The Bottom 6 Worst Books on History

First, a word about what this list is not. I’m not going to rail against the standard methods book, which has been re-packaged and republished about twice a year every year for the last hundred years.  Here are a few examples:

Barzun & Graff, The Modern Researcher (1957)
Norman Cantor and Richard Schneider, How to Study History (1969)
Robert Jones Shafer, A Guide to Historical Method (1969)
Walter T.K . Nugent, Creative History (1967)
Lester Stephens, Probing the Past (1974)
Henry Steele Commanger, The Nature and Study of History (1984)
Jules R. Benjamin,  A Student’s Guide to History (1987)
John H. Arnold, History, A Very Short Introduction (2000)

Nor am I going to complain about the surveys of historical views on the philosophy of history. These are also incredibly common and quite indistinguishable from each other.

A third category of bad is the postmodern tomes following in the tradition of Hayden White’s Metahistory.  Many of these books focus on one particular problem of history: explanation, causation, narrative, structures, logic, etc. The authors appear eminently educated, and they whip through a rolodex of lit crit thinkers and philosophers of history, drawing hundreds of connections. I guess my complaint with most of that genre is that I am not capable of “getting it.” I have a Ph.D. in history, a B.A. in philosophy, years of experience reading in the field, and still they are beyond me. That shows, I think, how limited the audience for such books must be.

At any rate, the books referenced above are all boring and uninspired, but not necessary bad. The worst books on history seem to go out of their way to be particularly bad. They are the kind of books that not only do you not learn anything from, but you wish you didn’t waste you money on. I am angry that the following books even exist. If I find it difficult to describe the arguments in these books, it may be because they don’t have any arguments, of that their arguments don’t present themselves easily and up front.

For reasons of strategic collegiality, I have not listed any bad books from the past few decades. The worst of those generally fall into categories of “boring” and/or “unreadable.”

6.)  Jose Ortega y Gasset, History as a System, and other essays towards a philosophy of history (W.W. Norton, 1941)

For the life of me, I can’t see how this book or any of its essays makes any progress towards a philosophy of history. Ortega y Gasset begins the books by informing his readers that he was under pressure by the publisher to finish a next book. (Can you imagine the privilege!?) In short, he is asking for forgiveness for the rubbish to follow.  Also, this is a collection of his own essays, a known recipe for disaster.

Most of the book consists of personal observations on politics in Europe. I’m not kidding. It is also full of aphorisms like “Human history seems to proceed with a double rhythm: the rhythm of age and the rhythm of sex. In some epochs the youthful influence prevails; others are ruled by mature men.”

Ortega y Gasset believes that man has a history, and that this means he is not entirely moldable by rationalism, and that collectivism and totalitarianism is an error. Perhaps the redeeming quality of the book is observations on politics, such as the following:

“Total politicalism, the absorption of everything and of the entire man by politics, is one and the same phenomenon as the revolt of the masses. The mass in revolt has lost all capacity for knowledge or devotion. It can contain nothing but politics, a raving, frenetic, exorbitant politics that claims to replace all knowledge, religion, wisdom – everything, in short, really qualified to occupy the center of the human mind. Politics drains men of solitude and intimacy, and preaching total politcialism is therefore one of the techniques of socialization.”

5). Bernard Bailyn, Sometimes an Art: Nine Essays on History (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015)

I will repeat a bit from what I wrote about this book in a previous blog post.  The book is pretty dry, uninspiring, and out-of-date. Certainly, it doesn’t match the quality of Bailyn’s other words, which have garnered him all of the top prizes. This book is a collection of his old essays, more or less thrown together under the umbrella topic of historical methods. It’s the kind of book that a press might only consider if the writer is already successful. (See similar ones from Gordon Wood and Carlo Ginzburg). At the bottom of the cover of my edition, the book reads  “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize.”  Of course, it is Bailyn who is the winner of a Pulitzer Prize, not this book, but that’s a clever marketing technique. In no possible world could this book win the Pulitzer.

