Discovering the ‘Thinking Big’ Historians

“In a world where I feel so small, I can’t stop thinking big.”

RUSH, ‘Caravan’, “Clockwork Angels”

Rush - Clockwork Angels

In the opening essay ‘The Purpose of Philosophy’ of Isaiah Berlin’s “Concepts and Categories” Berlin makes the point that philosophy can’t, and shouldn’t provide the ultimate answers to human existence; but rather provide a starting point to reflect and reconsider our collective wisdom, our assumptions, our prejudices, etc. It is the test of our real world experience against our moral impulses: is justice or compassion true or false? It is how we think about the question that makes philosophy different from say physical geography where the question might be ‘what is the distance between Regina and Winnipeg?’

History falls somewhere in between the painstaking requirement for accuracy and verification, but the best history is expressed when the power of imagination and philosophical/moral thought are applied to the topic. Two recent bestsellers come to mind: ‘The War that Ended Peace: the Road to 1914’ by Margaret MacMillan and ‘Heretics and Heroes: how Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World’ by Thomas Cahill. Experts can quibble or even have a conniption comparing the meticulous research methods of MacMillan and the popular history bent of Cahill. Both share a wider interpretation of the facts, a sense that these historical events were not pre-ordained and that multiple outcomes may have occurred.

Allowing to ask uncommon or unpopular questions are often produces breakthrough ideas like E.P. Thompson’s ‘Making of the English Working Class’ and the classic “age of” trilogy by Eric Hobsbawm, Marc Bloch ‘The Feudal Society’, the work of Paul Johnson or the great theorists like Fernand Braudel or Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s ‘Millennium’ and ‘1492: the Year the World Began’. Another big thinking historian Niall Ferguson who wrote ‘Civilization: the West and the Rest’, ‘Ascent of Money’, and ‘The Great Degeneration’ maintains that “at the heart of our enterprise is the imagination. One has to imagine what is was to be in another time, in another predicament. and that active imagination is at the heart of the historical process.”

The merger of analysis and feeling, assessment and empathy, is where the dry facts of history meet the examples of Berlin’s view of the purpose of philosophy; that we will never entirely answer the question, but to think about the issue in a new and creative way, that would be a good working definition of ‘thinking big’.

Phil D.

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