The Writing of History

Writers write for audiences which are presumably well defined in their minds. Their manuscripts are narratives addressed to their imaginary circle of friends and admirers who they entertain and cajole by the twists and turns of their extended tales.

Historians, on the other hand, have three audiences, and they address their comments to each in turn.


First, each historian speaks to his predecessors, corrects them where deemed necessary because of their inadvertent exclusions or misinterpretations. If exclusions were “inexcusable” because the data was readily available to them with a little additional effort, it is likely that the culprit will receive a shellacking and be condemned. More often, however, exclusions are due to the stark fact that new data appeared and filled in details previously missing, rather than force continuity upon earlier writers who had relied on their historical imagination, who substituted conjecture for missing data.

The second audience of a historian are his/her contemporaries, many of whom are assumed to be already familiar with the episodes to be discussed or the main characters of the narratives. Often it happens that the themes discussed are “modish”, are driven by contemporary problems. What roles did “spies” play in earlier periods? Did they exist at all and what credence was placed on their testimonies? Recently there has been a spate of books and television programmes on Henry VIII and his chequered times, yet few readers or viewers will be familiar with the life and times of many of its “minor” characters, including its spies, who nevertheless contributed to the “story-line”. Christopher Marlow, Antony Bacon or Sir Francis Walsingham were all actors engaged in spying, but the first two had minor parts whereas Walsingham was prominent as a defender of Protestantism and of English/Scottish independence from European hegemony, and had his “men” placed in several capitals of Europe.

The third audience a historian has in mind when writing is less palpable: unborn generations of readers who view their received legacy through the eyes of past writers of note. The historian see himself/herself as someone who may influence the future by providing an interpretation and a record of this past. Their influence may be minor or, on the model of Gibbons amongst others, be writers of considerable significance. It may be short-term effect — as in the case of H.G. Wells — or long-term, as Julius Caesar or Cicero have been. Generations of British leaders were schooled in both these classical authors during their school-days and as university students.

I am sure some writers do not recognize themselves as aspiring to such lofty heights but view themselves as journeymen, not prophets. All honour to such writers and purveyors of “truths”. Let us agree, furthermore, that historians are ill-advised to see themselves as politicians, as influencing by their writings or teaching the distant future, except indirectly. For the truth is that historians are ill suited to that task and — generally speaking — they are more honourable in their intent than most politicians. The interpretation of the past may influence our future actions as individuals or as communities, but how this plays out remains a puzzle and is best left to future historians to discern for each historical period.

Two or More Cultures?

My earlier entry on Clarification and Definition is one of many which reflect my long standing interest in philosophy, particularly how my own major discipline, experimental psychology, has been influenced by ideas of Western philosophy.

Now that I am retired and have no laboratory to retreat to and no white-coated laboratory associates to hang out with, I spend much of my time writing about issues which have always interested me, yet which are often broader than those dealt with in a research setting. These interests stretch over a wide range: art, theatre, music, cultural history, as well as the natural and the human and behavioral sciences. I have never been a “one culture” person, as outlined in C. P. Snow’s celebrated BBC Reid Lectures of 1959 on “The Two Cultures,” but like so many others of my generation I combined a strong dominant interest in my profession as well as in aspects of the general culture of which I am a part. I see no conflict between being intensely interested in modern technology and its sister, contemporary science, and retaining a healthy passion for traditional cultural activities and its wondrous artifacts.

Image: Matt Collins, see below for credit

A strong interest in both cultures therefore seems to me to be perfectly compatible with living in the 21st century. One can keep in step with both worlds and accommodate to the extent that is possible with the rapid changes in the world of science and the increasing pace in all aspects of our culture. I often feel like a child in a toy-shop waiting for the toy-maker to bring out more from his presumably messy workshop. The old is being eroded and the face of the new barely distinguishable through the dust of our old demolished Europeanized world. We face not one or two cultures in the future, but a multiverse. It may be something to look forward to for those brave enough to face the choices.*

C. P. Snow, whose novel The Masters was a brilliantly vivid portrait of the life of Oxonian an Cambrian academics and its students before “the Fall” shows how significantly changed we have become since the collapse of Europe. Our universities are in disarray and our vertical culture, too. “Downton Abbey” is down, shabby, and condemned to extinction as are all who lived in it. A terrible culture when looked at through the naked eye, a monster when viewed through critical eyes. Is this the culture which I see before me whose virtues are praised in much of the literature during the rule of the last century? Are we not misguided to hanker after a culture whose greatest achievements for three hundred years was nationalism and colonialism and endless wars? Undoubtedly Science, Literature and the Arts emerged in splendour out of this troubled sea – like a Botticellian Venus — but did so with heavy price.

We need a better understanding of ourselves and our world to get to the other side of this great divide between our past and our future. Can we do so by learning from past errors? I evidently think so. It involves clarification, analysis and criticism and this in turn requires us to hanker after brave new worlds, not dilapidated chintz. One cannot predict visions of the future: children’s comics do so but combine fascinating possibilities with monstrous visions of barely imaginable mayhem. The comics for adults only increase the mayhem but also reveal the vivid blend of the imaginable with the real. We are remarkably good at creating monsters, at depicting the faces of evil — but we also have an aptitude for implying what is wholesome, what should be selected from all the visions we have created of the future. We define future possibilities, as Hieronymous Bosch, Jules Verne, or Mary Shelley did, but we also clarify which of these options are desirable and achievable. That is the job we will always have to do; it is the price of being creative and inventive.

* These lectures were later published in book form under the title The Two Cultures and a few years later in 1963 in revised form as A Second Look: An Expanded Version of The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (1963).

**The image of C. P. Snow atop a bridge between the cultures is from a 2009 Scientific American article, An Update on C. P. Snow’s “Two Cultures”, by Lawrence M. Krauss.