Applied Historiography: Olympia’s Capitol Lake

Mark Derricott*

The excellent recent piece about Capitol Lake by Mr. Allen Miller and a formidable rejoinder in this quarter’s newsletter by Mr. Emmett O’Connell reveals a rich dialogue about our local history. Mr. O’Connell’s appeal to “true historical context” counters Mr. Miller’s exhortation to perfect the Wilder and White plan on its 100th birthday. These authors evidently disagree on the true intention of the designers of our Capitol Campus. Who is correct and how do we decide? And what does it matter? These are not simple questions and a sincere desire to answer them require examining and thinking about methodology in the the study of history, and the implications for us as producers and consumers of history.

If the truth of our history is worth discovering, the path its seekers must follow begins with considering what knowledge of the truth about anything that no longer exists might possibly mean. Before clarifying the object of history, however, we should weigh the value of that object. Why do White and Wilder’s intentions 100 years ago make any difference to us in deciding what we should do now? Is there something in their actions that should go beyond mere historical curiosity for us today? The answer for both Miller and O’Connell seems to be an emphatic “Yes!” What could some of their reasons be? There is often a strong, even sentimental, attachment to the past captured in such objects as the family bible or other heirlooms. These instill in us a sense of belonging to our particular place in time—a personal link to the past. This can be a grounding force in an often turbulent world.  Often, history can be a rhetorical device that congeals a point of view in some time or place which may perhaps say more about now than then. People often view history as a guide to how events in our lifetimes follow causal laws, and through its study we can understand the present or predict the future, or avoid repeating mistakes. Historical share prices certainly aid the trader in this view. For many others, history is simply an inexplicable curiosity that drives research and consumption of books, media documentaries, side of the road historical markers, and bedtime stories. If nothing else, studying history provides some context for us, but some have believed its function is much broader than that. In fact, in some accounts, history is the only expression of our collective being that there ever could be and it is only by uncovering the past which bore us, can we look at and really understand ourselves.

One perplexing but beautiful aspect of the study of history is the subject-object problem first articulated by Georg Friedrich Hegel. The objects of history are the vanished events that make up the past which historians now study. These historians are the subjects in Hegel’s dichotomy; there is history (object), but also the historians (subject) who study history (object). Together, these asymmetrical components comprise Hegel’s Totality. The issue of whether they can be wrested from each other, even for the sake of conversation, provides a glimpse of the problems touched upon by both Miller and O’Connell.

Hegel spent his life meditating on the collective consciousness of humanity. There, he believed he discovered what in German is known as Geist or Spirit. The Spirit of ’76 is perhaps America’s most prominent use of the term. Hegel argued that we are unable to view history except in terms of this Geist: our subjective view of those vanished objects, events, places and everything else that comprise time now departed. Only by attempting to comprehend the organic development of Spirit can we approach something as intangible as the past, even in terms specific events. Over time, our views change and are changed, understanding develops through dialogues like the one between Miller and O’Connell—a view is put forward, it is criticized and/or corrected, expounded upon, or otherwise developed, then replaced again by a new idea, which is in turn criticized, or so Hegel believed continuing the process.

In our example of Capitol Lake, there is a point of departure, for the sake of convenience only. In reality, there are none and the development of concepts and ideas is perpetual. This constant negation giving rise to creation, like green shoots in a forest fire or a decimated economy, is not the slow uncovering of a fixed object, but the same story told from different, various, angles.[1] After all, we as the subject and history as the object are eternally alienated by the passage of time. No matter how much we study, it’s still only through the interaction of the subject and object that we can come to comprehend it. Through Hegel’s lens, one might consider the question of whether there is actually any true history. It is a profound question!

