Thinking Historically: Professor Hayden White

This post was written by Madisson Brown, a PhD Candidate, Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, Birkbeck College, University of London

In this animated lecture on 22 February, Hayden White – Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Santa Cruz – discussed what it means to think historically. This was part of a series of events at Birkbeck College featuring White. Blogs on the other events can be read here and here.

With the danger of oversimplifying what was a wide-ranging and entertaining lecture, White suggested two aspects needed to be considered when thinking historically: 1. Contextualising sources. 2. The process of writing. The two are inextricably linked and together they make up the historian’s craft.

The first aspect – contextualising sources – familiar to any history student who’s taken a ‘research skills’ course, or read one of the numerous books on historical methodologies. White used Saul Friedlander’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Persecution 1933-1939 (2007) to demonstrate how this works in practice. White described how Friedlander opens his book with a detailed discussion of a single photograph. The image – which White displayed on screen – shows David Moffie receiving his doctorate in medicine. On his left sleeve, Moffie has a Jewish star that is inscribed with ‘Jood’ – ‘Jew’ in German.

Friedlander doesn’t print the image alongside his discussion of it. He describes the image in detail and then goes on to demonstrate what it tells us about wider historical events at the time. As White pointed out, it’s only a historian (in this instance Friedlander) who – aware of temporal context of the photograph – could highlight it shows a group of men at a Dutch university breaking a law which has been put in place by the Nazis. By 18 September 1942 – the date Moffie received his doctorate – a German decree had been passed which forbade the enrolment of Jewish students at Dutch universities. This photo was of interest to Friedlander because of what it could tell the reader about the wider historical events happening at the time, rather than its aesthetic value.

While primary source analysis is an essential part of thinking historically, it alone is insufficient. As White pointed out, getting a PhD also requires you to be able to communicate your findings. And even once you’re licensed, you need to be writing articles and books – if you aren’t producing anything, you won’t be recognised by your peers. This perhaps wasn’t new to the audience, but what did result in the ‘pricking-up’ of several sets of ears in the room, was his contention that this begins when you’re consulting the source material. For White, a major part of thinking historically is describing an event so that it can be ‘fitted in to history’. So, even when you’re doing your research, you need to be thinking about how you’re going to write about it.

But is historical writing simply a report of research findings? A categorical ‘no’ is given by White. If you do this, you’ll end up with a 700-page tome that nobody wants to read. Historians are researching to find information of emotional and intellectual importance. The job of the historian is to set up a symbolic relationship between the present and the past. To illustrate his point White returned to Friedlander. He suggested Friedlander is aiming to create a truthful account that people will want to disbelieve because it tells us something unpleasant about ourselves.

White went on to note there are there restrictions regarding how historians set up this symbolic relationship between the present and the past. They cannot, for example, be seen to be writing fiction. As a licensed profession, historians have a responsibility to ‘be true and fair’ to their sources. Here White suggested that the PhD is the granting of this licence. It is a professional qualification that states the individual has been appropriately trained in the discipline. This discipline is a craft, and its practitioners cannot be over-experimental with form – it is essential that readers know the difference between fiction and historical writing. But White also pointed out that historical writing is still literature, as not all literature is fictional.

White clearly made the case for a dual notion of ‘thinking historically’, consisting of contextualising sources and researching with historical writing in mind. This second aspect of ‘thinking historically’ features far less in books and courses on historical methodology. Given the terror that generally appears on the face of the PhD student when asked how their writing is going, and the clear interest with which the audience listened to this aspect of White’s lecture, perhaps it should feature a lot more in the future.


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