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  • Writer's pictureBruce Boyce

Damn it, Jim! I'm a historian, not a fortune teller.

Updated: May 15, 2022

"Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it." - George Santayana


In 1662, Robert Boyle helped articulate one of chemistry's

fundamental laws, one that would bear his name. Boyle's Law states that the pressure of a gas and the volume of a gas are inversely proportional when the temperature remains constant. In other words, increase the pressure and you decrease the volume, and vice versa. The law can be expressed mathematically as P1V1=P2V2.

Using this law, we can predict, with 100% certainty, what will happen if we change either the pressure or the volume. One of the motivations of hard sciences, like chemistry or physics, is to understand how the natural world operates so we can make predictions about the future. And this becomes important in engineering and other applied sciences. Those predictions need to be accurate in order for buildings to stand, planes to fly, and cars to move. Many other lines of study, such as economics, try to emulate the hard sciences and suss out formulas and laws that will enable them to predict with certainty what will happen in the future.

Many people turn to historians and ask the question "Based on your knowledge of the past, can you tell me what will happen in the future?" Not really. We can make educated guesses based on events, patterns, or trends in the past, but we cannot provide the certainity that is sought in the hard sciences. Problem is, people are not molecules. Molecules are predictable. They pretty much act the same way all the time. People don't. People will tend to act in a certain fashion, but there is always that chance that they go against expectations. Then all bets are off. Historians can study past societies and draw conclusions about how those societies behaved. We may see those same behaviors in the present, and it might be easy to say we will repeat what those previous societies have done. Yet it only takes one person, or a small segment of people, to cause everything to go off in a completely different direction. Sure, historians can make predictions, but don't bet any money on them coming out exactly right. There is no Boyle's Law for history.

Does this mean history has no purpose? On the contrary, I believe this actually gives history power and meaning. I never suscribed to the notion that history repeats itself. What I do believe is that there are patterns, which I like to call echoes, running through out history.

There are themes in music, and composers like to take themes from another composer's work and play around with those themes, create variations. The orignal theme is there. It echoes through the music but we hear it in a slightly different way, with a different tempo, with a different mood. There are themes in history that echo through the past. Historians study those variations of theme to understand the original pattern. So what does that mean to us in the present? It means that by learning the pattern, we have the knowledge to tweak it into our own variation. We know how to alter the theme in order to achieve the desirable outcome. Sure, we can make predictions according to how the pattern of notes goes, but I think it is more powerful to know that the future is not set in stone. The future is what we decide it will be. We just need to tweak the notes.

One of the best metaphors I've come across that represents the spirit of the historian is from John Lewis Gaddis in his book The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past. The painting is by the early 19th century painter Caspar David Friedrich entitled The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog. The central figure has staked out a position on the highest point he could find. His back is turned toward us as he gazes out at a fog enshrouded landscape. Bits and pieces of the landscape poke out above the fog giving us glimpses of the possible terrain which our stout figure has presumably crossed. That figure is the historian. The historian is not concerned with where the trail is going to go. His back is to the future. The focus of his attention from whatever vantage point he seeks is fully upon where we have been. As Gaddis says, historians pride themselves in not predicting the future unlike our friends who study economics or political science. We have no cares for the contemporary or the future. We advance into the future with our eyes on the past. In other words, we walk the trail backwards.

The historians job is to study the echoes of the past. It is up to the rest of us to decide what we do with that knowledge. This blog, then, will be as much about the craft of history as it will be about history itself.


Further reading on the historian's craft:

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