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Dossier: History in the Making

Are Historians Guilty of Short-term Thinking?

An Interview with David Armitage


The hyper-specialisation of historical studies is not inevitable. For Harvard Professor David Armitage, intellectual history urgently needs to rediscover its taste for the longue durée. Otherwise, naturalist approaches may end up dominating what we now know as Big History.

Born in 1965, David Armitag is a British historian specialising in intellectual, international and imperial history. He has been teaching at Harvard, where he holds the Lloyd C. Blankfein Chair, since 2004. His first book, which was published in 2000, charted the intellectual history of British imperialism in the modern era (The Ideological Origins of British Empire, Cambridge University Press). Since 2007, when he published a book about the global history of the American Declaration of Independence (The Declaration of Independence: a Global History, Harvard University Press), he has been striving, alone and in group projects, to promote a spatiotemporal expansion of the usual frameworks of intellectual history. He has thus co-edited, for Palgrave MacMillan, two volumes covering the global history of revolutions from the end of the 18th century (The Age of Revolutions in Global Context, 2010, as co-editor together with Sanjay Subrahmanyam) and the history of the Pacific (Pacific Histories. Ocean, Land, People, as co-editor together with Alison Bashford, 2014). He has also explored the international aspect of the political thought of classic authors such as Locke, Hobbes or Bentham (Foundations of Modern Intellectual Thought, Cambridge University Press, 2012).

More recently, David Armitage has been pleading in favour of a renewed consideration for the longue durée in historical work, in particular in intellectual history. His view is based on the observation that, while we have more and more specialised research into circumscribed regions or periods, history struggles to provide any answers to the great questions of our era. At a time when, in the United States, more and more people are calling for a promotion of Big or Deep History, Armitage worries that an environmental, biological or genetic history able to cover several centuries or millennia of history may be out of sync with the approaches of political, social or intellectual history, which are carried out at a far more micro level and focus on much shorter time periods. Opening up chronological frameworks would also be a condition for tightening once more the bonds that have been loosened between historians and their readers.

These ideas, which Armitage has outlined in an article published in the journal History of European Ideas and in an article that will be published in French in Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales, are discussed in this short interview, which was carried out in Paris in May 2014. In particular, the historian responds to the questions raised by his project in terms of the possibility of combining a longue durée approach with a consideration of the experiences, emotions and representations of historical players, or of the pitfalls that should be borne in mind in order to avoid resuscitating a greatly decontextualised history of ideas.

Dossier(s) :
History in the Making

Further reading

Already on Books&Ideas/ La Vie des idées
An interview with Jerrold Seigel, the author of a history of the I from the 17th to the 20th century: http://www.laviedesidees.fr/Penser-le-moi.html

An interview with Charles Taylor about his “great narrative” of secularisation: http://www.laviedesidees.fr/A-Secular-Age.html

Arnaud Esquerre’s report on the long history of the idea of objectivity put forward by Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison: http://www.laviedesidees.fr/Qu-est-ce-que-l-objectivite.html

Blaise Bachofen’s report on Frédéric Gros’ book about the history of the idea of security: http://www.laviedesidees.fr/La-securite-toute-une-histoire.html

To quote this article :

Nicolas Delalande, « Are Historians Guilty of Short-term Thinking? . An Interview with David Armitage », Books and Ideas , 25 June 2014. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL : http://www.booksandideas.net/Are-Historians-Guilty-of-Short.html

Nota Bene:

Si vous souhaitez critiquer ou développer cet article, vous êtes invité à proposer un texte au comité de rédaction. Nous vous répondrons dans les meilleurs délais : redaction@laviedesidees.fr.

by Nicolas Delalande , 25 June 2014

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