The Historian's Craft


The Living Force
Marc Bloch, the author of The Historian's Craft, was killed by the Nazis during the French occupation (he was in the resistance) at a time when he had developed an interesting perspective on history, and before he could wholly finish his book. We'll never know what else he had to say, nor where his inquiry would have taken him had he been able to continue it, but the book as such is a worthy read. It describes the basic concepts and ways of thought of a good historian - and how he can conduct his craft.

Below is a summary of some key points found in the first two thirds of the book - along with some additional remarks, connecting them to other things, in parentheses:

History is "the science of men in time" - wherever the human element enters, enters history. So history encompasses a "total history" of all human activity and development. Through it, one basically studies how humans have interacted with the world and amongst themselves - and so, to get a bit esoteric, how they have interacted with the universe.

History concerns all time that is accessible to us, and so both past and present - and both need to be studied, since understanding of either depends on understanding the other: Understanding the present state of the world requires studying the past, including the developments that have led up to the present and in order to recognise those which recur in it. Our understanding of the past is also dependent on present reality, since present reality has shaped our minds, the way we think and feel - in short, the way we look upon the past is dependent on the way we look upon the present. (Just think of what reading e.g. SOTT and its information about the present has done for our understanding of the past.)

Increased understanding of past and of present thus each faciliate the other, and so there is something of a feedback loop - the better you know the present, the better you can know the past, which in turn allows you to better know the present, and so forth.

Even when it comes to the present, evidence is often indirect - no one can see and experience everything, and we rely on the information of others for most of our knowledge of the world. In this sense, study of the present does not differ as much as people generally think from study of the past.

But apart from indirect information about the present, the need for understanding makes it necessary to be alive in the present - to experience and participate in the world, in life and its ongoing developments - to be curious about and explore it, seeing, feeling and knowing it to a greater extent for oneself. (One could extend this point, further pointing to the role of personal development - which comes from how we interact with the world - in the growth of understanding.)

Historical inquiry must be an active search - not merely passive observation, which at best results in a collection of data; evidence of all kinds must be cross-examined. Whether the inquirer knows it or not - does it deliberately or intuitively - this is the basis of fruitful inquiry into the meaning of evidence.

There are intentional sources (documents meant to provide information, whether accurate or not, and whatever the underlying intent), and unintentional sources (anything which is examined to extract information which it was not intended to convey to the examiner). Private or otherwise unintended information about individuals is the best basis for knowing their history with any certainty.

Apart from artifacts from former times, private documents, and other evidence unintentional by their very nature, intentional sources can also be used as unintentional ones - e.g. by analyzing the contents to yield psychological insights about the author. This can not only expose an agenda, or be used to derive useful information from a forgery, but also give cultural insights into peoples of the past by examining their way of thought and expression.

There are often no clear "beginnings" in history - that is, some isolated point with which something begins. There are causes, which can be studied, but this is not the same thing - the immediate causes may have other causes, and so forth, and then there is not necessarily something that can be pointed to as "the" beginning. But these two ideas are often confused in the study of origins - such that inquirers look for "the beginning" rather than examining the causal chain behind the object of their study. And in doing so, they often conduct their work according to fixed ideas - prejudices - their work then only serving to confirm these biases. (For example, imagine a racist doing inquiry into the origins of a societal development. Or, going into modern darwinian science: The origins of humanity on this planet.)

A unique historical case cannot be analysed to separate the specific elements to be understood therein. Hence the necessity for both depth and breadth in the study of history, so that different cases of related character can be examined - thereby learning to differentiate specific elements within each case, so that insight can be achieved.

Since history studies everything that humans have been up to, there is an incredible range of evidence. All manner of fields of knowledge are therefore needed to put the pieces together. Since no one can know everything, the work of many kinds of specialists becomes necessary, along with synthesis. (Like the synthesis Laura has done in reading all those books and putting pieces together in her work.)

