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by J.H. Hexter

Introduction by Gertrude Himmelfarb

The Historian and His Day


For a good while now a fairly strenuous contest has been in progress between two opposed schools of historical thought. Accepting a classification suggested by Professor R. L. Schuyler, one of the keenest though most courteous of the riders in the lists, the division lies roughly between the “present-minded” and the “history-minded” historians. In the course of time many historians have joined one side or the other in the controversy with the natural consequence that there has been some sense and a good deal of nonsense talked on both sides. In general, for subtle psychological reasons that I an unable to fathom, the kind of scholar who, distrustful of ideas and theories, believes that history is all facts has tended to take the side of the history-minded historians. For more obvious reasons the chronic do-gooder, who believes that knowledge justifies itself only by a capacity to solve current problems, lines up with the present-minded position.

This peculiar alignment has frequently obscured the issues at stake. It is easy to expose the feebleness and absurdity of those who want only facts and of those who want only current problem-solving; and it is fun, too. Consequently the attacks on both sides have been often been directed mainly against those vulnerable positions, and it has sometimes seemed as if the main bodies were too busy assaulting their opponents’ camp followers to come to grips with one another. For, of course, there is nothing intrinsic to the history-minded position that precludes ideas or theories or, if you prefer, generalization. Nor is there anything in present-mindedness that demands an optimism as to the efficacy of history as a panacea for current social ills.

Obviously it is not fair to judge either the history-minded or the present-minded historians by the vagaries of their respective lunatic fringes. Casting off the eccentric on both sides, there remains a real and serious divergence of opinion, as yet apparently irreconcilable, maintained on both sides by scholars whose achievements entitle their views to respectful consideration. The divergence is connected at least ostensibly with a fundamental difference in general outlook between the two parties to the argument. In a sense the present-minded are realists with respect to the study of history, the history-minded are idealists.

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