Historisk Tidskrift. Utgiven av Svenska historiska föreningen
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Historisk tidskrift 122:3 • 2002

Innehåll (Contents) 2002:3

Uppsatser (Articles)

Dåtiden – tur och retur

Håkan Arvidsson

Fulltext (pdf)


Return Ticket to the Past

All history is a dialog between the present and the past, between now and then. The difficult task of an historian is to play both roles in this dialog. He has to both formulate the questions of the present and find and express the answers of the past. It may appear to be an impossible task, doomed to failure because of the historian’s subjective limits imposed on him by contemporary assumptions, values, and the intellectual climate. Subjectivity, however, is exaggerated as a problem and it is not exclusive to historians. It exists in all sciences and rests like a memento mori over all scientific endeavours. Researchers of the future will see the past in another light and from different angles than today’s historians. This does not mean that the perspective of the present is meaningless or false, only that it is not eternally valid.

In reality, historians are dependent on the present because it gives their knowledge of history its value. Historians are time travellers who, on a mission from the present, visit lost worlds to find knowledge and understanding to problems of the present that are not provided by modern society. The historian’s time travels enable him to see the world from a hidden or forgotten angle. This allows the historian’s research to offer a deeper understanding of the present than any other social science. This is where historiography offers the most value. All other social sciences take current conditions for granted and sometimes even as absolutes. They have a tendency to view the present as natural and as a measuring stick from which everything else is to be judged and understood. As such, they postulate that we are always at the end of history. This concept is not accidental or a banal error in logic. It is actually the social sciences’ fundamental credo, an absolute necessity for their existence. The social sciences paradoxically must assume that the world and society in general will remain as it is. If not, every stage of its current condition becomes impossible to use as the basis for the prognoses and predictions on which the social sciences base their legitimacy and assert their usefulness.

Only historians have the necessary tools that allow them to be able to see the present world in a distant mirror and in a critical light and thereby discover its weaknesses and its hubris. For this reason, it is a special obligation of historians to share their unique and invaluable knowledge with the present world.