Historicism vs Social Memory or How to Tell History

Commentary on Tosh’s Pursuit of History, chapter 1

Historical awareness is a “universal psychological attribute” arising from our innate desire to explain the origin of present circumstances and represents our personal understanding of the past. This understanding is influenced by two distinct modes of perception: social memory and historicism. Social memory is the understanding of history we are born into through the socialization process and relies on cultural understandings of the past while historicism is a methodical and analytical approach to observing history “as it is.”

Social memory stands as a society’s perception of the past, a popular knowledge of history framed in narrative, absorbed by the members of a culture through the socialization process, and often sacrificing historical accuracy for the purposes of serving as national mythology. Social memory is the mode of perception which the common man tends to adopt, unable or unwilling to consider a more empirical approach to examining the past and to which the leadership caste too often exploits for purposes of intrigue and conquest. The people’s zeitgeist is intimately wedded to social memory, as the ethos of a people cannot be justified without a common genesis (the “foundation myth”), common tormentors and common devotions. A world view is not possibly formed without a perception and meditation on the past, a past as colored by social memory. This sort of memory does not consider the archeological record or carefully scrutinize historical documents but instead is formed on the basis of storytelling and thus belittles the complexity of ages now past.

While the people of Israel claim to have descended from a powerful, expansive and ancient kingdom unlawfully conquered, a perception which justifies the existence and supposed liberation of the modern nation state, Professor of the Archaeology of Israel in the Bronze Age and Iron Ages Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University after having carefully scrutinizing the archaeological record has found no evidence of such a realm ever existing; at best the Jewish settlements of the biblical period were “small hill towns[i].” Herein we encounter another form of historical perception, one bound faithfully to the rigors of logic, reason and science, a perception formed on the assumption of evidence rather than the seductions of ideology and which holds social expectations irrelevant in the formulation of knowledge: historicism.

Essentially historicism holds that we should attend to history as a science rather than as storytelling, reporting indifferently upon findings and forming together a report on the basis of mutually supporting evidence. While this method of writing history may appear to be pedestrian to the common man in the contemporary age it in truth holds fast as a potentially dangerous way of reporting on the past in the sense that it is amoral and is not truncated or amended by the will political. As a consequence of this latter law of study, nations whose identity and political mandates are based on the false reporting of social memory (such as Israel) are at risk of dissent or collapse when the illuminating light of reason burns away what is false and reveals the truth.

Since what is the case has the potential of disrupting delusions of what is purported to be the case by its mere revelation society tends to ostracize men like Israel Finkelstein out of fear alone. Historicism is concerned with accuracy as the greatest good while the social memory tends to distort the times of yore in order to justify present designs. Practitioners of the former refrain from judging past peoples and instead present them “as they were,” remaining faithful to the data, while history colored through social memory tends to judge the past in order to guide the people of society in living today. Fundamentally, historicism is involved with the study of history, a science of painstakingly rebuilding the past through mutually corroborating, critically scrutinized evidence, while social memory is just mere memory, fallible and easily distorted by fault of our flawed human perceptions.


[i] Digging Biblical History At ‘The End Of The World’. ScienceDaily. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/11/071120142829.htm