Why History?: A Historian Gives a Historiographical and then Axiological Reply
Donald Bloxham. Why History?: A History, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2020 & History and Morality, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2020.   The identical date that these two impressive volumes on the nature of the historical enterprise were published and that were written by the same author is just one indication that they are… The post Why History?: A Historian Gives a Historiographical and then Axiological Reply appeared first on VoegelinView.




Donald Bloxham. Why History?: A History, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2020 & History and Morality, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2020.


The identical date that these two impressive volumes on the nature of the historical enterprise were published and that were written by the same author is just one indication that they are best studied together. Author of The Great Game of Genocide of 2005[1] on the genocide of the Armenians in the Ottoman empire, Donald Bloxham is a specialist in genocide studies who has written a number of seminal books on the topic and teaches at the University of Edinburgh. In Why History? and History and Morality, both from 2020, he obviously felt it was time to reflect seriously upon the nature of the historical enterprise itself: in the historiographical and axiological senses. Both volumes also have philosophical implications and are certainly complementary. Master historians tend to be hedgehogs in Isaiah Berlin’s sense, burrowing deeply into their subjects and can be rather intimidating at times for foxes such as myself that tend to move from subject to subject in their research. Historical memory is closer for me, which means history is not simply a “foreign country”—as Bloxham indicates some historians relate to the past—but both books are dazzling in their scholarship. In his dedication to History and Morality the author confesses how much he gains from discussing history with others. This review will indeed be a discussion of some points that made the greatest impact on me, as well as an invitation to the reader to explore these valuable volumes for themselves.
Among the goals Bloxham indicated in the introduction of Why History? is to provide an unbiased exploration of the “historical consciousness” throughout the full range of historical periods. On account of the general associations they often raise, these periods are partially misnomers in the author’s view, since he sees much greater diversity within them than many expect, but they nevertheless remain useful chronological markers. Thus, he aims to deconstruct “the medieval-modern opposition” common in his trade by means of tracing “the presence of some allegedly modern thought in the heart of the medieval ‘other’ . . ..”[2] And throughout the book he often enough explores historical consciousness delved into by those not strictly engaged in writing about the past, as early on he indicates “not only scholars are interested in the past, and History, as in the pursuit of reflection on the past, has a correspondingly significant social role to play.”[3]
In the second part of his introduction Bloxham lists eight broad justifications for history that can be traced back to Greek historians, but in one form or another often remain with us to this day. Among them there are History as entertainment, History as speculative philosophy, which is richly discussed later in the medieval period, as well as History as method, which pertains to the importance of methodology, and is presently the least problematic justification. There is also History as identity, the genealogical side of the disciple, which currently “fills the bookshops.” A justification initially pursued somewhat later is History as communion, often related to sacred texts, “and its fortunes have varied along with the state of faith.”[4]
Each period from the Greeks to the contemporary historians are given their due with the historical intellectual context succinctly presented. As Bloxham promises, continuity and change in each period is brought to the fore. If he grants the medieval historical thinkers elements of modernity, a particularly interesting case is where he imbues a fairly modern historian elements of the medieval, at least in a qualified manner. As one of the pioneers who emphasized the importance of archival research for critical historical research, Leopold von Ranke gained the reputation for the association of History with science. But this is a limited and partly distorted perspective on the historian. For one matter, Bloxham adjusts this perception to the historian’s approach being closer to the German Wissenschaft, which does include the natural sciences, but also applies to any body of systematic enquiry. So while the author points out that it is true Ranke thought it was important to let the facts speak for themselves in historical research, i.e., “historians should try to efface themselves” from their work, it is erroneous to consider the historian’s “emphasis on source criticism and validation (. . .) as the alpha and omega of his message.”[5]
There were also more philosophical concerns present in the German historian’s work. While Bloxham stresses it would be an exaggeration to see Ranke as a practioner of the History as speculative philosophy “in the sense of deciphering a suprahistorical process,” he was inclined toward an acceptance of the universal. As Ranke himself put it, “instead of fleeting conglomerations that the [social] contract theories invoke like cloud formations, I perceive spiritual essences, original creations of the human spirit—one might say thoughts of God.”[6] Among his most often quoted sayings is: “All ages are equidistant from eternity.” Bloxham explains this that in Ranke we have the longstanding “Christian hermeneutic concern for the reciprocal illumination gained from considering the parts and wholes in their relations. It combined the precepts of idealism and the established religious belief that individuals carried with them the spark of the divine.”[7]
Although it differed in approach from the medieval period, this was a species of History as religious communion. And this may have not been the end of this justification for History, but by the twentieth century it was certainly in decline. Bloxham suggests that in his association of history informed by hermeneutics “as a discipline of ‘communication’ with others,”[8] what we have in Jürgen Habermas is a rough secular equivalent of History as religious communion.
In the concluding section of the book, Bloxham notes how many of the historical forms for the discipline’s justification are still present, however altered, like in the example of History as religious communion above. The manner of justification that is more recent is History as emancipation, although it has some crossover with History as practical lesson. Like all such schools of thought, it has its varieties, but the bottom line of the most popular version of History as emancipation at present is arguments about value and valuation, of which Bloxham has a number of criticisms.
