I don’t think I quite grasped it at the time, but “understanding” was becoming for me an increasingly central objective: harder, deeper and more enduring than merely “being right.” – Tony Judt, Thinking the Twentieth Century, with Timothy Snyder (NY, Penguin, 2012)
It is perhaps worth reminding ourselves that this is not what Adam Smith thought. And it was certainly not the view of most neoclassical economists either. It would simply never have occurred to them to suppose a necessary and permanent relationship between the forms of economic life and all other aspects of human existence. They treated economics as benefitting from internal laws as well as the logic of human interest; but the motion that economics alone could supply the purposes of human existence on earth would have struck them as peculiarly thin gruel.
The task of the historian, if you wish to think of it this way, is to supply the dimension of knowledge and narrative without which we cannot be a civic whole.
I would break that thought into two parts. The first is simply this: the job of the historian is to make clear that a certain event happened. We do this as effectively as we can, for the purpose of conveying what it was like for something to have happened to those people when it did, where it did and with what consequences. This rather obvious job description is quite crucial. The cultural and political current flows in the other direction: to efface past events—or to exploit them for unrelated purposes. It’s our job to get it right—again and again and again. The task is Sisyphean: the distortions keep changing and so the emphasis in the corrective is constantly in flux. But many historians do not see it this way, and feel no responsibility of this kind. In my view, they are not real historians. A scholar of the past who is not interested in the first instance in getting the story right may be many virtuous things, but a historian is not among them. However, we have a second responsibility. We are not merely historians but also and always citizens, with a responsibility to bring our skills to bear upon the common interest. ... We are never free of that.
Accordingly, we must operate in two registers simultaneously....
...I profoundly believe in the difference between history and memory; to allow memory to replace history is dangerous. Whereas history of necessity takes the form of a record, endlessly rewritten and re-tested against old and new evidence, memory is keyed to public, non-scholarly purposes: a theme park, a memorial, a museum, a building, a television program, an event, a day, a flag. Such mnemonic manifestations of the past are of necessity partial, brief, selective: those who arrange them are constrained sooner or later to tell partial truths or even outright lies—sometimes with the best of intentions, sometimes not. In either event, they cannot substitute for history.
...It is one thing to say that I am willing to suffer now for an unknowable but possibly better future. It is quite another to authorize the suffering of others in the name of that same unverifiable hypothesis. This, in my view, is the intellectual sin of the century: passing judgment on the fate of others in the name of their future as you see it, a future in which you may have no investment, but concerning which you claim exclusive and perfect information.