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History has lost the prestige it once enjoyed. Most of the people of this time believe that it is a bookish and dead erudition of little social utility and in many occasions, harmful and condemnable. This attitude is not without foundation; but what it denounces is not historical science, but a way of conceiving it that, although it still dominates in academic circles, many believe that it is no longer the history that should be done today and hope, at least, that it will not be the history that will be done tomorrow.
In 1763, Dr. Samuel Johnson said, with evident disdain:
"no great abilities are required to be a historian, since in historical composition all the great powers of the mind remain inactive. It has the facts at hand, so that it does not exercise invention. Imagination is not employed to a high degree; only in a measure similar to that required for the lower types of poetry. Some penetration, accuracy, and sense of coloring will suffice any one for this task, if he can devote the necessary application to it."
While Dr. Johnson was uttering these words, other men were formulating a much more ambitious and loftier conception. The French Enlightenment, for example, believed that it could be employed to denounce tyranny and superstition, to open men's eyes to reality and to educate their consciences. Diderot went one step further; having done great work in other scientific fields, he discovered the possibilities that the study of history offered for the analysis of society.
Thus, he proclaimed:
"If I were permitted to venture a prediction, I would announce that spirits will very soon turn to history, that immense territory in which philosophy has not yet set its plant.
His foresight was partially fulfilled. The nineteenth century witnessed an unprecedented flowering of historical research. History became a guide and model for the social sciences and its influence was exerted from all directions, from the emergence of a nationalist economic theory to the longing for the past which forms one of the essential components of romanticism and which represents, according to Benedetto Croce (1966-1952):
"to re-embrace the old religion, the inveterate national and local customs, to enter the ancient houses, castles and cathedrals, to sing the old songs and dream the old legends.
While one line of thought, which has its culmination in the work of Kari Marx (1818-1883), continued to use history as an instrument of analysis of society, most of the cultivators of the discipline limited themselves to using it to glorify their sovereigns and their governments, to justify the social system in which they lived, and it was these who ended up dominating university chairs and academic positions, worrying, in turn, to continue teaching this same kind of mind-numbing history and launching anathemas against any attempt to use it to fulfill a critical function.
Historicism meant a reaction against what was revolutionary in the thought of the enlighteners and ended up turning the discipline into a heap of concrete facts with no common denominator to give them coherence, nor logic to explain the way in which they were chained and happened. For the German historicists, honest functionaries of the Prussian state for the most part, the only realities that could be found beyond providence, which directed the course of destiny, and the national spirit, which shaped institutions and politics.
Not surprisingly, this genre of history disappointed all hopes. At the beginning of the twentieth century a number of philosophers disputed its character as a legitimate science to a discipline that had become a mere accumulation of data from the past. It was not for history to use the methods of the sciences proper, whose ultimate goal was generalization. Its purpose was to capture the individual, the unique, through intuition or experience, the historian's own, as Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923) would say, is "seeing rather than thinking". However, the academic researcher would not be moved by this disqualification, which relegated him to a world on the margins of science, but would continue to weave his patient web of concrete facts and singular men.
The most that some would achieve would be to modernize their tools, their working methods, adopting those of other sciences or blindly surrendering themselves to the cult of all fashions and intellectual novelties, without realizing that the body of theory they used was what had irremediably aged, confusing static surgery with rejuvenation. Underneath the shavings of much of today's history, which invokes the magic renovation of the computer, one can guess the incurable ailments of an outdated positivism.
Along with this scientific discredit, we must take into account the moral condemnation. The historian, even when he is not a mere apologist for the social system that maintains him, collaborates with it in a form of complicity that is no less reprehensible, postulating the existence of a world of academic values that would be outside of real life, and even above it, and practices a type of work that claims to justify itself, by the value that the simple exercise of an intellectual activity "educators of the mind" may have.