In historical inquiry, it is generally best to begin with the best known and proceed from it to something less known, and so gradually approach the least known - instead of starting with it. (This would seem to apply both for inquiries into different types of evidence and for examining different historical periods.) When it comes to inquiry into aspects of historical periods, the present is generally (but not always) the best known; in this case, Bloch compares the process of inquiry to restoring a film where only the last frame (the present) is clear: Going backwards, the other frames are degraded to varying (but generally increasing) extents - so one has to generally work backwards, using the information from clearer frames to restore less clear frames, but sometimes jumping around if there is a gap in the clarity of some historical period, or on the contrary a wealth of evidence.

Wars, revolutions and natural catastrophes disrupt the activities of individuals and organisations; this may preserve for the future documents and other evidence that would otherwise be destroyed, whether through negligence or for the purpose of secrecy. Bloch gives the example of documents seized during the French Revolution that are now available for scholars to study, which otherwise would likely have been locked up, destroyed and/or otherwise lost. And a volcanic eruption may bury a city relatively intact, preserving its remains from the passing of time and the activity of future generations, allowing future inquirers to dig it up and study it. Of course, such events are also accompanied by destruction, both accidental and willful in the case of wars and revolutions, and natural in the case of natural catastrophes. (And the worst natural catastrophes - like cometary bombardment - leave very little, if anything, in place.) Depending on the circumstances, catastrophes may thus not only deprive historians of evidence but also instead serve to provide it.

There is a need for the critical attitude in historical inquiry; this is neither blind belief, nor blind doubt, nor the practice of "common sense", which for the most part is based on blind assumptions, prejudice, and extrapolations from experiences too few. ("Common sense" is a product of System 1, while critical inquiry requires engaging System 2.)

Historical deceptions may take the forms of forgery - producing something and misrepresenting its origins - and of misrepresentation of reality in something that is of honest origins. Frauds tend to be perpetuated in clusters, as any one lie tends to need other lies to support it when questioned. Thus webs of lies and frauds develop where each supports others; in the most successful cases, this may produce a unified, false picture of one or more aspects of reality. (9/11 would be an example. In our present world, entire worldviews are being falsified in this way.)


The Living Force
FOTCM Member
Psalehesost said:
Here's a writeup based on the notes - made in reading the first two thirds of the book - the actual notes are more compact and a bit more scattered, and I'll elaborate them to make them cover more of what was said during the discussion - and include and fill out the few points from the notes skipped as well. thorbiorn also had a number of things to say, which would be interesting to see posted. And if you piece some points together and/or have something to add to the ones posted, feel free.

Thank you Psalehesost for the summary. Here follows some quotes from the book which I found interesting. Page numbers refer to the Manchester University Press edition ISBN 978 0 7190 3929 9

From the Introduction
In the introduction March Bloch reflects on the study of history.
First he mentions that of history can appeal to both the emotions and the intellect (6-7).
”[…] this charm will be far form diminished once methodical inquiry, with all its necessary austerities, has begun (7).”
As an example, he mentions Leibniz who is more known as a mathematician and philosopher, yet he was fascinated by the study of history.

Next, he discusses the uses of history
”No one today, I believe, would dare to say, with the orthodox positivists, that the value of a line of research is to be measured by its ability to promote action (p 8). […] However, it is undeniable that a science will always seem to us somehow incomplete it it cannot, sooner or later, in one way or another, aid us to live better. (9). […] this question of use must always come second in the order of things, for, to act reasonably, it is first necessary to understand.”
He also argues against the positivists. For reference positivism was a school of thought formulated by August Comte (1798-1857), the French founder of sociology. Comte held that all science could be ordered in six categories viz. mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology and sociology, with mathematics and its branches being at the most basic level and being primary in relation to the next levels. Furthermore, he was of the opinion that the goal of a science like sociology was to discover general laws based on empirical and verifiable evidence much like one would do in the other natural sciences. (_

