The distinction of history: on valuing the insularity of the historical past

The article approaches history as a genre with specific strengths and weaknesses that stem from its commitment to deal with the past truthfully. Although examination of this commitment has most often led to epistemological debates, that is not the intention here. Instead the goal is to fast-forward past any discussion of the possibilities for objectivity, sincerity, truthfulness, and so on, to engage with the question of what history can and cannot ‘do’, and thus with the consequences of historians’ generic and disciplinary commitments. While this discussion will inevitably relate to the impact historians’ practices have on the potential forms of history writing, and hence ties in also with the broader debate about narrative representation, that, again, is not the main focus. Rather, and based on this charting of the scope and capacities of academic history as a genre, the core objective is to tackle the question of history’s relevance beyond the limited arena of specifically ‘historical’ knowing – whatever the specifics of its epistemological standing or presentational form. The kinds of questions asked, then, are: How do current genre commitments position historians in relation to broader sensibilities about the past? What (if any) are the opportunities that they offer and the constraints that they place on contemporary history culture? To what extent might the genre circumscribe historians’ social utility? A central means for approaching these questions is found in affirming the distinction between ‘the historical past’ and ‘the practical past’ as these have been reintroduced to the debate by Hayden White during the past decade.