on academia.edu).

Is it merely history writing? And vastly subjective? Or are they valuable in themselves: specifically as an enquiry into their own history within the vortex of the Shoah, generally as sheding light on the difficulties of writing and publishing on the most difficult of themes, the Shoah, and finally, as unique testimonials of eminent historians who have enriched the discipline. For instance, Raul Hilberg’s passage on p. 74 of The Politics of Memory (1996), on the nature of a document, i.e. on what constitutes a document, is superb for its insight, and makes me wonder, if readers have similar examples from elsewhere.

Secondly, in my reading of Ricoeur, it seems to me that he, Ricoeur, addresses both these aspects, of writing history and doing history: in Time and Narrative he explores history writing at the borders of fiction writing, while a substantial part of History, Memory, and Forgetting is devoted to how historians do history. Do historians use these two works in their teaching, I wonder?

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