In what ways do historians’ own personal experiences shape their interpretations of the past?

Alan Atkinson, in the journey to understand whether or not a ‘good historian’ should allow compassion to stain their work concluded that to not experience and project emotion is inhuman.[1] Similarly, Charles Beard’s 1935 article condemned the possibility of writing an entirely objective history, asserting that this was simply an unachievable yet ‘noble dream’.[2] Despite some academics, such as Leopold Von Ranke who will be discussed further, arguing that it is pertinent for historians to remain entirely objective in their interpretations of the past, it is widely accepted that oneself may bleed into one’s work. Whilst debates regarding whether an historian should be objective are prevalent, there exists less discussion concerning how personal experiences and opinions can affect interpretations of the past.

According to traditional hermeneutic literature, in an attempt of interpretation, an academic is in the pursuit of truth – this being an actuality and certainty within the interpreted source.[3] However, more modern considerations of the nature of interpretation, such as in the work of Ruth Lorand, suggest that interpretation is to be considered as a pursuit of desired knowledge, not truth.[4] Lorand asserts that interpretation is a deliberate act to uncover specific truths, not a general truth, thus, the interpreter dictates the nature of interpretation.[5] Being mindful of Lorand’s hermeneutic theory, it is pertinent to consider that the personal experiences and intentions of an historian will significantly shape their interpretations of the past. Personal experiences, for the purposes of this essay, will be considered as an historian’s background and upbringing, educational environment and academic influences as well as any significantly emotive personal events at any stage of life, these may include the death of a mentor, the experience of prejudice, or political upheaval in their homelands.

Historians’ own personal experiences shape their interpretations of the past largely incidentally. An historian may not hold the intention of allowing the events of their childhood and involvement with their immediate surroundings affect their account of the past, however, it is possible that this intention of objectivity is irrelevant. It is in an indirect way in which historians’ experiences shape their work. Mark Donnelly and Claire Norton, in their critique of the practice of history, argue that historians’ work is shaped by the limitations and conventions of the genre that they have chosen, their specific source collection and their intended research questions.[6] These factors are influenced by more intimate factors, such as their political alliances, personal morality, academic interests and social values, which are, in turn, impacted by an historian’s home life and environment.[7] Linda Anderson quotes Candace Lang’s assertion that all writing may be perceived as autobiographical, adding that ‘the writer is always, in the broadest sense, implicated in the work’.[8]

Leopold von Ranke argued that to allow oneself to influence how the past is interpreted in unnecessary and inappropriate; it should not be judged ‘by the historian’s own criteria’.[9] Rankean theory states that each period of history should stand alone from the rest, and in this the historian should attempt to retell it without judging the past.[10] The preoccupations of this scientific style of history, according to Green and Troup, include ‘rigorous examination and knowledge of historical evidence, verified by references’ as well as ‘impartial research’ and ‘an inductive method of reasoning’.[11] This style of historical study gained a wide following, particularly in the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, the intention of this essay is to discuss ways in which historians’ personal experiences have affected their interpretations of the past, regardless of whether or not it is appropriate for them to do so.

The life and works of Slavoj Zizek offer a particularly interesting case in terms of analysing in which ways an historian’s work is influenced by their own personal experiences. On the first page of Zizek’s introductory essay he remarks that ‘every history is a history of the present’, continuing with the explanation that ‘historiographical reception always closely mirror[s] the twists and turns of political struggles’.[12] Zizek offers that any history written, particularly that of the French Revolution, is consistently written with the influence of the current political upheavals and power conflicts in mind.[13] In times of particular conservatism, he states, the French Revolution is rejected as a catastrophic rebellion against the state, however, liberal attitudes reclaim the idea that the period was a ‘historical necessity to assert the modern principles of personal freedom’.[14] Zizek was born in Yugoslavia in 1949. This places the beginnings of his academic career within the influence of the political environment of 1970s East Europe, a time of the liberalisation of the Communist regime – a factor which would have manipulated his ideologies. The liberalisation of Communism was unwelcome in parts of Eastern Europe, since despite its oppressive nature, it ensured some sense of equality. This breakdown of equality in young Zizek’s environment may have acted as an indoctrinating factor, leading Zizek towards an anti-socialist mentality.

