26 Mar

History is not junk

The Dean of King’s, Cambridge – Wittgenstein’s college – said something good on Thought for the Day this week. It would have been even better if he had not delivered his talk as one struggling with English as a foreign language. But that’s academics for you. It was laboriously constructed and took me back to the days when we were nine and were asked to write a composition. And, discarding the bad influence of the Bible, we must not begin a sentence with and or finish it with of.

Never mind his charmless fabrication, the Dean said something that needs saying. He said we should not think of the period between the departure of the Romans and the start of the Renaissance as the Dark Ages. Great things were accomplished in science, literature, philosophy and art during those centuries.

Well said Mr Dean

But he spoilt it at the end by saying that the phrase Dark Ages could be consigned to “the dustbin of history.”

This is a common enough misunderstanding, though perhaps not one we should expect from a senior Cambridge man. History is not a dustbin. And history is not the past – as if it still enjoyed a shadowy existence way back like a fading tapestry. History, I repeat, is not the past. History is our conversation about the past in the here and now. History is not a place, or a collection of events – still less a dustbin.

History is ideas of the past in the minds of historians now living.

For a fuller explanation of how this is so – in good, plain English – see The Idea of History by R.G. Collingwood.