Imagination and history

A couple of days ago, I alluded to the role of imagination in historical research, teaching, and learning. I’d like to emphasize that point: imagination is absolutely essential to historical understanding. This might be a surprise to non-practitioners. I wouldn’t call it a dirty little secret or anything, but it’s not something working/professional historians talk about all that much. As a general rule we’d rather talk about how scientific our methodology is or how sound the theoretical framework of our arguments. Certainly ‘imagination’ isn’t emphasized in the typical training we receive in graduate school – or that we in turn pass on to our own students. We do stress the importance of originality, but that’s usually construed in terms of finding new sources or using old sources in new ways, or applying a new theoretical construct to an old problem etc. I’m talking about the indispensability of imagination in any attempt to reconstruct or understand or simply engage with history. After all, the past is gone. Barring the invention of a time machine, there’s no going back to relive it. It can only be accessed by the painstaking assembly of source material. But even the most exhaustive collection of artifacts, letters, memoirs, poems, paintings, photographs and even films won’t transport the modern student back into that world unless she/he deploys his/her imagination. It is the mortar that fills all the little voids, joins all the diverse bits and pieces of historical evidence in a way that makes it possible understand historical events and experiences. Such connection with history is only a sensation of course, what we might call an approximation of past reality; but what historical interpretation or narrative is more?

About cahagerman

Dad, husband, writer, historian, recovering academic, and the Consulting Professor.
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One Response to Imagination and history

  1. Love love this post Chris, it is so good for me to hear (read) about other academics who respect the importance of imagination in their work.

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