History and Morality
Oxford University Press
Oxford University Press
How do historians justify their work? Which justifications are most common now? Should they make moral judgements about the past? And can they avoid doing so?
Donald Bloxham, a professor of history at the University of Edinburgh and a scholar of genocide, has been busy with these questions. In two books, published simultaneously, he grapples with them at length, drawing on a breath-taking knowledge of historiography. Why History? investigates the reasons that historians in the Western tradition have given for their work, from ancient Greece to the present day, while History and Morality engages more theoretically with questions of moral impartiality, arguing firmly but not too tendentiously that historians ought to make moral judgements. These are weighty books—totalling over 700 pages, referenced thoroughly, and moving confidently across linguistic traditions, periods, and disciplines, from history to philosophy to anthropology. Apparently conceived as a pair, with one descriptive and the other prescriptive, they are a major contribution to the field.
Why History?is not the first history of history. But it differs from related works, such as R.G. Collingwood’s The Idea of History, A Companion to Historiography, edited by Michael Bentley, and The Oxford History of Historical Writing, edited by Daniel Woolf, in its focus on justification, as opposed to topics, methods, and other aspects of historical practice. It also takes a more taxonomic approach. Although chronological in layout, the book is also built around 11 uses of history which Bloxham distinguishes in the introduction:
- History as entertainment (which in practice is often combined with other uses)
- History as memorialisation (which blurs easily with 5) and 6) below)
- History as travel (the use of history to enter foreign cultures)
- History as speculative philosophy (the attempt to discern the overall direction of history)
- History as moral lesson
- History as practical lesson
- History as method (the use of history to exemplify methods which can profitably be deployed in other fields)
- History as identity (the use of history to discover more about one’s own identity or to make claims for the recognition or proper representation of people sharing an identity)
- History as emancipation (the use of history to escape constraints, usually by discovering how the world can be different from the present)
- History as therapy (the use of history to help individuals or groups cope with traumatic experience)
- History as communion (the use of history to support or inform religious belief or practice)
There is some room for argument here about whether 5) and 6) are distinct, although not much is made to hang on this. Whereas one might imagine a distinction between moral and prudential reasoning or, in Kantian terms, between categorical and hypothetical imperatives, Bloxham means something different, defining moral teaching in terms of discrete lessons and practical teaching in terms of a looser use of history for inspiration or consolation.
What is more peculiar is that Bloxham does not include ‘history as prediction’—the use of history as a means of predicting the future. When he does address it, moreover, as part of ‘history as practical lesson’, he deals with it relatively quickly. Yet there are reasons for giving it more attention. Not only has it been of enduring interest to historians and philosophers (Karl Popper famously argued against it in The Poverty of Historicism; Michael Oakeshott did so less famously in On History; Jo Guldi and David Armitage argued for it in The History Manifesto ; and Peter Turchin recently received attention in The Atlantic  for trying to do it using big data); it is also an area where history finds itself in competition with the social sciences and where there are questions to be asked about whether some of the goals traditionally pursued by history might be better pursued by scholars working in different fields. These are questions that Bloxham is aware of, but they receive only passing mention.
Another possible omission is the use of history as a storehouse of examples, not for emulation but elucidation—what might be called ‘history as heuristic’. When people use historical examples, they are often clarifying what they mean: this writer has a style like Dickens; that politician argues like Mazzini; and so on. Relatedly, it might be argued that the use of history as a source of inspiration for artists should have appeared on Bloxham’s list, although his focus is admittedly on the use of history by historians specifically.
But Bloxham is not only concerned with atemporal taxonomy. He is also concerned with how uses of history have been distributed in time. Here, he presses two general claims: first, that there is more continuity over time than many commentators have reckoned (most of his eleven uses of history were acknowledged in ancient Greece and are still taken seriously now); and second, that the history of history has tended to be too periodic, as if some ways of using history dropped out of fashion as soon as the Middle Ages were over or leapt into life at the starting gun of the Enlightenment. In Bloxham’s account, the reality was more complicated: throughout much of Western history, he argues, many of the different ways of using history that he distinguishes were practised, and what really changed was not their presence but how widely they were practised, in what combination, and with what particular methods and approaches.
This view is richly supported in the main body of the book, which covers the central themes in Western historiography, among them the connection between history, rhetoric, and statecraft in the classical world; the fusion of classical historical thought with Christianity in late antiquity; the importance of providential views of history in the high Middle Ages; the recovery of classical texts in the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries; the progress-orientated and stadial historiography of the Enlightenment; the historicism of the nineteenth century; and the Annales school, the turn to theory, and the social and cultural histories of the twentieth century. A merit of this central part of the book, besides Bloxham’s unfailing clarity and rigour, is the division of the chapters into short subsections—‘Romans, Greeks, and Goths’, ‘Developments in Source Criticism?’, and ‘The Return of Similitudo Temporum’, for instance, in the chapter on Renaissances and Reformations. This allows the book to be used as a reference work rather than being read end-to-end and mitigates the occasional density of Bloxham’s prose.
In the final section, the book changes tack and attempts to sum up where each of the uses of history is now. Bloxham notes, for instance, that history as communion and history as speculative philosophy are less important today than they were in the Reformation and the nineteenth century while history as therapy and especially history as identity are more important now than before. This section is less descriptive than the earlier ones and includes some welcome critical commentary. In considering history as emancipation, for instance, Bloxham considers the popular view, voiced by Frederic Jameson among others, that one should ‘always historicize!’ in order to expose the tottery intellectual supports undergirding contemporary arrangements. As Bloxham soberly points out, however, a thoroughgoing enaction of Jameson’s injunction would involve reflexively historicising it, which would presumably either destabilise it or else force the realisation that historicising something does not necessarily destabilise it. Subtle argumentation like this appears repeatedly in Bloxham’s work, as generalisations are trimmed of excess generality and conclusions that are presented as logical necessities are shown to rest on probabilistic reasoning.
