The discipline of history as emergent in the 19th century in its scholarly practice or intellectual discipline exists as a social phenomena in many contemporary societies.

Contemporary societies contest the meaning and importance of their practices.

How do historians justify themselves to their societies?

For readers from societies where historians are fully funded and unmolested ready examples include:

  • Dawkins defunding of Australian humanities popularisation in the 1980s combined with the spectacle of bicentennial official history.

  • John Howard’s defunding of humanities research and promotion of pseudo historical attacks on Australian historiography during the history wars

  • the Goldhagen debate on German ethnic culpability for the holocaust

  • Irving versus Penguin books

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    Is "social practice" a formally defined term?
    – MCW
    Dec 5, 2019 at 0:59
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    Australia’s history wars over whether aboriginal peoples can be a subject and whether Australian liberalism is capable of horror is one good example, coupled with Dawkins defunding of a significant portion of humanities research popularisation. “Social practice” is a value neutral descriptive that’s regularly used to avoid lionising or chastising, used here to avoid prejudging and to focus on how historians claim they should be funded, read, respected rather than give credence to their claims. Dec 5, 2019 at 1:37
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    Surprise, you're on HNQ. Expect lots of low quality comments, like this one. "Those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it."
    – user253751
    Dec 5, 2019 at 10:46
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    @SamuelRussell , I struggle with your question. Say you asked "how do App Programmers justify themselves to their societies" or "how do Footballers justify themselves to their societies". I have never, ever heard a Historian, App Programmer, or Footballer "justify themselves to their societies". Stepping back a layer, I've really never heard the "societal value" of one of those three groups "challenged" in any particular way. So, it's hard to see how to answer, I think -0 hard to know what you're getting at!
    – Fattie
    Dec 5, 2019 at 13:45
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    If nothing else, without historians where would authors of historical fiction get their raw material? And historcal fiction, whether as books or movies/TV shows, is a significant economic activity.
    – jamesqf
    Dec 6, 2019 at 3:31

4 Answers 4


Why practice History? Its justification or utility does seem to be indirect. The two contemporary scholars quoted below both hold broadly that comprehension of the past is essential for comprehension of the present. Their arguments are strongly reminiscent of the old aphorism about those "doomed to repeat" the past. Both authors note and reject the old justification that the rote memorization of historical data indicates learnedness.

Peter N. Stearns, professor at George Mason University:

Why study history? The answer is because we virtually must, to gain access to the laboratory of human experience. When we study it reasonably well, and so acquire some usable habits of mind, as well as some basic data about the forces that affect our own lives, we emerge with relevant skills and an enhanced capacity for informed citizenship, critical thinking, and simple awareness.

Penelope J. Corfield, professor at University of London:

The study of the past is essential for 'rooting' people in time. And why should that matter? The answer is that people who feel themselves to be rootless live rootless lives, often causing a lot of damage to themselves and others in the process. .... In all cases, understanding History is integral to a good understanding of the condition of being human. That allows people to build, and, as may well be necessary, also to change, upon a secure foundation. Neither of these options can be undertaken well without understanding the context and starting points. All living people live in the here-and-now but it took a long unfolding history to get everything to NOW.

  • The usage of "contemporary" is always relative - which has no referent here. Perhaps you mean "current day scholars"? Dec 5, 2019 at 3:08
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    @PieterGeerkens Yes, I employ sense #2 of the adjective as given here: en.wiktionary.org/wiki/contemporary Dec 5, 2019 at 4:08
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    hi @PieterGeerkens . Aaron's usage here is, precisely, the most common and normal usage. (Other usages exist, and it's always worth remembering that English is ubiquitously, extraordinarily, ambiguous; pointing out that a given sentence has a word which has more than one common usage, or, is ambiguous, is like pointing out that hookers charge money or politicians lie :) )
    – Fattie
    Dec 5, 2019 at 13:42
  • @Fattie: It may seem strange, but I have no recollection of ever seeing the word before as a synonym for "current day". Dec 5, 2019 at 21:05
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    @PieterGeerkens, Although I am "only" a professional mathematician with interests in the history of math and science, but/and amateur interest in history of humans in general... to me "contemporary" and "current day" seem to me to be synonyms. But, yes, my English was acquire several decades ago, though I've tried to keep it up, since... :) Dec 6, 2019 at 1:38

The discipline of history as emergent in the 19th century in its scholarly practice or intellectual discipline exists as a social phenomena in many contemporary societies.

