"In the seaways of Tierra del
Fuego," from HMS Beagle at Tierra del Fuego. Conrad Martens, c. 1834.
By Professor Ben Zajicek
What does it meant to “think” like a historian? How is “historical thinking” different from the sort of thinking that goes on in an English class or a Philosophy class? The basic difference is that these scholars are curious about different things. The philosopher’s goal is to understand fundamental questions of human existence. The literary scholar’s goal is to understand texts as works of art. The historian’s goal is to understand how and why humans have behaved in specific ways the past. Why did it make sense to people in the 18th century to treat a fever by “bleeding” the patient? Why did it make sense to European leaders to go to war with one another in 1914? The historian wants to understand the causes of the wonderful, fascinating, horrible, and amazingly complex range of human experience. Yet, the historian cannot observe or experience the past directly, only through the intermediation of what remains from that past. Historians call these remains “historical sources”.
As an example, let’s take the case of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. Hamlet was first performed in England in 1607, and it has been written about exhaustively by scholars ever since. Different types of scholars have thought about Hamlet in ways that help illustrate what we mean by “historical thinking.”
Literary scholars, for instance, tend to read Hamlet in order to understand the play as a work of art. They focus on Shakespeare’s use of imagery, his metaphors, his structure, his meditations on big themes like love and family. In one recent article, for example, an English Professor writes about Shakespeare’s use of repetition in Hamlet as a specific type of “narrative strategy.”1
Philosophers, on the other hand, want to understand questions about human existence, and so they have tended to focus on Shakespeare’s ideas: what is the meaning of life, what is truth? For instance, in a chapter on Hamlet in Shakespeare's Philosophy: Discovering the Meaning Behind the Plays, Colin McGinn writes “If we think that each person has something called a character that defines his identity – makes him the person he is – then we must ask whether such a thing can be encountered by introspection…. But perhaps this idea of character is an illusion…”2 McGinn is posing one of the classic questions of philosophy, “what does it mean to be a person?”, and he is using Hamlet to help him think about and answer that question.
Historians who read Hamlet tend to think about a very different set of questions. The historian wants to understand how people in England thought, acted, and lived around the year 1600. Hamlet is potentially a very useful source for this because it was written by someone who lived at that time, for an audience of people who had grown up around 1600. The historian therefore turns to Hamlet and asks what it reveals to us about the past: what seemed normal to people who lived then, but might seem strange to us? Why did those things seem normal to them and not to us? How did people at the time do simple things like cook, clean, raise children? Why? How did people at the time behave, how did they make decisions, how were their lives changing?
One historian, for instance, has written about how reading Hamlet helps us understand changing “codes of honor” in Renaissance England. To do this, she read other plays and books that were written around the same time and studied how the authors talked about honor and what it meant to be an “honorable” man. She found that ideas about honor were changing in 1600 – people no longer agreed about what honor meant in the way that they had in 1500. By putting Hamlet into historical context, she is able to argue that “Shakespeare creates characters in Hamlet that represent various stages in the evolution of a changing system of honor. … In doing so, Shakespeare also takes a conventional stance in a period of change.”3
The historians questions make the play in a source, a set of clues that help us understand the mental world of people in early 17th century England.
Students should not expect historical thinking to just happen. Most people have to very consciously work on asking "historical questions." This takes practice, preparation, and persistence.