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Thursday, May 17, 2007

History is perpetually self-exceeding and forward looking

Review: Ways of Understanding the Human Past. Chattopadhyaya, D.P. 2001. New Delhi: Centre for Studies in Civilisations. Pp. 164. Price Rs. 295/- ($6) by D.P. Agrawal Bringing out the limitations of history, he says,
'We can not elicit from the past what we need today but what was not there in fact. In that case in the name of using history we abuse it. History strictly speaking, has no lesson to offer us. It is for us, the readers of today or tomorrows, to decide what we want to learn, rather to take from history, rejecting other textured parts of it. In order to learn from history the exercise often unwittingly undertaken by us in effect destroys the historicity of history. History itself, as I said before, is a modification of our total experience. If, in the name of extracting moral lessons from it, we modify it once again, history ceases to be what it is intended to be.'...
History is what the historian makes it. To call it science or art is external to its making, putting a label on it from without, a meta-historical act. He brings out the difference between two types of historical records. What had been written in biographies, memoirs, letters, literary works, etc. in the centuries long past were not in most cases consciously intended to be history. The concerned persons narrated their recollections, experiences and impressions, judgments and hopes without knowing for whom and for what purpose(s). The case with the official records, gazetteers and manuals, etc. is somewhat different. These were largely, not entirely, meant for contemporary people and for some specific purposes. All these sources of history are source materials of what we call history today and not history proper...
With the detachment of a philosopher, DPC says that the perceptions of the historians change from age to age, from culture to culture, and even from person to person. For example, what India, together with its geography, philosophy, religion and culture in general, was like has been perceived and described quite differently by Alberuni (in the eleventh century), by the British historians of the last two centuries, and the post-independent Indian historians of this century...
The historian who believes in the primacy of narrativism is bound to differ considerably in his method of representation from the one who favours causalism. For the sake of added concreteness and specificity in historical narration, the role of individual human beings is extremely important, but exclusively in terms of individuals intelligible historical narration is not at all possible.
History, DPC asserts, is a humanistic study. It is about humans, by humans, and often for humans, present as well as future. Though part of nature, humans, their actions and ideas, are not reducible to natural laws. Historical events, essentially products of human enterprise, cannot be subsumed under the laws of nature. Historical unpredictability is basically rooted in human freedom and creativity. The freedom that is available to humans, in spite of its partially determined character, are open to many-sided uses and misuses, constructive and destructive...
Compared to sociology and anthropology, intriguingly DPC believes that literature can give us a relatively vivid picture of the past. The non-cognitive aspects of the vanished centuries are practically available to us through the surviving rites, rituals and their analogues. As we have noted before, many of our modes of experience are neither discursive nor cognitive, still less scientific.
Concluding his really incisive and comprehensive discussion about history, DPC says, 'History is what the historian makes it...Tomorrow's historian, using these very materials, is likely to write a different history. The 'same' materials are read, interpreted and used differently by different historians.' He feels that itihasa has a distinct orientation towards future. 'Rooted in the past, our existence as an executable project is perpetually self-exceeding and forward looking.'

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