Thought for the Day

"The metaphorical terms 'scholarship recognizes,' 'scholarship has demonstrated,' are of indispensable and vital value to us. Alongside our concept of the knowledge of the single individual we must also retain the concept of a dynamic magnitude called the discipline of history, which, despite the fact that it is nowhere and never realized in a human mind, nonetheless remains a coherent entity.

"Seen in this light, the amazing production working only in breadth and never in depth takes on a quite different appearance. It makes no difference whether a historical study is understood by ten thousand readers or by nine. It is quite unnecessary for each monograph to justify itself as a 'preliminary study' for a later synthesis. An entity in the cosmos, it has within itself the same right to exist as every blackbird that sings and every cow that eats grass.

"The historical discipline is a cultural process, a function of the world, a paternal house with many mansions. Its specific subjects are innumerable, and each of them is known by only a few. But the spirit of each age determines anew a certain congruence, a harmony, a convergence in the results of research which only seem to diverge. In every intellectual period there is an actual homogeneity of historical thought, though that homogeneity is not realized in the brain of any one thinker....

"If, then, one recognizes the existence of a discipline of history as an objective spirit, a form of understanding the world which exists only in the minds of countless persons taken together, and of which even the greatest scholar has, to speak in the language of the old mystics, received 'only a spark,' that leads to a heartening consequence. Such a recognition implies the rehabilitation of the antiquarian interest spurned disdainfully by Nietzsche as an inferior form of history.

"The direct, spontaneous, naive zeal for antiquated things of earlier days which animates the dilettante of local history and the genealogist is not only a primary form of the urge to historical knowledge but also a full-bodied one. It is the impulse toward the past.

"A person thus impelled may want to understand only a small bit, an insignificant interrelationship out of the past, but the impulse can be just as deep and pure, just as gravid with true wisdom as in the person who wishes to encompass the heavens and the earth in his knowledge. And is not even the most humble labor enough for the pious man to serve his Lord?

"Therefore it is not necessary for the researcher in details to justify the scholarly importance of his work with an appeal to its preparatory character. His true justification lies much deeper. He meets a vital need, he obeys a noble urge of the modern spirit. Whether his work yields tangible fruits for later research is, relatively, of secondary importance.

"In polishing one facet out of a billion he manifests the historical discipline of his day. He achieves the living contact of the mind with the old that was genuine and full of significance. Reverently handling the dead things of the past, he gradually realizes the value of small but vital truths, each of them as costly and as tender as a hothouse plant."

--Johan Huizinga, "The Task of Cultural History," in Men and Ideas: History, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, trans. James S. Holmes and Hans van Marle (New York, 1959), pp. 22-24.


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