Project proposal: Rehumanizing history

This proposal/abstract was submitted for the 2023 Global History Conference at the Weltmuseum in Vienna, Austria

“Scientification.” “Objectivity.” These words miraculously distill many of the most pervasive flaws of global history-telling. Historians are taught that we pursue the absolute truth of grand, civilizational narratives. This can be seen in innocuous cases like Twitter accounts that highlight common misconceptions about history, such as that medieval people didn’t bathe. But it emerges most prominently, and dangerously in magisterial works of academic global historiography as well. Annales school champion Marc Bloch, in his The Historian’s Craft, entreated historians to practice more like scientists; 60 years later, Jürgen Osterhammel tried to reduce almost to an encyclopedic science the profound diversity of 19th -century humanity in his The Transformation of the World. Historians operate under the fallacious pretense of
objectivity to the detriment society—one need only look to McNeill’s The Rise of the West to see teleology and western exceptionalism disguised as ‘objectivity.’

What these historians fail to understand is that history contains as many truths as it does people. The craft of academic history must evolve to address rather than obfuscate this multiplicity. After a review of examples of global history-telling across the spectrum, this paper will argue that subjectivity should be centered in historiography—whether the historian sets out to write a history of a martyred woman mystic in the hills of 16 th-century Kham, or a history of the diplomacy of the late-Victorian Foreign Office.

The challenge is supremely difficult: academic rigor and honesty remain paramount principles in the field. But by returning humanism to the craft, as Walter Mignolo began to in Local Histories/Global Designs, we can add light and depth to the many truths of the past—not with a false scientific hardness, but with a melting-pot of narratives as personal and subjective as we know history itself to be.

Aidan Lilienfeld