As some of my readers may remember from the days before this blog became embroiled in contemporary politics, we were working through Gordon Wood’s new book The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History. This will be the last post in this series. Since we have not covered here every chapter in the book, I will leave you with some final snippets from the material we have missed.
Wood on anachronism in history: “Since we can never completely escape, even imaginatively, from our present, some degree of anachronism is inevitable in all history writing. But any good historian needs constantly to worry about the problem of injecting his or her contemporary consciousness back into the past. As Yogi Berra might put it, it is difficult to write history, especially about the past.”
Wood on history and poltiical theory: “Political theorists, especially those influenced by the ideas of Leo Strauss, tend to believe that the history of political thought can be studied as a search for enduring answers to perennial questions that can enhance contemporary political thought. Historians, on the other hand, tend to hold that ideas are the products of particular circumstances and particular moments in time and that using them for present purposes is a distortion of their original historical meaning…Political theory, studying these transcendent ideas, is a quite legitimate endeavor, it is, however, not history.”
Wood on Jon Butler’s Becoming America: The Revolution Before 1776: “This otherwise excellent book is ultimately marred by the present-mindedness of the author. It is, of course, impossible for a historian to escape entirely from his present, but it is essential to try. Whenever something such as multiculturalism comes to dominate our contemorary discourse, we ought to be suspicious of any attempt to read it back into the past.”
Wood on “presentism” in history writing: “I suppose the most flagrant examples of present-mindedness in history writing comes from trying to inject politics into history books…Historians who want to influence politics with their history writing have missed the point of the craft, they ought to run for office.”
In conclusion, not everyone will agree with Wood. Some will be quite irritated by this collection of reviews. But the book is still worth a read for the way Wood challenges us to think historically.