Thoughts and Perspectives

History Repeats Itself, Why I Study History, and History as a Science

There I said it.

History. Repeats. Itself.

I’ll say it again.

History.

Repeats.

Most historians balk at this notion with a series of well-intended but nonetheless vehement objections. In my experience, we respond, “No. Absolutely not. History doesn’t repeat.”

Before continuing, we have to interpret what “repeat” means.

According to the dictionary:

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According to the denotation of “repeat,” history can’t repeat itself. (And if you want to get technical and into chaos theory, neither can anything else.) Unlike lab-controlled experiments that can be exactly replicated (although not really), humans are life is always evolving and unpredictable and involves incalculable symbiotic relationships.

BUT, if we consider “repeat” as both a metaphor and in terms of its connotation, we can understand what people mean by “history repeats itself,” and it actually emerges as a useful conceptual tool. As Mark Twain put it, “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

The vast, vast majority of people don’t in anyway think that history literally, exactly repeats itself. Such would violate celebrated philosophies of free will. When people say that history repeats itself, they are generally thinking of broad patterns. Another way to describe these patterns or relationships would be to describe them as cause and effect relationships. They are thinking about the existence of and continuation of

  • War,
  • Poverty,
  • Colonialism,
  • Racism,
  • Sexism,
  • Classism, or
  • Social movements, to list only a few of the repeated/unending phenomena of human history.

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A more specific example could be that every step forward in the long African-American Civil Rights Movement has resulted in new forms of discrimination. Lynching, disenfranchisement, and neo-enslavement (collectively called “Jim Crow”) replaced codified plantation and urban enslavement after the Civil War and Reconstruction era. Today, the “New Jim Crow” (a system where by at least 1 out of every 3 black men are confined in the Criminal Justice System) replaced Jim Crow after the Modern Civil Rights Movement of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s.

People remain “babies” on the evolutionary ladder – we are greedy, shortsighted, and quick to buy into fear of “the other.” Spending time trying to argue that history doesn’t repeat is ultimately not very productive for historians, a debate primarily involving semantic differences.

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Furthermore, if nothing “repeated,” it would quickly become impossible to study anything. Much of what we study is about relationships between times and places. On the other hand, if we “dig deep,” language repeats all the time per se. If we had to relearn language every day, we would never progress. By saying “history repeats,” we are recognizing the ways in which we are bound to this world and products of it. This is not to say that nothing ever improves or changes.

As historians, we can and should use the real meanings behind notions that history repeats to help students enjoy and embrace the study of our world. Indeed one of the many reasons I enjoy studying History, as I tell students in my “What is History?” lecture, is that history is comforting and allows us to see the world as a more steady place. According to the news and Joe public, crime, poverty, you name it, are worse now than it ever has been. If we look at historical evidence, we can find that such fears are unnecessary. Likewise, every generation says the previous generation had it better or older adults long for the time when they were adolescents when the world was a better, safer place (I call this the Myth of the Utopia Past). 

Finally, although human events can never come close to any kind of true replication, History belongs to both the liberal arts and the sciences. That History is a liberal art needs no explanation. That History is also a science, however, is where I tend to meet objections.

Scientists follow the scientific method. They follow a series of steps to ensure their work is the best it can be given current resources. Don’t historians do this? Historians come up with questions, look for evidence, analyze evidence, weave in secondary material, write and edit, edit some more, and then go through peer-reviewers both informally and formally. This is indeed the historian’s equivalent of the scientific method. Historical narratives or theories about the past are no more or less theories or narratives as human evolution or the big bang, for example. All scholarship involves theory and explanation based on evidence.

Likewise, for reasons I haven’t fully grasped or studied yet, science tends to have more credibility with the public. People tend to perceive history as always changing, unstable, and inherently biased by “crazy, liberal academics.” In reality, science changes just as much, is just as unstable, and has just as many biases. In other words, History and any of the specific branches of science are all social constructions- both the discipline themselves and scholarship produced. By promoting the study of the past as a science, perhaps historians would have more automatic credibility.

Be sure to check out: The Nature of History and the History of HistoryI am many things but a “history buff” is not one of them. – Hidden Power of Words Series, #14and my other postings about history, too!

“Angry Cat” always makes the day better! 🙂

This posting in particular is intended to generate stimulating conversation. Thanks, as always, for reading. I also love all of the comments that you provide here on WordPress and on Facebook, Twitter, and Email. 

38 replies »

  1. A couple of years ago, knowing that I’m working on our family’s history, my sister asked if our ancestors were illegal immigrants. I told her no, they weren’t, because there weren’t any laws restricting immigration when they came over in the early 1700s (they just had to take a loyalty oath to the King/Queen of England and be Protestant if they wanted to vote). Not until 1965 did the immigration laws apply to the western hemisphere; at that point people started to become concerned about the undocumented immigrants crossing the border (meanwhile, people who were trying to come through legal channels were forced to wait). From the beginning of immigration restriction, one of the concerns was some immigrants would become a burden on society (especially those who had mental and physical illnesses). Most immigration restriction laws weren’t necessarily racist (as some have perceived all of them to be) but were designed to protect the U.S. from lunatics, anarchists, people with communicable diseases, etc.

