history pragmatic historian

Why Be a Pragmatic Historian?

When discussing any topic, it’s useful to start with definitions so that everyone involved is on the same page.

I sincerely believe this is one of the reasons for the political polarization we see in the United States today, a lack of common, agreed-upon definitions. Instead, terms like “family values” or “immigration” are tossed around and people nod or shake their heads at whoever is using the term, depending upon the definition they are operating on and whether they agree or disagree with the speaker. It’s not an effective way to have a conversation.

So, let’s break down “Pragmatic Historian” and begin at the beginning with definitions.

A historian is someone who studies history. That’s the most basic definition.

And history, according to how I’ve defined it in my post History Is Like Air, is “the entire sweep of history, from the past beyond human memory up until the moment just passed.” Most historians tend toward this wide-angle inclusivity of people and events from the past. We’re Big Tent sorts. The more history, the merrier.

Historians may be generalists or specialists, with specialization being common due to the sheer volume of history. It is impossible for any one human being to know all of history, even if your favorite historian can rattle off loads of historical facts from memory.

Now, let’s look at one definition of the word pragmatic:

“Relating to or being the study of cause and effect in historical or political events with emphasis on the practical lessons to be learned from them.” (Definition from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition)

Being pragmatic is about being practical, no matter what field you are in. How can we apply what we’ve learned to have some affect on our goals and the world?

There is actually a movement in philosophy called “Pragmatism” that arose in the mid-to-late 1800s. Pragmatists, including C.S. Peirce, William James, and John Dewey, asked a basic question when they inevitably got caught up in some intractable philosophical argument (as most philosophers are wont to do). To break the dispute, they would ask,  “What concrete practical difference would it make if my theory were true and its rival(s) false?”

Practicality was their watchword, too. The Pragmatists figured that philosophical “theories and models are to be judged primarily by their fruits and consequences, not by their origins or their relations to antecedent data or facts.” If a philosophical theory worked, the Pragmatists would keep using it until a better theory came along.

Pragmatism as a philosophical concept is more complex than what I’ve described above, but the underlying idea that practicality should be taken into consideration in answering philosophical questions is the nut of the movement. This practicality is at the root of being a pragmatic historian.

How can we use history in our everyday lives to solve problems?

As The Pragmatic Historian, I aim to show you that we are already using history in our everyday lives for a number of different purposes.

For more information on philosophical Pragmatism, visit the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which is the source for the quotes above.