Some thinkers held that only these disciplines could be accepted as sciences. On this basis, it is understandable that Bloch in the introduction tries to define history as a science on its own and distances himself from the positivist theory of science:
"[…] The generations just prior to our own, in the last decades of the nineteenth century and even in the first years of the twentieth, were as if mesmerized by the Comtian conception of physical science (12).”
”But history is still in that stage which is very indulgent of statements of positive certainties (11).
It is interesting that to some extend that is the view of history and events we get fed by the medias. News is often a disconnected array of seemingly real events presented in a manner that often leaves us with a superficial and incomplete understanding. Take the Boston bombings, the Sandy Hook shooting or 9/11. The list is long.

While Marc Bloch in his time apparently had to argue for reasons to consider history a science in the first place that is no longer the case. Depending on which branch of history one deals with it is considered as a being a branch in social science and/or belonging to the humanities. (_

As to emphasize the need to go beyond the ”positive certainties”, Bloch writes about history that
”it struggles to penetrate beneath the mere surface of actions, rejecting not only the temptations of legend and rhetoric, but the still more dangerous modern poisons of routine learning and empiricism parading as common sense (13).”
The above goes well with another expression later in the book:
”It is a scandal that in our age, which is more than ever exposed to the poisons of fraud and false rumour, the critical method is so completely absent from our school programs (113).”
Today the critical method is not absent from the curriculum, but apparently many pupils and students rarely reach a level where it is applied to the life experience that surrounds them.

In the quest for knowledge of history, he admits its uncertainty:
”The uncertainties of our science must not, I think, be hidden from the curiosity of the world (15).”
In view of what many history books contain, is it difficult to find instances in which historians try to do just this in order to protect their mental constructs or worse someone’s interest?

Bloch is in favour of taking an interdisciplinary approach to knowledge and history:
”Long have we worked for a wider more human history. (2)”
”Each science, taken by itself, represents but a fragment of the universal march towards knowledge. […] in order to understand and appreciate one’s own methods of investigation, however specialized, it is indispensable to see their connections with all simultaneous tendencies in other fields (16)”.
”[History] comprises in itself no credo; it commits us, according to its original meaning, to nothing other than ”inquiry” (17).”

Moving on to chapter one: ”History, Men and Time”:
”This subject,” declares the Divine Lexicographer, ”or that means of treating it is, no doubt seductive, but - take care, O young apprentice! - it is not history! (18)”
Some passages, like the one above, can, it seems, be understood on more than one level.

”The good historian is like the giant in the fairy tale. He know that wherever he catches the scent of human flesh, there his quarry lies. (22)”
But the question is how far that scent of man can be traced?
”They narrated pell-mell events whose only connection was that they had happened at the same time: eclipses, hailstorms, and the sudden appearance of astonishing meteors along with battles and the death of kings and heroes ( 19).”

I like the following sentences:
”As an old Arab proverb has it: ”Men resemble their times more than they do their fathers.” Disregard of this Oriental wisdom has sometimes brought discredit to the study of the past (29).

”[…] once an emotional chord has been struck, the line between present and past is not longer strictly regulated by a mathematically measurable chronology. In the Languedoc high school where I served my first term as a teacher, my good headmaster issued a warning in a voice befitting a captain of education. ”Here, with the nineteenth century, there is little danger; but when you touch on the religious wars, you must take great care! (31)”
Perhaps, one may relate this paragraph back to a section of the introduction where, writing about the opponents of history as a science, he says:
”The most indulgent have said that history is both unprofitable and unsound; others, with a severity which admits of no compromise, that is it is pernicious. One of them, and not the least celebrated, has declared it ”the most dangerous compound yet contrived by the chemistry of the intellect.” These condemnations offer a terrible temptation, in that they justify ignorance in advance. Fortunately for those of us who still remain our intellectual curiosity, there is, perhaps an appeal from their verdict (9-10).”

