Can history teach us lessons?
Unlike other fields, history bases itself entirely around the past, rather than the present or future, which begs the inevitable question; what use is the past? An argument could be made from phenomenology that history does indeed teach us lessons, but not in the way we imagine—it is difficult to use history as a reliable and accurate guide to tell one what to do, but rather it serves a more culturally role, by informing behaviour and how identities are established. Firstly, it is important before any analysis is made to examine exactly how things are taught. Usually, one assumes when something is taught that it is an active process of knowledge transfer, but in this case, “history” is not an agent, but rather a source of information. Therefore, it is up to the interpreter to choose which parts of the overall information they are willing to consider and focus on, and the interpreter’s role to translate that raw information of what has happened into lessons. Furthermore, in many cases, the interpreter himself is passive—that is to say, people can possess, acquire, and use knowledge unconsciously. Therefore, a distinction must be made between conscious lessons and unconscious influence.
Initially, it seems intuitive that we can gain lessons from history—numerous decisions have supposedly been a result of historical lessons. However, what becomes clear when considering this is that in most cases, when people actively look for advice and guidance from history, they do so when making decisions on what to do in the future. This, therefore, necessarily requires some sense of causality when interpreting history, something which is much more difficult to objectively prove compared to events. That is to say, any significant event in history has been a result of a network of different causes, and seldom one is dominant over all others; in other words, situations and circumstances differ throughout history, enough such that extrapolating concrete advice on what to do next is extremely unreliable and dangerous. As Margaret MacMillan wrote, we “deceive ourselves when we selectively take evidence from the past to justify what we have already made up our minds to do.” The problem when asserting that history can teach us is that the process of learning from history is subject to too many potential human pitfalls for it to be reliable in any capacity. Firstly, when history is written, not only are events and names subject to bias (such as the Nanjing “incident”), but causality, being less concrete and discernible, is subject to even more uncertainty, error, and misjudgement. Even if causality can be obviously determined, again, since history is but a source of information, as long as the interpreter has a stake in the interpretation (as in when one uses history to make decisions), the process of interpreting is subject to bias, especially confirmation bias. An obvious example of this would be Hitler’s invasion of Poland, done under the assumption that the allies would not intervene as history had told him—circumstances were different, namely that Poland had a guarantee from Britain, unlike Czechoslovakia, but this Hitler chose to ignore.
This is not to say that there are not some general trends, which seem true in many situations, such as that arms races have generally eventually led to war. However, extrapolating rules is also problematic in two ways. Firstly, there are always anomalies which itself immediately makes using these rules problematic. Secondly, rules tend to come with determinist implications. For example, as it was in the 1910s, beliefs based on history that war is inevitable stifles talks of peace, since if war is inevitable, the best course of action would be to prepare for it and mobilising, or even pre-emptively striking. Furthermore, this is especially the case when history is used to establish frameworks of interpreting society and predicting the future, as with Hegelian historiography and historical materialism. Not only is historicism based on a rigidly linear view of human history, where forward progress seems inevitable and causality obvious, as Popper argued, “we have no valid reason to expect of any apparent repetition of a historical development that it will continue to run parallel to its prototype.” Even if something has been true for most of history, so-called “Black Swans” do occur, and paradigm-shifting factors, such as technological breakthroughs (an obvious example being nuclear weaponry) continually make these trends useless and inadequate. Therefore, history is unreliable when it comes to guiding us through our present or predicting our future.
However, history does still inform us in a very profound way—history is inextricably linked to our culture and history and culture together inform our current existence. The history of one’s culture allows us to do two opposite things; understand ourselves and understand others living in other cultures. On a large scale, culture and history are integral parts of one’s identity. Identity, though often ignored, is nonetheless a powerful and tangible force in human society; as Miranda Fricker points out, power “requires not only practical social co-ordination but also an imaginative social co-ordination.” Here, the imaginative social co-ordination is similar to the concept of “imagined communities” pioneered by Benedict Anderson, where people subscribe to groups so large that they do not know most members, yet still feel a tangible bond with them. These communities are based on a network of factors, such as language and culture, and most are fundamentally based on history. The Union Jack only gains significance over British history through associations and symbolisms, and itself is shaped by history. In this way, history, through identity and nationalism, becomes a hugely significant, if not the most significant influencing factor—throughout history, such as during the 19th Century and the rise of nationalism, people acted in accordance to what they perceived their history to be, since all nations purposely invoke a sense of history in their citizens, whether that be of past glories or injustices. Secondly, beyond the direct influence history has, on a smaller, more individual scale, history and identity allows people to make sense of their surroundings. When it comes to power dynamics and identity relationships, the history of a group is often used to interpret present events. For example, black pride only exists in relation to the history of oppression of racial minorities and slavery in the US, and in a similar way, the present injustices experienced by black citizens, such as income inequality, ghettoisation, and police brutality only make sense when in the context of a history of oppression. Therefore, history has a much more profound yet subtle impact than its supposed use as a guide for decisions—it informs what we do and what we experience every day, on both individual and global scales.
The second, opposite way in which history and culture are significant is derivative of the previous point. Individual identities are necessarily comprised of multiple intersecting identities such as gender, race, nationality, each with different sets of histories and historical associations. Therefore, whenever we interact with someone else, an understanding of history is crucial in understanding how they talk, act, and think. The absence of historical knowledge leads to errors in judgement and lack of understanding, as in the outrage caused in China by David Cameron visiting the country with a red poppy pin—a result of ignoring the cultural and historical significance of the poppy as a symbol of the Opium Wars. In many cases, conflicts have been, to a large degree, a result of lack of historical understanding and prejudices (which are themselves results of historical ignorance and lack of understanding). For example, the early period of Cold War saw both sides immediately assume that the other wanted to aggressively dominate the other, when actually, in the aftermath of the Second World War, both the USSR and the West wanted to avoid repeating the bloody conflicts that characterised the first half of the 20th Century.
To conclude, at best, it is questionable to what extent history can be an active guide when it comes to decision-making. Causality is simply too uncertain for it to be reliable when it comes to predicting what results certain actions will lead to, whilst trends and “rules” are too anomalous to predict the future, and it is inadequate to rely on these trends to continue into the future, considering factors such as technology can easily disturb the framework of historicism. However, history does teach and inform us in a more passive and subtle way, through unconscious influence on our culture and therefore how we act and see ourselves and our identities. These identities are crucial in both understanding our own present experiences, whilst also interacting and interpreting others through their cultural histories. In this way, though history may not teach us our future, it certain informs us on how to understand what others are thinking and how that will affect our present.
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