Tool Module: History as a Scientific Discipline

Our collective memory of historic facts is primarily subjective, because it is based on individual memories that are no more than selective reconstructions of events. History as a scientific discipline involves a shift in perspective. What we call the objectivity of history is the ability to change perspective and not be held in thrall to one particular point of view. The memory of a conquered people, for example, is certainly not the same as the memory of the people who conquered them.

Like an individual’s memory, collective memory presupposes selecting certain facts and forgetting others. This forgetting is often driven by the need to simplify complex events, but it may sometimes also be dictated by political, religious, and other motives. History, like psychoanalysis, attempts to help us remember things that we have forgotten.

Lastly, just as an individual’s episodic memory tends to take the form of a narrative explaining how his or her present life came to be, so the things that historic communities remember are those that still have social significance today. What disappears from collective memory is whatever no longer matters. Both types of memory tend to arrange the facts into a sequential narrative whose ending is already known. History as a science must attempt to transcend this narrative, precisely because it must attempt to transcend teleology: the interpretation of the past in terms of the present.

 Linked Module: Histoire ou mémoire ?Linked Module: La Mémoire sociale 


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