Book Review: Historical Consciousness by John Lukacs

The primary mode of thought for most of mankind throughout man’s history has been symbolic and mythological. This was the predominant way of thinking in nearly all ancient societies and has remained well into the Modern era the primary mode of thinking in the Eastern world. The West, however, has uniquely developed modes of thought which depart from this earlier model. The dominant mode of thought in the West since the 18th century has been the empirical model. So much force did this model exert that it has extended itself well beyond the realm of science, the realm in which it has shown itself to be useful, to nearly every field of human knowledge. In the realm of philosophy, for example, empiricism took on the form of positivism. Most of these non-scientific mutations of empiricism, however, have been far from useful but rather destructive. John Lukacs posits that there is another mode of thinking which must supplant empiricism from its dominant position. According to Lukacs, historical thinking, another uniquely Western development, presents a promising mode of thought for the future.

In his Historical Consciousness, Lukacs maintains the thesis “that the history of everything amounts to the thing itself.” By this, Lukacs means that to study the history of any field of human knowledge is identical with and, indeed, the key to understanding that subject. Lukacs envisions a day in which “chemistry, biology, perhaps even medicine could be taught and learned ‘historically.’” To learn biology, then, the student would not, as he does now, immediately plunge into a series of studies and tasks which presuppose the truth of empiricism. Rather, the student would begin with a study of the earliest biologists, tracing out the history of thought in biology. The student would examine the subsequent developments in the field, the theories that were proved wrong and why they are wrong, the theories confirmed by later biologists and the additional evidence that has been provided for these theories by subsequent generations of biologists.

The strength of this historical mode of thinking is that it avoids the inevitable pitfalls of the mythological and empirical modes of thought. The obvious danger of mythological and symbolic modes of thought is that they, in the end, they are “not so much expressions of ideas as a kind of imagery which may be on occasion beautiful but which is quite divorced from reality.” The uniquely “Greek and European tradition of realism,” on the other hand, protects against error through its consistent concern for the truth of the matter. While the empirical mode of thought features this realism as a central tenet, it turns too sharply in the opposite direction and results in “the increasing impersonalization of reality through … The Laws of Nature.” Historical thinking, however, includes the realistic component while restoring “the human being” to his proper position at “the center … of our universe.” As such, it is possible, as Lukacs points out, to see the historical mode of thinking as the crux of a “new humanism.”

There are, however, two dangers in the contemporary study of history which, if not checked, will sabotage the development of such a historical consciousness. On the one hand are the “specialists [who] … tend to know more and more about less and less” and, on the other, “the existence of great masses of people who tend to know less and less about more and more.” Any even cursory glance at the sort of dissertations that are being produced by students in the history departments of American universities provides ample evidence for Lukacs’s arguments concerning the dangers of specialization. The first result returned by a search of the American Historical Association’s database of dissertations completed in 2014 is titled “Controlling the Deviant Body: A History of Exclusionary Practices and Institutional Penal Confinement in Colonial Southern Nigeria.” Indeed, historical specialization has resulted in an obsession with minutiae, knowledge that is a mile deep but an inch wide.

The trend in historical knowledge among the non-specialist public, however, is the inverse of the trend found among historians. Instead, popular knowledge of history is a mile wide but an inch deep. “The rapid extension of literacy,” says Lukacs, “brought all kinds of historical literature to millions of previously unaffected readers.” This historical literature and education, “despite their often superficial nature, … had, in the long run, a definite impact on the minds of millions” of people. Indeed, it is as a result of this exposure to historical literature and the wide interest in that literature that it was possible for historical thought to be made available to those who are not and do not desire to be professional historians. While the shallowness of popular knowledge of history must be corrected lest it regress once more into the ancient mythological mode of thought, this popular knowledge has spurred popular interest and acted as an impetus toward the development of a historical consciousness.

As a remedy to both of the ailments plaguing the modern study of history, Lukacs proposes a focus in “study of the history of Europeans and Americans of the last three hundred years.” He reasons that it is this history which is the most interesting to the general public as it bears the most obvious effect on contemporary events due to its chronological and geographical proximity. Simultaneously, given that proximity, this history presents itself as the most important area of study for the specialist.

Through a focus upon this recent history of those of our own civilization, history is reoriented as a field of human knowledge which allows us to better understand ourselves. It is no longer a shallow list of facts or a deep pit of unnecessity and abstraction. The development of a historical consciousness which can proceed from this reorientation in turn opens up other fields of man’s knowledge about man, enabling a renewed humanism which seeks the truth about human life not in the impersonal universe of empiricism or the cyclical cosmos of mythology but in the authentic search for the truth of the human experience.

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3 comments

  1. I’m embarrassed to say that I hadn’t heard of John Lukacs before you posted this review. I didn’t look closely when it came up in my feed, and thought it was about the Lukacs of Critical Theory fame. I’m glad I clicked through, though, as this Lukacs seems like a very interesting author indeed, and I will definitely look up his work.

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