    By the way, if you want a good explanation of the use of the scientific method in history, you should read some of Henry Adams’s works (especially “A Letter to American Teachers of History” (1910).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “Social constructions”……interesting. Art History uses art to create social constructions as well. Kenneth Clark and his series Civilization is a good example. There has always been a hierarchical structure in any civilization, at any time or place. Maybe that is the constant factor that ensures repetition.

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  3. Hi Andrew,

    I enjoyed this piece when it was first published have read it several times since then. Your thoughts plus a reading of John Lewis Gaddis’ “Landscape of History” has convinced me that history is more of a science that I initially thought when I first started studying the discipline several years ago.

    I’d like for you to expand a bit on your thoughts on Mark Twain’s quote “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” Since we know that history cannot replicate itself exactly, isn’t it more accurate to say that “history rhymes” rather than “history repeats itself”? Rhyming and repeating are not the same things, and I’m still not comfortable saying that history repeats itself. Close confidants who have used the term frequently use it to make comparisons I’m not comfortable making (i.e. “America’s going the way of the Roman Empire,” “Obama’s just like Hitler,” etc. etc.) and I think the term is often used as a form of political currency to stir peoples’ emotions.

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  4. Hey Nick,

    Thanks for your comment.

    I think Mark Twain’s phrase is a more exact description of larger, broad-scale historical forces when taken collectively. I still think when people say “history repeats itself” they mean something more like “history rhymes.” Basically, I suppose they have pretty much the same meaning in practice. Though for sure, people too readily make dangerous historical comparisons. have you ever read the article “Beyond compare” by Micol Sigel? He makes a good argument for why no one should do “comparative history” per se.

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  5. I had to laugh at the mention that the general public thinks science doesn’t change. They get really frustrated when the doctor now says eating fat is ok, just avoid the trans fats. Science does change. In fact now that medicine seems to rely upon the least reliable “science,” observational studies (yeah, those studies based upon asking people to remember what they ate–in detail– over the past 5 years, and fill in the blanks of a survey every 5 years), it keeps making major changes to its recommendations for a healthy life.

    Most studies are based upon step 1 of the scientific method, collecting observations.The rest of the method (forming a testable hypotheses… randomized controls… testing of effects…. conclusions…. formulate a new hypothesis) never seem to get done. There is usually a leap toward a conclusion suggesting that one factor predicts/affects/causes another factor (“risk”) when there were no controlled factors in an experiment. Medical researchers do not like offering a cautious conclusion like Factors A and B and linked. They want to be able to advise patients based upon this study, or lump it together with others that make leaps in conclusions and assumptions to do a “meta-analysis.” Because of the huge risk of subjectivity, meta-analyses are greatly problematical and therfore the least reliable for making predictions. Yet I have seen them called the “gold standard” of medical research (fools’ gold?).

    The only generalization we can make about science is that our interpretations will change over time. Many things that got thrown out because they were called “bad science” get pulled back into consideration because we understand better how things work and the feasibility of those results becomes more likely. Many things that people think are “good” science will be thrown out because of poor controls, when we discover what we have to control.

    So, not only does history change, so does science.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Ah, Dr. Pegoda, that is why meta-analyses and reviews are done in a half-hearted attempt at perspective. The scientific method by its strict application doesn’t take a longterm picture into account unless it is applied to longitudinal studies that follow patients over many years (the definition of “many years” being left to the researchers). But longitudinal studies are usually observational. Rarely do they include keeping those in the experimental group on a regimen for more than a few months because people will drop out of the experiment unless they truly see immediate and longterm benefits (like pay, free medical care, etc.), or for other reasons, like being tired of having to report to doctors, moving from the city, etc. So the mechanics of a longterm study with adherence to true scientific method are tricky, at least for human subjects, and expensive for any experimental animal.

    That is why some statisticians have devised studies that play with data from observational studies to make them look a lot like data from experimental studies. You hear people say they “controlled” for age, gender, etc., when all they did was to eliminate or recategorize data for that group (in an a posteriori “test”). Real experimental science means setting up those controls before the experiment (a priori). Some ask “aren’t the data essentially the same?” There is no test of that to be sure and because controls can be pretty sloppy if you do not choose your groups before the experiment, there is reason to suspect the data are not the same. So the only longterm perspective that really is shaped is when someone reviews experimental studies. Unfortunately, as each study gets done by a new group of people who have controlled for the same and/or different conditions, it makes discussion of long-term effects of all of the shortterm interventions extremely difficult to assess, and wreaks havoc with meta-analyses.

    Furthermore, most reviews treat observational and experimental studies as the same “evidence,” even though they are clearly not. No doctor keeps in mind which type of evidence they use to advise a patient. They read synopses of articles that are written by those who treat them as the same. Thus, when new research takes into account different aspects to control, the next recommendation may be very different from the first one they made 2 months ago. And we hear the sound of flip-flopping.

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