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Introduction: “Right as diverse pathes leden”

  • Oren Harman (a1)

Extract

“A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history,” Mahatma Ghandi is often quoted as saying, and, one might add cheekily, but with unquestionable truth, so too a small group of determined historians. Burke may have counseled that “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” but the Irishman clearly gave memory greater credit than it deserves. Not only do we use the past by many means and to many ends, but these means and ends necessarily color our view of the past, shape it, oftentimes constructing it forthright. And what is true for the layman may in fact be argued to be doubly true for the professional historian, his or her many years of considered disciplining notwithstanding. Being taught to be aware of our biases doesn't always help us overcome them, nor do we necessarily write about the past because we simply want to tell it “like it was.” Memory is fallible, and historical records incomplete – yes – but over and above these limitations, we often seek to recall the past and breathe new life into it for very particular reasons. Churchill knew this all too well. “History will be kind to me,” he wrote, “for I intend to write it.”

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Copyright

References

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1 David Foster Wallace, This Is Water, Kenyon Commencement Address, May 21, 2005.

2 Geoffrey Chaucer, Treatise on the Astrolabe, Prologue, II. 39–40, 1391.

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Science in Context
  • ISSN: 0269-8897
  • EISSN: 1474-0664
  • URL: /core/journals/science-in-context
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