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The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History

Edited by Scott Moyers

Reflections on the historian’s craft and its place in American culture, from a master craftsman.

History is to society what memory is to the individual: without it, we don’t know who we are, and we can’t make wise decisions about where we should be going. But while the nature of memory is a constant, the nature of history has changed radically over the past forty years, for good but also for ill. In The Purpose of the Past, historian Gordon S. Wood examines the sea change in the field through considerations of some of its most important historians and their works. His book serves as both a history of American history—neither wholly a celebration nor a critique—and an argument for its ongoing necessity.

These are both the best of times and the worst of times for American history. New currents of thought have brought refreshing and vitally necessary changes to the discipline, expanding its compass to include previously under-examined and undervalued groups and subjects. At the same time, however, strains of extreme, even nihilistic, relativism have assaulted the relevance, even the legitimacy, of the historian’s work. The divide between the work of academic and popular historians has widened into a chasm, separating some of the field’s most important new ideas from what would give them much greater impact: any kind of real audience.

But The Purpose of the Past is not another crotchety elegy for what history once was but sadly now isn’t; it is also a celebration of what, at its best, it is, and a powerful argument for its ongoing necessity. Along the way The Purpose of the Past offers wonderful insight into what great historians do, and how they can stumble, and what strains of thought have dominated the marketplace of ideas in historical scholarship. A master historian’s commanding assessment of his field, The Purpose of the Past will enlarge the capacity to appreciate history of anyone who reads it.


Other books by Gordon S. Wood


“Essential reading for anyone who cares about history.” —Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

“Illuminating … [Wood’s] pitch-perfect erudition is legendary.” —Douglas Brinkley, Los Angeles Times

“A fascinating look at why, and how, history matters.” —The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Author Q&A


We have heard a lot over the past several decades about the cultural construction of reality—the so-called postmodern sense that the world is made by us. Historians have little quarrel with this notion of the cultural construction of reality—as long as this is understood as the historical construction of reality. Too often postmodernists think that by demonstrating the cultural construction of reality, they have made it easier for men and women to change that reality at will. If culture and society are made by us, they can be remade to suit our present needs, or so it seems. But anyone with a historical sense knows differently, knows that things are more complicated than that. History, experience, custom—developments through time—give whatever strength and solidity the conventions and values by which we live our lives have. Those conventions and values, however humanly created, are not easily manipulated or transformed. They, of course, have changed and will continue to change, but not necessarily in ways that we intend or want.

Take, for example, our debates over the meaning of the Constitution. Some believe that the Constitution has an absolute original meaning and want us to recover that absolute original meaning in our current interpretation of the Constitution. Others believe that the Constitution means today whatever we want it to mean—that’s what they mean by a “living Constitution.” Neither of these extreme positions is correct. Historians know that the meaning of the Constitution has changed and will continue to change through time. But they also know that no one is free today to give whatever meaning he or she wants to give to it. In our choice of interpretations we are limited by history—by the conventions, values, and meanings we have inherited from the past. Those who fear that abandoning a timeless absolute standard for interpreting the Constitution will lead to moral and intellectual chaos are wrong. History, experience, and custom are powerful restraints on what we can think and do. We are not as free from the past as we think we are. Knowing this is to have a historical sense.

I don’t want to suggest that this historical sense, this concern for the pastness of the past, implies a lack of interest in the future. In fact, I agree with the historian E. H. Carr that a sense of the future is essential to a sense of the past. In his series of lectures on What Is History? published in 1962, Carr pointed out that the writers of classical antiquity had little sense of history because they had little sense of a different future. “Thucydides,” he said, “believed that nothing significant had happened in time before the events which he described, and that nothing significant was likely to happen thereafter.” For the ancients, “history was not going anywhere.”

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