Our present concern: Historicism, teleology, and contingent histories of a more democratic global past

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Abstract

As scholars have attempted to move away from Eurocentric views over the past few decades and integrate disparate parts of the world into a more democratic narrative of world history, they have increasingly relied on the present as an empirical guidepost. The motives and rationales for this primary concern with the present as a source of historical knowledge are complex and deeply embedded in epistemological traditions and chronotypes that demand particular views of transitional history and time. This article attempts to explore these views from two critical angles. The first addresses historicism as a pervasive, but increasingly subtle, analytical tool that unfailingly lends itself to confining teleologies of the present. The urge to view history as a developmental phenomenon culminating in the present offers bounded closure to historical narratives while leaving open the possibilities of continued progress. It is a way for historians to 'have their cake and eat it too' in terms of reconciling analytical closure with the contingent variabilities of an utterly discursive historical segment. The second examines the ways contemporary historians view their own contemporaneity, or historicity from a future historian's perspective, and the insecurities inherent in such a self-reflexive exercise of temporal positioning. Drawing heavily on insights from Goran Blix, this second angle reveals an epistemological shift in traditional historicist thinking that previously held 'modernity' or 'post-modernity' as definitive temporal endpoints. 'Modern' or 'post-Modern' historians (referring to their perceived temporal position and not their theoretical orientation) now find themselves in an era of 'transition' rather than one of 'culmination'. When combined with the precarious counterfactual possibilities of 'contingent' histories highlighted as an alternative to Eurocentric narratives, this notion of continuing historical transition in the present produces acute anxieties about the nature of human agency and deterministic history. The solution to these dilemmas, offered in the conclusion, suggests that historians would be better off concerning themselves, in terms of empirical evidence, with history itself and not its perceived contemporary results. It should be noted, however, that to focus exclusively on the past does not in any way preclude historians from extrapolating lessons about the present or the future. By letting history speak for itself rather than coercing insights from it that must speak on behalf of a particularly urgent present, scholars can gain more accurate and revealing insights and representations of the human condition as it unfolded in its own discursive comtemporaneity.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)373-392
Number of pages20
JournalRethinking History
Volume15
Issue number3
DOIs
StatePublished - Sep 2011

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Historicism
History
Contingent
Historian
Teleology
Epistemological
Eurocentric
Closure
Discursive
Modernity
Anxiety
Historical Narrative
Empirical Evidence
Exercise
World History
Theoretical Orientation
Human Condition
Postmodernity
Historicity
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All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • History

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Our present concern : Historicism, teleology, and contingent histories of a more democratic global past. / Hawkins, Michael C.

In: Rethinking History, Vol. 15, No. 3, 09.2011, p. 373-392.

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

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