One area in which this experience has filtered into Zizek’s work is in his study of Maximilien Robespierre; whilst many historians, such as John Kekes who will be discussed further, are prone to criticise the motives of Robespierre in attempting to construct a Republic of Virtue, Zizek argues that Robespierre was correct in attempting to create a more moralistic society.[15] It is possible that these beliefs stem from seeing the rise of dissimilarity and inequality of income that accompanied the rise of socialism in Eastern Europe. Correspondingly, the Jacobinism of the French Revolution has been considered the beginning of Communism.[16] Being surrounded by Marxist and Communist propaganda and literature in his early academic career has shaped the way Zizek has interpreted Robespierre’s role in the French Revolution. In discussing Robespierre, Zizek references Marx’s assertion that without virtue and terror, there is simply corruption.[17] Perhaps due to Zizek’s early life being influenced by Communism, he was directed to Marxist literature and as a result has interpreted Robespierre’s career in light of his own personal influences. Zizek also frequently discusses the nature of belief within the context of Marxism and Hegelianism in his 2001 book.[18] This interpretation of the past is clearly shaped by Zizek’s research interests, which can be traced back to his political environment in youth.

Another valuable case study is American historian and philosopher John Kekes’ interpretation of Robespierre’s motives during the French Revolution. Due to Kekes’ extensive philosophical knowledge and experience, it is appropriate that Kekes would approach the topic of the French Revolution with a significantly different stance to Zizek. With the opening lines of his 2006 article on the subject, Kekes admits that he is unusual in being an American academic that is unfavourable to the history of the French Revolution, since America was ‘itself born in revolution’.[19] However, Kekes maintains that Robespierre was a terrorist who sought little more than power by way of unjustifiable massacres.[20] He discusses the idea that people who defend Robespierre with the argument that he wholeheartedly believed it was moral and correct to pursue a Republic of Virtue by any means necessary are misguided.[21]

Kekes states that any defence of Robespierre would prove equivalent to tolerating the crimes of any terrorist or Nazi supposing that they were truly fanatical about their cause.[22] As a man of religious and philosophical background, it is not unexpected that Kekes’ interpretation of the past would take into great consideration debates of human morality and ethics. In his book, The Roots of Evil, Kekes places great emphasis on providing an interpretation of events in history with the intention of analysing the events in terms of philosophical and ethical protocol. For instance, in his discussion of Robespierre Kekes denounces Robespierre’s claim to morality and virtue stating that he did not intend to provide equality for all, simply those he approved of.[23] Kekes argues that it is the pursuit of terror and inflicting pain and suffering beyond which is necessary to achieve an end that is decisively evil, and Robespierre’s pursuit of virtue surpassed any appropriate measure of terror for righteous means.[24]

Contrastingly, Marisa Linton is a modern, British historian who, perhaps influenced by a conservative British culture, would be more drawn to a revisionist style of writing. British historical studies, dating from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, are traditionally empirical in their approach; concepts of scientific methods of enquiry originating in the Enlightenment influenced social studies. Green and Troup state that with this newfound ‘professionalism for historical study came an emphasis upon systematic archival research.’[25] Historical revisionism, with its foundations in the reinterpretations of orthodox views by reanalysing evidence, is very much a rebirth of this style of interpretation. Typical to a more conservative historical analysis, Linton asserts that Robespierre was a terrorist with motives against traditional government, however, this is delivered in a revised style. Linton suggests that Robespierre was simply a scapegoat for the more powerful terrorists within government due to his public image.[26] Linton does not deny that Robespierre was part of the Terror, or even that he did hold some authority in the revolution, however, she does state that Robespierre had a ‘dream of a virtuous republic’ suggesting that he was unlike the other men in the committees in both character and ambition.[27] This is a relatively new interpretation of a much discussed field of history.

Additionally, Linton’s frequent use of primary sources would highlight a predilection for empirical, revisionist histories that are popular with British historians. In one essay concerning Robespierre, Linton frequently references contemporary sources, such as Robespierre’s speeches and the works of Saint-Just; for instance, in her discussion of Robespierre’s pre-Revolution works.[28] In her wider range of works on the Terror period of the French Revolution, Linton criticises the politicians’ influence in inciting fear, suggesting that such governmental corruption was an inevitably catastrophic course. Such a standing is typical of a British historian due to the custom of checks and balances present in the British political system and the long tradition of a strong constitutional monarchy. In this way, Linton’s personal upbringing and environment have affected the way in which she interprets the past.