4.) G. Kitson Clark, The Critical Historian (Basic Books, 1967)

Seldom has a book been written that says so little. My copy arrived in mint condition, a good sign of how much time its past owners spent reading it.

Kitson Clark was a lecturer at Cambridge University, and I suppose if he had not been, this book would have never have seen the light of day. A common theme in the worst books on the philosophy and methods of history is that many of them were written by professors in prestigious academic positions, late in their careers, when the authority of age and privilege was enough to convince the editors of a press. Clark was sixty-seven when this book appeared.

Like an undergraduate term paper, Clark opens the book with a paragraph defining the term “history.” He says that history is the record of what has happened in the past. Great, as if anyone didn’t know that.

Let me reproduce his first paragraph, so that you can experience the dry-as-dust monotone of Professor Clark:

“History is the record of what has happened in the past, of anything that has ever happened in the past, however long ago or however recently. It is sometimes suggested that was seems to be trivial is ‘unworthy of the dignity of history’, of that the account of what happened in the last few years ‘cannot yet be called history’. In fact there is a tendency to confine the word ‘history’ to what can be put into a serious history book, and perhaps taught with safety and without controversial overtones in schools and colleges. It is a tendency much to be deplored. It is better to accept, as an axiom, the definition that any attempt to describe what has happened before the actual moment of narration shall be call history, for that carries with it the corollary that every such attempt presents some of the problems which are common to all historical work, and therefore may be subjected to the same critical technique as that to which history book are subject.”

Oh my, what a “hook” Professor!  I can’t wait to read the rest of this! Paragraphs to follow often begin with the form “This does not mean that a historian cannot…”  or “Nevertheless, history should not be thought of as…” etc, etc., et cetera.

If you are wondering what the book is about, well, I’m not sure entirely, but it is ostensibly concerned with how to sort through historical evidence to know if it is biased or corrupt or whatnot.

It is good to know that an enemy of Clark was the historian J.H. Plumb, whose book The Death of the Past is a classic.

3). David Hackett Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies; Towards a Logic of Historical Thought

A historical fallacy, I believe, is defined as anything that David Hackett Fischer does not like about the writing of history. Despite the subtitle, this book cannot be said to be some systematic “logic” of historical thought, but only a collection of thoughts, sometimes connected, regarding how to make sense when writing history.

There are, of course, many great sections in this book. Many of the things Fischer identifies as fallacies are indeed fallacies, and he describes them well.

The opening line of chapter one gives you a taste of his thought. “A moment’s reflection should suffice to establish the simple proposition that every historian, willy-nilly, must being his research with a question.”

I disagree with Professor Fischer. Historians don’t always begin with questions. We begin with curiosity, with the desire to know more. When I study people or places I don’t know what questions to ask, at least not right away. Fischer, who opposes the Hempelian Covering Law in his introduction, seems to take a view of history as a science here, with hypotheses and testing. Historians who don’t ask questions are not wandering “aimlesslessly through dark corridors of learning.” No, they are compiling, comparing, looking for questions to ask.

Probably the worst thing about this book, however, is not that fallacies are selected and invented willy-nilly – nor that there is little suggestion that the author might ever be wrong about any of these fallacies – no, the worst thing is that anyone intelligent enough to read and understand and apply the lessons in this book is probably already intelligent not to make most of the fallacies described, or to make them, but with good arguments for why they are not fallacies. In short, this is a lot of reading for little pay off.

2.) Raymond Klibanksy and H.J. Paton, eds. Philosophy and History: The Ernst Cassirer Festschrift (Harper, 1963)

If you ever wanted to listen to a bunch of old continental philosophers ramble about Kant for 300 pages, this is the book for you! I suspect that each contributor saved their worst scribbles for an homage to their friend Cassirer. In fact, that is often what happens with a festschrift, and it is rather that such a book would contribute anything new. It doesn’t help that half of the contributions are in translation. There may be some wise words hidden deep in the book, but it would be a lot of work to find them. Of the contributors, I only recognize Johan Huizinga and Jose Ortega Y Gassett as authors of other works on the philosophy of history.