I believe it is also worth looking at History as emancipation with regard to what has been observed as the decline of moral authority related to the decline of religion (among others) that gave rise to uncertainty on account of a lack of moral authorities. This arguably affects a certain line of value and valuation in the contemporary historical consciousness. As sociologist Frank Furedi claims, a pervasive culture of fear in the West marks this century that includes various forms of competitive scaremongering. He further argues, “Paradoxically, the contestation of moral authority, and the weakening of the moral consensus of what to fear, intensify the tendency to moralize threat.”[9] And this has a powerful effect on how the past is interpreted: “The mentality it cultivates is one that regards the past as a scary and ignoble succession of events, where humanity lacks not only direction but any redeemable qualities.”[10] Often enough, Furedi insists, historians perpetuate this perspective. As a result, “The shift of focus from the historical hero to the survivor of history mirrors the trend towards the emergence of the fragile and vulnerable subject as the central character in the culture of fear.”[11] One might add the fragile subject that requires emancipation.
Bloxham himself argues the main problem with arguments of value and valuation of History as emancipation are that they are not clear, which he claims link it with the more deeply rooted in the historical consciousness History as identity. It is with the latter historical question which he concludes Why History?, and it also largely forms the concluding section of History and Morality. In the latter book the author develops the argument that historians are entitled to a moral stance in their work, since it is often present there whether they acknowledge it or not, and thus it is better for it to be in the open. He reminds his reader that in the historical discipline causation is treated in a humanistic rather than scientific fashion, in other words we could say that similarly to Ranke the contemporary historian is still more engaged in disciplined enquiry than strictly a science. Along these lines Bloxham states: “Insofar as neutrality remains a scholarly aspiration in dealing with foreign countries of the past, it must pertain to the treatment of the values that governed at particular points in the past, not to the treatment of the way in which historical actors within those countries acted in relation to those values.”[12] But even such qualified neutrality is well nigh impossible to maintain, he adds. Among the problems is the cultural context of deeds. “Cultures, in the sense of ways of life,” Bloxham notes, “cannot be meaningfully evaluated. They are immensely complex, multifaceted, and never entirely coherent.”[13]
To no small extent History and Morality is a moral manifesto of a historian’s duty regarding his all too human subject matter. As he meaningfully puts it early in the book,
One of the greatest obligations historians bear is not to caricature or traduce the historical objects of their investigations, and this obligation is honoured by care in depicting what one infers about the beliefs, motives, intentions, and situations of historical actors. The same obligation ought to be honoured for any actor under scrutiny, whether from a millennium ago or last year, whether a Gulag guard or inmate.[14]
This hardly means that a historian should go lightly on his subject matter. For instance, when dealing with crimes against humanity contextualization plays an important role. But what is crucial, Bloxham argues, is how that context is used. In one of the examples in which this problem is brought up, the author discusses an article in which Timothy Snyder—“one of the world’s best historians”—writes about mass murder committed by extremist Ukrainian nationalists on the ethnically Polish population of  the Volhynian territory during the Second World War.[15] Bloxham points out the historian does not deny the “moral import” of the historical actors’ crime in this case; nevertheless he uses context to mitigate their historical responsibility. At one points Snyder does this in an excessive manner, by implying an act of passion was involved in the crime, the emotional nature of which removes full responsibility for their actions. Bloxham sees this as an example not uncommon in historians of context being attributed higher priority than cause in an event, which blurs the evaluation of moral responsibility of historical actors in a given situation.
In his discussion of different moral questions a historian must deal with Bloxham engages a number of moral philosophers, including the virtue ethicists Thomas Nagel and Bernard Williams. One of the moral questions the historian must deal with is whether the identity History he works on makes the intended audience proud or ashamed of its history. In dealing with this question—I am writing this review when the war in Ukraine demonstrates that history has not come to an end—in my view it would have been appropriate for Bloxham to also draw upon the father of contemporary virtue ethics, Alisdair MacIntyre, and this relates to the point made by Furedi above. More specifically the current war in Ukraine has raised the problem of patriotism required to defend a national community. What then is the ethical nature of patriotism? Few have expressed it better than MacIntyre, who argues that being born into a particular community is essential to our moral being. Virtues do not develop in a social vacuum, and so:
If first of all it is the case that I can only apprehend the rules of morality in the version in which they are incarnated in some specific community; and if secondly it is the case that the justification of morality must be in terms of particular goods enjoyed within the life of particular communities; and if thirdly it is the case that I am characteristically brought into being and maintained as a moral agent through the particular kinds of moral sustenance afforded by my community, then it is clear that deprived of this community, I am unlikely to flourish as a moral agent.[16]
This moral grounding involves a number of forms of civic virtues, among them those that are at the foundation of genuine relationships. MacIntyre stresses, “So patriotism and those loyalties cognate to it are not just virtues but central virtues.” Few have demonstrated the patriotic virtues more heroically at present than Volodymyr Zelensky, the leader of Ukraine during the Russian invasion, who decided to stay in his country at the time of its greatest trial in recent memory. Regardless of whether that heroic patriotic effort of the Ukrainians suffices to defend the country, their virtue cannot be denied. And historians will need to deal effectively with this effort. History as lesson—after its decline, which Furedi also implicitly bemoans—might in this way be revived.[17]
Although Bloxham does briefly discuss History as memorialization in Why History?, he does not have much to say about historical memory in either book even though there is a logical connection to the subject in History as identity. And would it be too much to say that historical memory is a form of communion?[18] Since the role of the historian is paramount in these volumes the question arises what is that scholar’s responsibility with regards to the historical memory of a national or other community. Geoffrey Hosking has a response that I believe would be largely in accordance with the gist of Bloxham’s arguments. Hosking acknowledges national memories are vital for the flourishing of a national community, but he warns these memories tend to be selective, and at times succumb to blame shifting. So he argues, “some degree of monitoring of memory is necessary for social solidarity, to ensure that repressed bitterness or grief do not fester among those slighted by selective or distorted memory, and that the present does not blatantly contradict our understanding of the past.”[19] And undoubtedly the historian has a special responsibility in such a virtuous monitoring role. If that historian practices his or her disciple with the moral maxims demonstrated and presented by Bloxham in both of his superlative studies then the community and its historical memory will be well served.


