3. the public relevance of historical studies: A rejoinder to Hayden white

History and Theory 44 (3):339–347 (2005)
Abstract
Hayden White wants history to serve life by having it inspire an ethical consciousness, by which he means that in facing the existential questions of life, death, trauma, and suffering posed by human history, people are moved to formulate answers to them rather than to feel that they have no power to choose how they live. The ethical historian should craft narratives that inspire people to live meaningfully rather than try to provide explanations or reconstructions of past events that make them feel as if they cannot control their destiny. This Nietzschean-inspired vision of history is inadequate because it cannot gainsay that a genocidal vision of history is immoral. White may be right that cultural relativism results in cultural pluralism and toleration, but what if most people are not cultural relativists, and believe fervently in their right to specific lands at the expense of other peoples? White does not think historiography or perhaps any moral system can provide an answer. Is he right? This rejoinder argues that the communicative rationality implicit in the human sciences does provide norms about the moral use of history because it institutionalizes an intersubjectivity in which the use of the past is governed by norms of impartiality and fair-mindedness, and protocols of evidence based on honest research. Max Weber, equally influenced by Nietzsche, developed an alternative vision of teaching and research that is still relevant today
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