John Lukacs' Pursuit of Truth

I must acknowledge at the outset of this review that it will not be an “objective” assessment of John Lukacs’s latest book. It cannot be. My debt to him is too great. Given his emphasis on “personal” knowledge over against what he sees as the outmoded modern categories of “objective” and “subjective,” Professor Lukacs will not mind my dispensing with the forms of such a review. Indeed, he will welcome such a departure from these conventions. Whether other readers will be pleased or annoyed is another matter.

In the interests of full disclosure, as they say, there are very good reasons–reasons with a history–why I cannot be impartial. A decade ago, Professor Lukacs published a generous review of my first book in The Los Angeles Times. Just a year ago, he provided another generous “blurb” for my most recent book. In the meantime, I contributed an essay to a symposium published in Historically Speaking to mark the release of The Future of History, Lukacs’s return to the kinds of questions he raised in the 1960s with Historical Consciousness. I was profoundly honored to have been asked, and I paid tribute on that occasion to what he had taught me over the years about the historian’s craft. I also continue to use his Historical Consciousness as the capstone of my philosophy of history course at Hillsdale College.

So, for what it’s worth, I offer here a very biased response to History and the Human Condition, a welcome new collection of reviews, book chapters, and essays published over the past six years or so. Appended to this volume is a very large four-part bibliography of Lukacs’s books, articles, reviews, and miscellaneous pieces published between 1947 and 2003, and books published through 2012. A sizable task lies ahead for someone to complete this important bibliography spanning sixty-years–a career that is by no means over as Lukacs continues to work into his ninetieth year. I count just over 700 separate items on this staggering list, and that does not include books that have been translated into multiple languages and published overseas. Budapest 1900 has been translated into Japanese, French, German, and Hungarian; The Duel has been translated into Danish, German, French, Dutch, Italian, Hungarian, Swedish, Hebrew, Japanese, and Portuguese.

As impressive as the quantity of Professor Lukacs’s scholarship has been, I think the magnitude of that achievement has been outweighed by the quality of his thought. I would like to be able to say that for any writer the edifice of his output stands securely on a deep foundation of thought, but how often is that the case? History and the Human Condition shows the degree to which Professor Lukacs’s body of work integrates what the historian says with how he says it and, if you pardon the abuse of a verb, how he thinks it. Sometimes directly, sometimes as an aside, sometimes tacitly, Professor Lukacs teaches his readers how they ought to think about the past. Note: not what his readers ought to think, though that of course matters, but how they think. His books and essays show the habits of historical consciousness that he wrote about at greatest length and most explicitly in Historical Consciousness, a book that seems to grow fresher as time goes on, a testament to its understanding of the trajectory that historical thinking would follow in the twentieth century and beyond.

Here is part of a paragraph from “The World Around Me: My Adopted County,” taken from Last Rites, his second autobiography. The context is the difficulties historians face in a democratic age:

But who are the people? What did they say? When and how did they speak? Where and what are the evidences of that? Is it not, rather, that these are people who spoke and chose and acted in the name of the people? If so, we are already one step removed from “reality.” Yes, there is a vast multiplicity of records of what some people–notice: “some people,” not “the people”–said and chose and did. But how did the consequent “facts,” or events, come about? How did they happen; or, rather, how were they made to happen?

He ends this thought a few sentences later by saying, “These matters are not simple.” Indeed. And yet how many experienced, senior historians at leading universities have ever taken the time to think through these intricacies? How many have been taught to notice such textures in the first place? They write casually about what the mysterious collective known as “the colonists” thought, or believed, or said, or did in the 1770s, or what “Jacksonians” aspired to in the 1830s, or “evangelicals” in the 1980s. Either these historians do not know or they will not admit the limits of historical evidence. Maybe they fear their claims about the past will have to be left tentative and modest–and that’s no way to get one’s groundbreaking thesis discussed by another scholar in a historiographical essay some day. But how much more interesting, how much closer to the “reality” Lukacs bracketed in quotation marks above, is an honest statement that this colonist said these words in this way on this occasion with this purpose and that his words were disseminated by this means with these intended or unintended consequences on other colonists? I could multiple these italics endlessly, but the point should be clear. One way of thinking and writing obscures the particularity, unrepeatability, and indeed humanness of the past; the other reveals–even delights in–the complexity, surprising turns, and distinctly personal character of a past irreducible to forces, laws, or even “Ideas.” Ideas may have consequences, but not without people doing things with and to them.

But the professional, credentialed historian is typically trained and then expected by his peers to claim more than he can know and to say it all with more certainty than he can possibly possess, more than the surviving, or, Lukacs would prefer, the remembered past allows him to know and say. “Allows” is an important word here. The evidence may be open to previously unforeseen and unattempted techniques, open to new questions, open to a constantly changing sense of proportion and significance and consequences as time moves on. But the evidence still imposes limits upon the historian. These limitations may frustrate the historian, especially when a gap in the record cannot be filled, but there they are regardless and they are not to be lamented. They keep history a sanely human enterprise. They keep, or ought to keep, the historian modest. Elsewhere, Lukacs has called history a “chastened discipline.” At its best, that is indeed what it is, and the careful student of the past comes to know it. The subtitle of this current book stresses the same insight: A (not “the”) historian’s pursuit (not “possession”) of knowledge.

The nature of words and how they connect us to others and to the world imposes one such limitation. We use language to reach, understand, and describe the past. The historian is bound by what his primary tool can and cannot do, can and cannot be. “Words,” Lukacs writes, “are not finite categories but meanings: what they mean to us, for us. They have their own histories and lives and deaths, their powers and their limits.”

Attention to words leads to a further limitation: researching and thinking and writing about history are human tasks and therefore not “objective.” Moreover, as the product of human thought and action, the “remembered past is also incomplete, and fallible, and ever changing.” The historian ought to welcome the human limitations imposed upon his work. Writing of the French and American Impressionists, Lukacs considers their way of seeing and understanding the world around them: “[Impressionism] was a new way of painting because of a new comprehension of seeing . . . , an understanding of the limitations of the human mind and eye that might actually enrich the capacity, the depth, and the beauty of human vision. Or, in other words: a participation in the world one sees.”

“Participation in the world one sees.” I doubt Lukacs would draw a direct analogy between his own way of participating in the world he sees and the Impressionists’ way. And we must certainly not think of “impressionist” as hasty or sloppy or indistinct, as in any way license for the historian not to be meticulous in his work. The connection here between Lukacs’s achievement and Impressionism are the words “participation” and “sight.” The historian comes to his work as a human being, not as a machine or lab equipment. His words connect him with a world of words left by other human beings. And he sees their world by participating in it. This is historical consciousness.

But I fear I have made this all needlessly opaque. Readers ought to take up John Lukacs’ new book for themselves and let it do its work of deepening their understanding. More than that, they ought to read it as a tantalizing invitation to the complete works from which these selections  have been taken and then on to other works spanning seven decades . . . and counting.