1.( Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (University of Chicago Press, 1953)

One of my philosophy of history pet peeves is authors who use the word historicism without defining it. Strauss uses the term in at least three ways, and in whatever ways are most convenient for his straw man. First, he treats historicism as the historicism of G.S. Buckle and the German historical school of the late nineteenth century. From Buckle, he draws a line of inheritance to latter-day positivists. He also uses historicism more broadly as “history divorced from metaphysical assumptions” or more generally yet “the view that all thoughts are historical.”

He ascribes to historicism all of the sins of modernity. In his view, the problem arose in the 18th century, when philosophy became political (or, in the same way philosophy became politics). This led to a crisis  from which historicism arose. But, he says, the historicizing trend was actually not unique but was rather a revival or extension of some earlier trends.

At any rate, Strauss’ style is infuriating. One gets the feeling that he is a Wizard of Oz, speaking now in Latin incantations, now in references to Greek philosophers, all while hiding behind a curtain, such that you cannot see his true face, his own views. Everything he says is written with pure conviction – no matter how particular or general the statement – but with little supporting evidence. A good editor would have worn out his stamp “citation needed.”   Unfortunately, I think, much of this is now the style of “political theory”: a mix of the obvious and the profound, a reference to Aristotle, a citation to a forgotten Medievalist, all run through the washer for thirty-five pages at a breath. Strauss asks lots of questions, treats the entire book as a thesis, rather than stating it up front, defends his view not with specific points, but with profuseness. Each sentence on its own seems to say something, but I submit that one could swap sentences or paragraphs at random and not notice. You could read the book starting at any page and following in any order, and you would come to the same simple conclusion: Strauss thinks natural rights are real, and historicism is a sham. In Strauss’s mind, any view he disagrees with is “an arbitrary view” and a road to nihilism. Not only is historicism a gateway drug to nihilism, so is Max Weber. His favorite argument is that radical historicism (he changes it to “radical historicism” in a kind of motte and bailey fallacy) cannot logically hold as true and real, but under its own logic, historicism itself would be only historically contingent. It is as if Strauss cannot imagine a way in which historicized, particular knowledge can exist alongside universal knowledge.

Strauss says that if we knew what ought to be done, social sciences would not be value-free, since they would be in service of a normative understanding. This is like saying that is we know how bridges and buildings out to be constructed, that geometry becomes value-laden, that circles would be good, and squares would be evil, or whatever.

If you can focus long enough, and wade through the mess, there are other absurdities, like this one:

“The historian who takes it for granted that objective value judgments are impossible cannot take very seriously the thought of the past which was based on the assumption that objective value judgments are possible, i.e., practically all thought of earlier generations. Knowing beforehand that that thought was based on a fundamental delusion, he lacks the necessary incentive for trying to understand the past as it understood itself.” (62)

This is almost like saying that if you don’t believe some particular deity, you can’t understand the history of the people who do believe in that deity. Of course, if you look closer, this is not what he is saying, but it comes close enough. He says that if you don’t have the same view on something as another, you lack the incentive to understand that view. Well, if that were true, we wouldn’t have anthropology. If this were true, nobody would have sufficient incentive to study anybody but themselves.

Strauss is not selling woo, but sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish his thoughts from those of the new age movement. For example:

“In brief, then, it can be said that the discovery of nature is identical with the actualization of a human possibility which at least according to its own interpretation, is trans-historical, trans-social, trans-moral, and trans-religious.” (89)

There are some, I have been told, who treat Strauss as a guru, a man who held the secrets to interpreting the political world. There are bits of wisdom to be mined in his work. I suspect the key to understanding Strauss is a section of this book, where he describes the nature of Sophism. “The Sophist in the precise sense is a teacher of sham wisdom. Sham wisdom is not identical with untrue doctrine.” (116)

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