”Man spends his time devising techniques of which he afterwards remains a more or less willing prisoner. (33)”

”[…] ignorance of the past not only confuses contemporary science, but confounds contemporary action (33).”

” […] more than one youth has learned at least as much from the aged as from those in their prime (34).”

”the faculty of understanding the living is, in very truth, the master quality of the historian (36).”

”[…] the value of these merely instinctive impressions will be increased a hundredfold if they are replaced by a ready and critical observation (37).”

”[…] historical research will tolerate no autarchy. Isolated, each will understand only by halves, even within his own field of study, for the only true history, which can advance only through mutual aid, is universal history (39).”

From chapter two: ”Historical Observation”:

” A good half of all we see is seen through the eyes of others (41).”

”In this respect, the student of the present is scarcely any better off than the historian of the past (42).”

”[…] cross examination becomes more necessary than ever. Indeed, it is the prime necessity of well-conducted research (53).”
”It is advisable and, in my opinion, it is indisputable that the historian possess at least a smattering of all the principal techniques of his trade, if only to learn the strength of his tools and the difficulties of handling them.(57)”

From chapter three ”Historical Criticism”:
Quoting Michel Levassor, Bloch writes
”that rectitude of mind consists in not being too ready to believe, and on a number of occasions, , in knowing how to doubt (69).”

”[…] rationally conducted, doubt could become an instrument of knowledge (71).”

”If men, who are the object of our study, fail to understand us, how can we feel that we have accomplished more than half our mission (72).”

”Corrupted by dogma and myth, current opinion, even when it is least hostile to enlightenment, has lost the very taste for verification (73).”

”Now, there have been mythomaniac epochs, as well as individuals with a passion for lying (78).”

”[…] the experience of life teaches, and that of history confirms, that any offence against the truth is like a net and that almost inevitably every lie drags in its train many others, summoned to lend it a semblance of mutual support. That is why so many forgeries occur in clusters (81)”.

”The absurd rumour was believed, because it was useful to believe it. Of all the types of deception, not the least frequent is that which we impose upon ourselves, and the word ”sincerity” has so broad a meaning that it cannot be used without admitting a great many shadings (83)”.

”The truth is that the majority of minds are but mediocre recording cameras of the surrounding world (84)”.

”The faculty of observation is as variable among societies as among individuals (87)”.

”Frequent contacts among men make it easy to compare divergent stories. They stimulate the critical sense. On the other hand, we have faith in the narrator who, at rare intervals, brings us distant rumours over a difficult road (91)”.

”However great he may be, no man can dispense with the labour of generations by the sheer force of his genius (101)”.

” […] coincidence is one of those freaks which cannot be eliminated from history (102)”.

”[…] the majority of the problems of historical criticism are really problems of probability (107)”.

From chaper four: Historical ”Analysis”:

Quoting Montaigne:
”Whenever judgement leans to one side we cannot help distorting and twisting the narrative in this direction (116)”.

”To neglect to organize rationally what comes to us as raw material is in the long run only to deny time - hence, history itself (122)”.

”Danger threatens only when each operator claims to see everything by himself, when each canton of learning pretends to national sovereignty (124)”.

This was interesting:
”It is an established fact that from the twelth century until at least the Reformation the communities of textile workers were one of the favorite breeding-grounds of heresies (126)”.
But, maybe it should come as no surprise that weavers were good at networking :)

”[…] the knowledge of fragments, studied by turns each for its own sake, will never produce the knowledge of the whole; it will not even produce that of the fragments themselves.

But the work of reintegration can come only after analysis .(128)”.

”There are, in history, some generations which are long and some which are short. […] But a generations represents only a relatively short phase. Longer phases are called civilizations (153-154)”.

From chapter five ”Historical Causation”:
”We should seriously misrepresent the problems of cause in history if we always and everywhere reduced them to a problem of motive (161)”.
”In a word, in history, as elsewhere, the causes cannot be assumed. They are to be looked for…. (163)”

In general, I think there is much of value in this small book.
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