The discipline of history did not emerge in the 19th century as a scholarly practice, intellectual discipline nor social phenomena. Herodotus is often refereed to as the father of history and he lived 484 BC - 425 BC. However; the span of recorded history begins thousands of years before Herodotus, beginning with Sumerian Cuneiform scripts around the 30th century BC.

How do historians justify themselves to their societies?

Few justifications.

  • History yields understanding. To understand a people's experiences is to understand a people. Where they came from, what challenges were faced, what was overcame. What's important to them. Not just foreign peoples but to understand ourselves too.
  • Most legal systems are based on precedent, precedent being historical events which lawyers try to associate with modern events in court rooms every day. Sure it's narrow history previously identified, but it's still history.
  • History displays morality
    • history teaches morality by example. One can examine how people dealt with diversity, and examine their choices, not in a fictional construct but what actually happened.
  • Studying History Is Essential for Good Citizenship
    • It promotes a national identity
    • provides a compendium of how nations interact with each other
    • It is nearly impossible to be a well informed citizen which republics require without understanding history
    • History promotes civil society; discussion, evaluation, and compromise.
  • History is exploration and thus fulfills a fundamental human need to expand the depth and breadth of knowledge about our surroundings.
  • History teaches how people reason, how people think. be it the logic of Aristotle, the intuition based reasoning of René Descartes, the self determinism of the Qing Dynasty or the verifiable fact based arguments of a Charles Darwin.
  • Lastly History is art, and culture

    • The great works of the passed are rooted in history
      • Shakespeare ( many historical plays )
      • Anna Karenina
      • To Kill a Mockingbird
      • The Great Gatsby
      • One Hundred Years of Solitude
      • A Passage to India
      • Invisible Man
      • Don Quixote
      • Grapes of Wrath

    How can one appreciate the great works of literature that have come down to us without understanding their historical context?

  • @SamuelRussell your source says Leopold von Ranke was influential beginning the late 19th but the study of history outgrew him in the mid 20th century before any of us was born. So not sure what your point is in referencing him. Clearly his ideas were outdated 70 years ago, give or take....
    – user27618
    Dec 7, 2019 at 6:01
  • Providing evidence disputing your assertion regarding the history of disciplinarity. Dec 7, 2019 at 7:57

How do historians justify themselves to their societies?

Most historians are not really able to fully justify themselves. It, in fact, appears that history majors are on the decline. See here and here.

However, it can be justified in terms of "those who don't study history are condemned to repeat it":

Humans have experimented with so many policies and theories and ways of living in the past. If we don't study their effects, we'll want to try them again and repeat our mistakes unknowingly.

Over the past thousands of years, our ancestors have made many changes and taken bold steps for betterment of their lives. At each point in history, almost everyone would have been resistant to change. But our society has become what it is today because of that minority who took the bold decisions.

Historians certainly cannot justify themselves to all sections of society. But they can justify themselves to those who are curious about the things around them and want to understand how our societies have been shaped. Historians can help us to see our present more clearly by showing it to us in light of our past.

A well-defined example could be that of the Holocaust. If we know the chain of events that lead to it, we can observe a pattern in it. If anything similar starts to take shape in the future, we can be pre-warned and nip it in the bud.


Most historians argue that history is a good in itself, as a literary pursuit. This is reflected in history being a commonly funded discipline in self regulating universities, even under specialised autonomous high level funding, where institutions could choose otherwise.

Historians appeal to state and popular desire for nationalist (or ideological) lionisation. Many historians agree that the documentary record supports current ideology—others present their critique embedded so subtly that the presence of new publications on the topic conceals adequately their contents.

Historians regularly argue that secondary or undergraduate training in history produces liberal bourgeois citizens of a higher quality. Some historians appeal in a similar route to left ideologies, but here praxic engagement (“popular history”) has greater appeal than official history: compare Lowensteins readership with popular oral histories to subscribers to Labour History.

The three core claims are:

  • poetics

  • production of foundational knowledge of the human condition

  • production of knowledge useful for the intervention in contemporary politics

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