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Bill Brown

A complicated man.

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I’m currently procrastinating on a book review. I got to an interesting part of the review: what is history? I guess that’s a surefire way to derail a book review, but that’s the kind of guy I am. Even a forum as mundane as a book review is a means to my examination of the deepest questions of my discipline. I thought I’d take a moment and blogitate on this point.

My working definition of history is “the study of the human past with the end of understanding the present.” The first part, or genus, links it to similar fields—in this case, anthropology and archaeology, which both study the human past. The second part, or differentia, distinguishes it from these same fields, which don’t seek to understand the present.

But is that a sufficient differentia? It seems problematic because I can think of much history that does not have understanding the present as its end. One could argue that the reader might invest such an end into the history, but that is troublesome. Are there any other studies of the human past that seek to understand the present? Certainly, there are substantial studies of the human past with that motivation undertaken in the fields of economics, politics, and sociology. But that is not the essence of those fields; it is merely an activity.

I can’t think of a better one than that, unfortunately. So I guess it will have to stand until I can come up with a better definition.