On the Importance of Imagination in Historical Studies

In the 1940’s British philosopher R.G. Collingwood argued that historical knowledge was grounded in the imagination. Collingwood’s philosophy of history, as explicated in his classic work The Idea of History, was meant as a response to positivist philosophers who argued that historical studies should be treated as proto-scientific theories. According to Carl Hempel, the theoretical sciences offered the paradigm example of what it means to explain an event. Understanding an event in the sciences reduced to referencing a set of necessary and sufficient conditions that causally explained the event under question. If historians claim to explain events in the past, according to the positivists (which they do since they commonly use causal language) than they must apply the causal model used in the theoretical sciences.

Collingwood claimed that history cannot be understood along narrow scientific terms since historical knowledge is not rooted in a theoretical model. According to Collingwood, a historian must imagine himself in the shoes of a historical figure (he must imagine himself into the past or engage in an extreme form of empathy) and only then can she gain full insight into the event in question. While Collingwood may have succeeded in defining the study of history in a way that removed it from the standards of the theoretical sciences he won few converts. Many argued that Collingwood threw the baby out with the bathwater as he ignored the importance of a scientific attitude, including the role of evidence, the concept of competing explanations, and the role of analytical thought in both the writing and analysis of historical studies. How do you critically analyze whether a historian has successfully imagined himself into the past?

Although Collingwood went too far I admire his focus on the importance of imagination as an integral part of the historical process. As historians at the time understood, they must apply an analytical rigor that is akin to the scientific process. They analyze sources and engage one another in debate over the best way to explain a specific subject. Debate is often dry or “academic” and often sinks into linguistic or conceptual analysis rather than a discussion of what happened and why. I believe wholeheartedly that the analytical skills applied by the best historians are absolutely essential and I work hard as a teacher to encourage those same skills in my students.

While I acknowledge all of that, what I value most in my historical journey are those historians and books that force me to re-imagine or re-think the past. It is not enough that I know more and more about any given subject, I also want to be challenged in a way that places my most fundamental assumptions in check. The analytical and imaginative aspects of critical history are in no way contradictory; in fact, they are both equally essential to the process.

This is a roundabout way of saying that my interest in social history and race relations/slavery should not be understood as simply a particular taste. Yes, I find those subjects to be of interest in the same way that many of my readers find the traditional battlefield to be of interest. But for me it goes further. I find these areas interesting because the historians behind them happen to be incredibly imaginative, and I can think of no better example of this than the last few decades of American slavery studies. Eugene Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made is not simply a well argued and analytically rigorous book. Genovese forces the reader to see the relationship between slaves and slaveholders in a completely new light. You my not agree with his conclusions; however, he raises new questions that only emerge from placing on hold preconceived notions. I’ve used sections of this book in my AP classes and my students notice it right away because they have been trained to see slavery in such simplistic terms. The relatively recent interpretive approaches by historians such as Ira Berlin, David Brian Davis, and Bernard Bailyn which place American slavery within the broader context of the “Atlantic World” is yet another example of this imaginative process.

The same can be said for cultural, social, and gender studies of American history and the Civil War in particular. And again, it is not that I am hardwired in a way that I find these types of studies attractive; what I enjoy is that they broaden my horizons by introducing me to new questions, new explanations, new people, and new connections. At times I do find the theoretical jargon to be just a bit heavy, but who ever said that historical understanding had to be straightforward? I may not agree with their conclusions but they force me to think in ways that are beyond my purview at any given time.

I’ve read my fair share of Civil War military history. My shelves are lined with books by Gordon Rhea, Harry Pfanz, Bob Krick, Stephen Sears, Richard Sommers, and yes I’ve read and thoroughly enjoyed them all. What they do is invaluable and absolutely necessary given that the Civil War was in the end a war. That said, traditional Civil War military history does not give me that sense of wonder and curiosity compared with some of these other branches of history. What I like about Mark Grimsley’s Blog Them Out of the Stone Age is his emphasis on asking new questions and broadening the scope of traditional military history. It can and should evolve like every other area of inquiry. As I’ve said all along, we don’t just want to know more, we want to know better.

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