[1] Donald Bloxham, The Great Game of Genocide: Imperialism, Nationalism, and the Destruction of the Ottoman Armenians (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2005).
[2] Donald Bloxham, Why History?: A History (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2020), 8.
[3]  Bloxham, Why History?, 8.
[4] Bloxham, Why History?, 15.
[5] Bloxham, Why History?, 205.
[6] Quoted in Bloxham, Why History?, 209.
[7] Bloxham, Why History?, 208.
[8] Bloxham, Why History?, 314.
[9] Frank Furedi, How Fear Works: Culture of Fear in the 21st Century (London: Bloomsbury, 2019), 119.
[10] Furedi, How Fear Works, 238, 239.
[11] Furedi, How Fear Works, 239.
[12] Donald Bloxham, History and Morality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), 11.
[13] Bloxham, History and Morality, 13.
[14] Bloxham, History and Morality, 17.
[15] See Bloxham, History and Morality, 27–30.
[16] Alasdair MacIntyre, “Is Patriotism a Virtue?” The Lindley Lecture, The University of Kansas, 1984, 12–13. Retrieved from: <https://mirror.explodie.org/Is Patriotism a Virtue-1984.pdf>
[17] I gave a negative example of Ukrainian history taken from Bloxham and the current positive example, taken from history in the making. These are both connected by Ruth Wisse in her “Zelensky the Jewish Hero,” Commentary,” May 1, 2022, 15–19. Moreover, for a Ukrainian response to Putin’s blatant imperial historical policy—that also acknowledges some dark spots in its own history—see Georgiy Kasianov, “The War Over Ukrainian Identity: Nationalism, Russian Imperialism, and the Quest to Define Ukraine’s History,” Foreign Affairs Magazine, May 4, 2022, <https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/ukraine/2022-05-04/war-over-ukrainian-identity>
[18] The link between communion and community is fairly obvious. In terms of historical memory, among others there is the institutional side (e.g. museums), the cultural side (e.g., historical movies) and the ritual side (e.g., connected with anniversaries and parades). Byung-Chuk Han argues the disappearance of rituals in contemporary times—often replaced by “events”—corresponds with the disappearance of community, see his The Disappearance of Rituals: A Topology of the Present, translated by Daniel Steuer (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2020).
[19] Geoffrey Hosking, Trust: A History (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2014), 113.

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Frederic J. Schick (1929-2022)

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