Perpetual Motion: Technology, Slavery, and History

Once we stop thinking of the past as a failed but noble attempt at the present, many of its inexplicable, repulsive, or ridiculous aspects take on a new colour. A good example is alchemical transmutation, an evident impossibility that nevertheless occupied -- and not just occupied, but motivated -- the likes of Newton or Boyle, … Continue reading Perpetual Motion: Technology, Slavery, and History

Since I was young, I have been curious

"Why does every PhD applicant start their essay with 'since I was young, I have been curious'?" This question, asked on Twitter today,  is an interesting one. As a fairly frequent reader of applications, I will confess to believing that some application essays are too personal. This is not to say that childhood interests or family … Continue reading Since I was young, I have been curious

Empathy for the Devil

The idea that "Tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner" has never convinced me. Explanation is not vindication; it's often the opposite. Historical analysis does not always or even usually result in more sympathetic characters. And scholars who draw on ever more extensive archives to revisit the deeds and thoughts of the great and dead are more … Continue reading Empathy for the Devil

What’s the Use of History? A Postscript

Having already devoted my two last posts to John Pepall's attack on "university historians", I don't wish to go on beating a dead horse. But inasmuch as I find his take on the nature of history's relevance misguided, and his understanding of history as an academic discipline factually incorrect, I am loath to leave the subject on a wholly … Continue reading What’s the Use of History? A Postscript

What’s the Use of History? Part 2

Continued from here. For Pepall, then, the relevance of history to any member of the public is rooted explicitly, indeed exclusively, in that person's identity -- an identity conceived, moreover, in terms of birth, nation, and a kind of essential ethnic continuity ("some of what happened [in Sumer] is with me still"). Yet Pepall is at … Continue reading What’s the Use of History? Part 2

What’s the Use of History?

So asks John Pepall in the Spring/Summer 2016 issue of the Dorchester Review. Not that he really thinks there's any question. As he informs us on page one, The use of history, the only use of history, is its being known and understood by the general public, those of us who are not historians, not producers … Continue reading What’s the Use of History?

Now in Paperback: The Oxford Handbook of Modern Irish History

Moderate self-promotion alert: I'm happy to say that the paperback edition of this book will be out early next month. My own very modest contribution is a chapter on Restoration Ireland (1660-1688). I'm grateful to the editor, Alvin Jackson, for inviting me to write it; having looked at this brief but decisive period of Irish history from … Continue reading Now in Paperback: The Oxford Handbook of Modern Irish History

Historians, Public Intellectuals in Waiting

When stupidity and mendaciousness rule the roost it is hard not to think that something has gone wrong with education. The last year -- probably much longer, but it was about a year ago that this piece appeared, and I've seen several like it since -- has seen a lot of accusations being hurled along … Continue reading Historians, Public Intellectuals in Waiting

Historians under Trump

We are witnessing -- more than that, experiencing -- events that seem certain to be remembered as a turning point in the history of the United States, part of a series that is changing the political horizons of much of the world. Our knowledge is partial and the future unwritten. But the collapse of a familiar (and flawed) order, the destabilization … Continue reading Historians under Trump