OFf the shelf
Breaking down tunnel vision
V. N Datta

Why History Matters.
by John Tosh. Palgrave Macmillan. Pages xi+173. £ 9.99.

John Tosh is Professor of History, Roehampton University, UK. He is widely known for his special contribution to historiography and philosophy of history. His book The Pursuit of History is now in its fourth edition.

In his book under review, his object is to "show how a more widespread understanding of his historical thinking might bring closer to the ideal critical citizen." In other words, the author’s intention is to make the reader aware so that he can understand the vicissitudes of human affairs. Tosh’s approach to history is ethical because he believes that the main purpose of history is to offer a critical resource for the active citizen in a representative democracy.

Tosh emphasises that knowledge about particular topics dealing with the past should not be compartmentalised but must be related to the material and cultural circumstances as that is the only way to provide a holistic and proper perspective to understand the problems of human existence. By adopting such an approach, Tosh is not being original; he follows Ranke by focusing on the interconnectedness of events in the reconstruction of past.

To the author, history is not a dogma; but an interim report, a process of revision, one way or the other. Throughout the book Tosh insists on the adoption of a contextual approach in the reconstruction of the past, which means relating events and situations to social, political and economic conditions of the times.

Tosh urges the adoption of a broader perspective for the study of history. According to the author, attention to context demands that we examine not just the scale of each episode, but the ideology of perpetrators, their aims and ... methods, the degree of popular participation, and approval and "the degree of resistance on the part of the victims".

Tosh writes: "Historical perspective can prove invaluable in breaking down the tunnel vision which easily distorts understanding of international problems. He urges that without regard to context, the study of ‘international relations’ or ‘foreign policy’ is bound to be ‘counter-productive’.

He warns that those historians who see the European expansion in the 19th century as just an expression of maritime flair and technical superiority and do not link it to economic structure, pattern of consumption, notion of masculinity and social differences give a limited and distorted view of history. He cites the example of the Gulf War in 1991 as a matter of international law and politics of oil, which is manifestly an inadequate explanation.

Tosh repudiates Ranke’s view that past has to be studied for its own sake which Herbert Butterfield elaborated with sophistication in his seminal work, The Whig Interpretation of History. History is a serious discipline, a rigorous method of analysis, which completely rejects a linear view of interpretation. Tosh insists that the study of history has to give much to the present generation; it offers a unique and wide range of unexpected and illuminating insights into the present.

Tosh asks: "Why does history matter"? Does it posses any intrinsic value? Is if productive? Is it relevant? For Tosh, the chief value of history is "intellectual empowerment which equips lay people with a distinctive mode of thinking" to understand the present. Tosh’s study is not a work of theory but an aid to promote thinking, which means analysis, comparative evaluation, and offering structural explanations.

Tosh states that the present is different from the present, and the future will be different from the present. This statement is true but in q limited sense "because often it has been seen that what is called ‘present’ embodies much of the past; as in the cycle of history the process of change and continuity work inexorably. It has been shown that in modernity several ingredients of Medieval life can be identified.

Of course, there is one caveat that the future is, unpredictable, and one of the more certain lessons of history is that it will remain so. The author seems to have taken too much for granted, because the lessons and ideas he has drawn do not confirm to obvious political situations and shades of opinion. According to the author, history is essentially a story telling which has to be taken to its beginning as it can serve as a useful corrective to the dangers of abridged narrative. Tosh warns that ‘telling the story, in abridged form may also convey a misleading idea of a smooth, almost pre-ordained route to the present’.

Tosh is critical of the general tendency on the part of historians to be obsessed with the notion of continuity by tracing so much of its antecedents that all sense of ‘new turnings is lost’. Tosh comments that the new is never a tabula rasa because it brings together elements from the past in the new situation and in a new relation to one another. Thus the ‘new’ is never new in an absolute sense.

The present work is not a conventional book but a carefully crafted catalogue of texts. It is a dry, academic study, but certainly thought-provoking.