Thursday, July 24, 2008

Review: Tosh's "Historians on History" and "Pursuit of History"

The Pursuit of History: Aims, Methods and New Directions in the Study of Modern History (3rd Edition) and Historians on History: An Anthology by John Tosh

Early in The Pursuit of History, Tosh explains that "[h]ow the past is known and how it is applied to present need are open to widely varying approaches." Pursuit is a solid effort by Tosh to trace the origins of historical study and the methodologies that have evolved over time. He explains the difference between popular history and academic history and describes the importance of the latter.

The first half of Pursuit is dedicated to showing how historians should properly do their work, including how to find and use sources as well as how to write and interpret historical findings. All are well covered. The second half of the book is much more philosophical in tone. Tosh tackles a number of questions relating to objectivity, true knowledge and the reliability of so-called facts.

Simply put, he describes the battle between those who believe history is a cumulative discipline and those who view it as a relative and interpretive exercise as well as all of those with positions in between. Most importantly, he defends the discipline's viability and importance against those who attack it, including the postmodernists (though he doesn't dismiss all of the postmodernist contributions to the field). His notes and references are plentiful and he is fair with each of the "schools" of history.

Historians on History grew as an outgrowth of Pursuit and is essentially primary source material for the aforementioned work. It is comprised of excerpts from historiographical works on the field of history with brief input from Tosh. He lays the foundation for the book by describing the traditional reasons for studying history as well as the innovations and dialectic debates of the past 30 years.

He introduces each section with a brief biography of the author from whose work he has excerpted as well as an explanation of the particular historical philosophy which will be covered in that section. He then steps back and allows historians to illustrate their thoughts on a particular methodology or philosophy.

Not all sections are filled with works championing a certain method. For instance, the sections on Social Sciences and Postmodernism each contain relatively spirited articles defending or attacking these methods and Tosh doesn't interfere as he allows the reader to make up his own mind.

Tosh ends his compilation with a defense of the field of historical study. Tosh's writing is relatively clear and concise, though the same cannot be said for some of the excerpted writings. Though not always an enjoyable read, Historians on History is still a valuable work as it illuminates the thought processes of some of the field's finest minds.

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