It is striking, however, that the book offers no general conclusion. Instead, after assessing the fortunes of each use of history, Bloxham simply stops, without any call for a particular use of history to be acknowledged or practised more in the present. This is perhaps connected to a larger oddity of the book: that despite detailing manifold reasons why people have studied history, there is little if any mention of the ends that it is supposed to serve. One imagines that it may be intended to inform contemporary debates about what ends historians should pursue, why students should study history, and why the government should fund it. But if the book has any practical implications, the reader is left to work these out for themselves.
History and Morality approaches things differently. For one thing, the book is more theoretical, focusing less on historical practice and being organised less around narrative and more around argument. For another, it takes a definite position, with Bloxham arguing that historians should make moral judgements. This, he believes, places him in disagreement with a broad consensus that historians should be morally neutral, a view which has been taken by such influential figures as Oakeshott, Marc Bloch, and Richard Evans. As Evans put it in In Defence of History, ‘the element of moral judgement [in history], insofar as it is exercised at all, is in the end extraneous to the research’. According to a widespread version of this view, historical events should be seen in context, where this means suspending moral judgement about them, understanding them in terms that would be familiar to those involved, and discounting anything that looks like moral judgement as anachronism.
Bloxham is unenamoured of all this. As he sees it, historians are often involved in making moral judgements, even when they think that they neutrally identifying causes. To identify someone or some group of people as the primary cause of a grievous event—to argue, for instance, that Germany caused World War 1—is usually to lay the blame at their door. Moreover, treating historical sources impartially can often mean taking historical actors’ accounts of their motives at face value, with the result that they appear more favourably than if some other frame of reference were adopted, or making an implicit judgement by not responding positively or negatively to a subject which merits an evaluative response.
In any case, Bloxham continues, implicit moral judgement is often unavoidable, given how language is saturated with value, and historians’ practice often belies their commitment to impartiality. Whether an event is described as a mutiny or an uprising, for instance, or a person as a servant or a slave, may appear to be a factual question, but may also have evaluative implications. ‘Value judgements and hints as to value judgements abound in works of History’, he writes, so that ‘attempting to remove [them] would change History much more than would a consistent application of judgement’. Nor, he believes, is there any overwhelming reason why historians should not make moral judgements. Making them can be a way of positively shaping the present, and, so long as they are made well, he thinks, there is no inherent problem.
Any sense that the Bloxham is remote from contemporary debates evaporates in the final section, where he considers history and identity. Here he draws a sharp distinction between writing the history of groups who have been excluded from or misrepresented in the historical record—something which he emphatically endorses—and what he calls ‘Identity History’, meaning historical writing which selects materials from the past in order to support the political claims of a particular group without making moral judgements consistently. The inconsistency in question comes about, Bloxham believes, when different actions by members of a group are treated differently, with actions that offend modern sensibilities being treated in a contextualist way and more laudable actions being celebrated. Writers including Max Hastings and Antony Beever, for instance, are criticised for taking a relativistic stance when considering objectionable aspects of British imperialism and a laudatory one when considering celebrated figures from British history, such as Sir Isaac Newton and Samuel Pepys. This leads Bloxham to the nuanced conclusion that historians ought to make moral judgements, and accept the elusiveness of true impartiality, whilst also taking care not to allow political motives, however well-intentioned, to lead to distortions of the past.
Bloxham might, nevertheless, have given a little more ground to the opposing view and put the reader in stronger position to assess the arguments for and against. Something that would have helped in this regard would have been a systematic exposition of the arguments for impartiality—and the absence of this is surprising, given Bloxham’s penchant for numbered points. Such a list might include: 1) that making moral judgements, especially early on in a process of study, can forestall understanding of what really went on; 2) that little if any of the past can be known with much confidence, so that moral judgements about it are likely to be inaccurate; 3) that confident moral judgements about the past may reveal a lack of awareness of the perspectival nature of those judgements (meaning, inter alia, that they may only seem plausible to people with a perspective like the judgers and that they may come to seem dated and naïve); 4) that experts (perhaps moral philosophers) are better placed to make moral judgements than historians; 5) that some of the historical events and processes are simply too large and complicated for moral judgements to be made about them with sufficient evidential warrant; and 6) that some historical events may simply be so culturally foreign that moral judgements about them will have few, if any, implications for the present. Most, if not all, of these arguments are touched on in Bloxham’s analysis, but the reader would have been able to assess their cumulative strength more accurately if they had been set out at greater length.
These books have some minor oversights and omissions, but their shortcomings are easily overstated. They are patient, thorough, incisive, scholarly, and clear. Anyone interested in the history of history or in debates about the justification of history could do much worse than to begin with these books. In their scope, and in the judiciousness which Bloxham brings to an astonishing range of topics, they are equal to anything in the field.
They are also of striking relevance now, when there is widespread concern, first, that commentators on history may be too willing to view it unsympathetically as a catalogue of mistakes and, second, that the moral enormities of the past—in particular, Western imperialism, the transatlantic slave trade, the treatment of women, and the treatment of minority groups—have either been unduly forgotten about or represented too leniently. The problems involved are stunningly difficult. But we are better equipped to deal with them with the aid of works like Bloxham’s to hand.
Gabriel Roberts  teaches English at a secondary school in London. He is a former editor-in-chief of the Oxonian Review.