Past Futures: The Impossible Necessity of History

By Ged Martin

© 2004

By nature, human beings seek to make sense of their past. Paradoxically, true historical explanation is ultimately impossible. Historians never have complete evidence from the past, nor is their methodology rigorous enough to prove causal links. Although it cannot be proven that 'A caused B,' by redefining the agenda of historical discourse, scholars can locate events in time and place history once again at the heart of intellectual activity.

In Past Futures, Ged Martin advocates examining the decisions that people take, most of which are not the result of a 'process,' but are reached intuitively. Subsequent rationalizations that constitute historical evidence simply mislead. All historians can do is to locate them in time, to explain not why a decision was taken, but why then? To illustrate, Martin asks a number of questions: What is a 'long time' in history? Are we close to the past or remote from it? Is democracy a recent experiment, or proof of our arrival at the end of a journey through time? Can we engage in a historical dialogue with the past without making clear our own ethical standpoints? Although explanation is ultimately impossible, humankind can make sense of its location in time through the concept of 'significance,' a device for highlighting events and aspects of the past. In so doing, Martin suggests a radical new approach to historical discourse.

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Product Details

  • Series: Joanne Goodman Lectures
  • World Rights
  • Page Count: 326 pages
  • Dimensions: 6.1in x 0.9in x 9.0in
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Quick Overview

In Past Futures, Ged Martin advocates examining the decisions that people take, most of which are not the result of a 'process,' but are reached intuitively.

Past Futures: The Impossible Necessity of History

By Ged Martin

© 2004

By nature, human beings seek to make sense of their past. Paradoxically, true historical explanation is ultimately impossible. Historians never have complete evidence from the past, nor is their methodology rigorous enough to prove causal links. Although it cannot be proven that 'A caused B,' by redefining the agenda of historical discourse, scholars can locate events in time and place history once again at the heart of intellectual activity.

In Past Futures, Ged Martin advocates examining the decisions that people take, most of which are not the result of a 'process,' but are reached intuitively. Subsequent rationalizations that constitute historical evidence simply mislead. All historians can do is to locate them in time, to explain not why a decision was taken, but why then? To illustrate, Martin asks a number of questions: What is a 'long time' in history? Are we close to the past or remote from it? Is democracy a recent experiment, or proof of our arrival at the end of a journey through time? Can we engage in a historical dialogue with the past without making clear our own ethical standpoints? Although explanation is ultimately impossible, humankind can make sense of its location in time through the concept of 'significance,' a device for highlighting events and aspects of the past. In so doing, Martin suggests a radical new approach to historical discourse.

Continue Reading Read Less

Product Details

  • Series: Joanne Goodman Lectures
  • World Rights
  • Page Count: 326 pages
  • Dimensions: 6.1in x 0.9in x 9.0in
  • Reviews

    'Combining intellectual rigour with a sparkling style, Past Futures transcends its specific disciplinary genre to address fundamental questions concerning the foundations in which contemporary societies are rooted. Every historian, and indeed anyone who wishes to understand the nature of historical thought, should read and ponder it.'


    J.J. Lee, Department of History, New York University

    'In every sense, this is a work of high and committed scholarship. I cannot remember having read a work in historical explanation with such unalloyed delight.'


    John Laband, Department of History, Wilfrid Laurier University
  • Author Information

    Ged Martin formerly held the chair of Canadian Studies at the University of Edinburgh.

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