“Written History as an Act of Faith”
Charles A. Beard, The American Historical Review 39:2 (Jan., 1934), 219- 231.

This, like Carl Becker’s 1935 essay, “Everyman His Own Historian”, was an American Historical Association Presidential Address given on December 28, 1933 in Urbana, Illinois. Unlike Becker, Beard took his first shot of the speech not at scientific history but at the philosophers (particularly Hegel) who, “possessing little or no acquaintance with history, sometimes pretends to expound the inner secret of history”. Historians get the last laugh, Beard said, by describing philosophers as creatures of their historical moments and milieus, which give their “schemes of thought...appropriate relativity.”

Beard did consider the scientific method to be an appropriate tool in history, although he agreed with Becker that all historians were “influenced in their selection and ordering of materials by their biases, prejudices, beliefs, affections, general upbringing, and experience, particularly social and economic”. He anticipated Becker's point that the past is so BIG and complex that it would be absurd to accept “the conception that it is possible to describe the past as it actually was, somewhat as the engineer describes a single machine”. The originator of this idea, Beard said, was Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886), whom he described as a “German conservative, writing after the storm and stress of the French Revolution” (Ranke’s famous dictum was that history should be reported
wie es eigentlich gewesen ist). This desire to escape the passions of revolution led to an embrace of “the great conception of natural science--cold neutrality”.

The two disturbing “intellectual formulas borrowed from natural science, which have cramped and distorted the operations of history as thought” are simple, linear causality and, when that failed, what Beard called a “form of primitive animism” which he argued was “really the old determinism of physics covered with murky words”. Both these explanatory systems relied on “neat little chains of causation which explain, to [the historians’] satisfaction, why succeeding events happen.” When these schemes failed, as they always do, their proponents could blame incomplete or inaccurate data rather than a flawed hypothesis.

The solution to this unworkable approach, Beard said, was “historical relativity--the formula that makes all written history merely relative to time and circumstance”. The danger with such relativity, he warned, was that it led to only three possible outcomes. The historian either decides that “history as total actuality is chaos...and that the human mind cannot bring them objectively into any all-embracing order”, or that history is cyclical (“revolves in cycles eternally”), or that history is teleological (“moving in some direction”). Beard concluded that it was impossible to write history as chaos, so the historian faced only two actual choices, between the cyclical or the teleological alternatives. But he warned that this was a choice the historian made without adequate knowledge. This was the sense in which writing history was an act of faith. The historian's faith was “at bottom a conviction that something true can be known about the movement of history and [this] conviction is a subjective decision, not a purely objective discovery”.

I would argue that there is an additional alternative to these three choices of chaos, eternal cycles, or teleology. A historian could choose
modesty and not claim to be answering the ultimate questions of life, the universe, and everything. We could tell stories of change over time and try to find causes and connections without fooling ourselves that we've cracked some type of cosmic code. Even when we made global claims and posited general truths, we could acknowledge that these were generalities and not likely to apply in all cases. We could be descriptive rather than normative.

Appended to the back of this article was a letter from Benedetto Croce (1866-1952), the eminent Italian philosopher and historian who was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature sixteen times. Beard had invited the 67-year-old Croce to attend the meeting but (probably due to the worldwide depression) he had not been able to attend. Instead, he wrote a letter in which he said the two most dangerous recent developments in history were the “materialistic” and the “racial” interpretations of the past (Croce wrote an Anti-fascist Manifesto in 1925). He warned that although these two interpretations were self-evidently absurd when examined closely, the danger in them lay in “the intellectual tendencies they generate [and] in the prejudices they introduce by which they misguide and enfeeble thought”. I was fascinated by this idea of
absurd claims that are easy to see through when looked at directly, but that do damage not so much because people believe them, but because the arguments about them poison the discourse and having to talk about them basically makes everybody stupider. I think this is something we've seen a striking example of over the last decade, although maybe that very obvious instance ought to call our attention to a more insidious, less apparent process that has been going on much longer.