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What is History?

Updated on November 28, 2012

Writer and historian Forrest McDonald writes views on history in his article "On the Historical Enterprise." The following essay is a reflection of his ideas.

 Forrest McDonald preaches that history is a generalization. In his article, “On the Historical Enterprise,” McDonald clarifies that the term history always “refers to events that took place in the past, but never to all events” (1). Millions of things take place over time and can be sorted into different types of history, but “conventional history,” as McDonald explains, “is [based around] human affairs” (1). Although “conventional history” is based around human affairs, however, McDonald would argue that it does not include every event that has taken place between humans since the beginning of humanity. History is a generalization.

“To make a generalization,” says McDonald, “is to observe tangible particulars and reduce them to abstractions” (8). McDonald compares the way in which history is generalized to the generalization of everyday objects in saying, “when we see a number of trees, we generalize them as ‘woods’ or forest.’” McDonald would generalize history in the same way by grouping, for example, several marches and acts as a movement, or several battles for a specific cause as a war.

McDonald delves deeper into his explanation of history by stating that history “is the remembered past, as perpetuated by words or remnants of the past” (2). McDonald notes that each and every society has its own legends, stories, and myths about how certain things came to be. He continues to say that, “so as long myths are generally accepted as true, they fulfill their function of legitimizing the society,” regardless of their historical accuracy (2). The stories, legends, and myth that they adopt to answer their questions serve as a true history until proven otherwise.

History, to McDonald, is also a generalization of past human interaction. Instead of being fact after fact ordered in a timeline to “speak for itself,” he describes history as a “mode of thinking that wrenches the past out of context and sequence, out of the way it really happened, and reorders it in an artificial way that facilitates understanding and remembering” (5). It is a historian’s job, he says, to take every small detail that falls into a timeline, and bridge each and every piece of information together to create something more. By bridging together several small events into one, a historian is able to create a broader and  more generalized history, making it easier for society to see and understand.

McDonald defends the idea that history teaches; and although it does not offer a storybook moral or life lesson, history does tell a person more about who they are. “We are the products of our past,” says McDonald, “and anything that helps us understand what we have been [in turn] helps us understand who we are” (10). “[W]e need orientation,” he says. “[We] need to know where we are in time as well as in space.”

If Forrest McDonald were to be asked what history is, he would say exactly the same things that he wrote in his article. He would explain that history is a generalization of human affairs that both explain the past, and teach the present society more about itself as a whole and individually. He would say that history “transforms the concrete into the abstract [and] the discrete into a generalization” (8).


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