Hampson suggests, as does Linton, that Robespierre’s political influence was more than likely overstated by fellow politicians who had held major roles in the Terror in an attempt to avoid ridicule and reprimand from the surviving victims of the Terror.[29] In a similar vein to Linton, though writing much earlier, Norman Hampson was one of the earliest revisionist historians to write about the French Revolution. Donnelly and Norton argue that each new wave of history on a particular subject is, in a progressive manner, part of an unending improvement process; with the development of revisionism in the study of the French Revolution, Hampson brought a new interpretation through a new use of the sources.[30] This is likely associated with the time of his writing. Whilst Linton is developing an existing school of historical study in her work, Hampson’s writing on the topic began in the 1960s. Following the mid-century studies of the causation of the French Revolution decidedly viewing it as a successful bourgeois revolution, further research in the 1960s by historians, such as Francois Furet, developed the theory of causation to where it stands today. Norman Hampson was part of a generation of historians that expanded the discussions of the French Revolution into a series of complex social questions and debates regarding the relationships between internal and external warfare alongside economic crisis as part of the beginning of the revolution. In this manner, Hampson’s interpretations of the past were shaped by his academic influences and experiences, which came from his colleagues and the natural progression of the study of history.

To conclude, it is evident, therefore, that there exist many ways in which an historian’s interpretation of the past can be shaped by their personal experiences. One of the most significant ways in which personal experience can affect the work of an academic is through their childhood and upbringing. Most significantly their political and cultural environments. Zizek is a prime example of an historian whose academic career was largely influenced by his upbringing in Eastern Europe and his resulting political affiliations. In reaching adulthood in a politically-charged environment, with a sense of revolution and radicalism filling the hearts of all young academics, it was inevitable that Zizek would turn to the less conservative works of Marx, Engels and Lacan to inspire his interpretations of history. Contrastingly, it is anticipated that the works of a middle-class, white British woman would offer a more conservative interpretation of the period. Marisa Linton has sought influence from a subconscious comparison of the relative peaceful and uncorrupted modern Britain; in doing so, Linton is typically offended by the blatant corruption and savagery of revolutionary France.

Offering significant dissimilarity, Hampson and Kekes are more greatly influenced by their academic experiences that their cultural or political environments. Hampson’s work is strongly affected by the natural progression of the subject as it gains new evidence and researchers. With the development of historical revisionism, Hampson’s career – and, as a result, his interpretations of the past – followed a specific set of guidelines that fit within this new field of history. Equally, Kekes’ works and interpretations of the past are largely restricted by the limitations of his genre. Kekes’ research intentions, in his analysis of Robespierre, were to understand the events of the French Revolution within the confinements of understanding human morality and philosophical righteousness. It is clear that Kekes’ interpretation of the past has been significantly shaped by his background as an academic and professor of philosophy.

[1] A. Atkinson, ‘Do Good Historians Have Feelings?’, in S. Macintyre (ed.), The Historian’s Conscience: Australian Historians on the Ethics of History, (Victoria: Melbourne University Press, 2004), p.26.

[2] C. Beard, ‘That Noble Dream’, The American Historical Review, 41.1 (1935), pp. 74-87.

[3] R. Lorand, ‘The Logic of Interpretation’, in P. Machamer and G. Wolters (eds.), Interpretation: Ways of Thinking about the Sciences and the Arts, (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010), pp.16-29.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] M. Donnelly and C. Norton, Doing History, (Oxon: Routledge, 2011), p.93.

[7] Ibid.

[8] L. Anderson, Autobiography, 2nd ed. (Oxon: Routledge, 2011), p.1.

[9] A. Green and K. Troup, The Houses of History: A Critical Reader in Twentieth-Century History and Theory, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999), p.2-3.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Zizek, Robespierre, p.vii.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] S. Zizek, Robespierre: Virtue and Terror, (London: Verso, 2007), pp.vii-xxxix.

[16] W. H. Chamberlain, ‘The Jacobin Ancestry of Soviet Communism’, Russian Review, 17.4 (1958), pp.251-257.

[17] Zizek, Robespierre, p.ix.

[18] S. Zizek, On Belief,  (London: Routledge, 2001), pp.1-5.

[19] J. Kekes, ‘Why Robespierre Chose Terror’, City Journal, 16.2 (2006), p.92-103.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] J. Kekes, The Roots of Evil, (New York: Cornell University Press, 2005), p.37.

[24] Kekes, The Roots of Evil, pp.1-2.

[25] Green and Troup, The Houses of History, p.1.

[26] M. Linton, ‘Robespierre and the Terror’, History Today, 56.8 (2006), pp.23-29.

[27] Ibid.

[28] M. Linton, ‘Robespierre’s Political Principles’, in C. Haydon and W. Doyle (eds), Robespierre, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p.44.

[29] N. Hampson, ‘Robespierre and the Terror’, in C. Haydon and W. Doyle (eds), Robespierre, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p.173.

[30] Donnelly and Norton, Doing History, p.94.


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