That back and forth, negation-creation, occurs also in the thought surrounding the study of history. Hegel was not the first philosopher to engage in historiography, but he raised the questions have occupied the study of history since. Hegel’s critics believed there was an easier, more tangible path to its discovery. Leopold von Ranke rebelled against the subject-object framework offering instead that history can and should be reconstructed. He believed that a scientific, positivist approach to the study of history was possible and necessary. His formulation of this is one all students of historiography know well: wie es eigentlich gewesen (“how things actually were”). In the Preface to his History of the Latin and Germanic Nations from 1494-1514, Ranke wrote:

The book attempts to see these histories and the other, related histories of the Latin and Germanic nations in their unity. To history has been assigned the office of judging the past, of instruction the present for the benefit of future ages. To such high offices this work does not aspire: It wants only to show what happened (wie es eigentlich gewesen).[2]

In this view, historians are like nineteenth century scientists, weighing and measuring objects and gathering data about facts. At first blush, this is an intuitive and attainable goal. With relentless objectivity any historian should be able to reconstruct the past through rigorous research, patient study, and accurate communication. On this view, our question about the process of designing Capital Lake should be easily answered. Mr. O’Connell’s appeal to the source materials follows the von Rankian tradition and his journalistic scrutiny, admirably applied, may well leave the reader satisfied that his facts comprise the truth. Did this mean that Hegel’s subject could be converted into a completely accurate instrument conveying the object as it was to us in an unaltered form? As one might imagine, this orientation to the practice gave other historians of the time pause. And it did not take long.

Johan Gustav Droysen, was a historian, politician, and critic of Ranke’s methodology. His Outline of the Principles of History, which was published in 1868, offers an Hegelian counterpoint to the von Rankian tradition. Droysen’s passage seems to delight in the difficult problem of the often sparse collection of materials which historians have for evidence, and how little contact we have with the objects of our studies. “They are remnants of that which happened […] which still lie directly before our eyes.”[3] He wrote.  Droysen might embrace the power of history as a legitimizing authority to rhetorical maneuvers. Droysen quickly returned to Hegel’s subject as the more important problem for the modern historian: “We thus look at them in a quite different way from that in which they occurred, and which they had in the wishes and deeds of those who enacted them.[4]” Droysen was a Prussian nationalist, and strong supporter of German unification, under Prussia’s leadership. His work in German history can be said to employ a persuasive tendency toward unification or even perhaps his idea that Germany’s history is moving toward an inexorable unification as its conclusion. Droysen provides insight into the role and power of history in one’s own time and is a fascinating example of the use of rhetorical devices, and a powerful example in the value in the study of history. If we are unable to uncover the object of study to such an extent that we can reveal the past as it actually was, when is the historian’s work finished and is it futile to engage in it in the first place? Droysen would seem to argue that even though time alienates our object more with each day, that doesn’t mean the practice is without value. More important than the reason for study is Droysen’s recognition and strong arguments for ensuring that students of history understand that the subject in Hegel’s dichotomy should not attempt to alienate themselves from their object. Finally, both then and today, we see the subjective in the study of history, and its potential problems, which allow us to bear in mind the necessity of radical criticism in its production and consumption.

Clearly one’s conception of the past influences one’s view of the present. In both Miller and O’Connell’s work, we see an appeal to history that should lead us into a conception of our future. This is a common occurrence. Except in family history many individuals in our country consider history only terms of how it should shape the future, a legitimizing force for a point of view. (Without that personal connection, history is often tragically banished to true/false tests full of birth and death dates.) We need not elaborate the role historical appeals to versions of national history have played in the history of the modern world. As any observant individual in post-modern America is well aware, history has become a moving object, a victim of relentless rhetorical devices, visible across the entire political spectrum. On the other hand, it does not mean that the work of historians, and that which Miller and O’Connell contribute to it loses any value because it may be used to persuade. It does however shed new light on how history might fit into the Hegelian formulation of consciousness.

Droysen’s student, Friedrich Meinecke was one of the most well-known historians of the 20th century.  He attempted to synthesize the work of his forbearers, including both von Ranke and Droysen. In his view, elements of art, positivism, and the subjective scholarly curiosity are beneficial if not critical ingredients in the output of the historian. In 1928, Meinecke published his essay “Values and Causalities in History” offering elucidation of his beliefs. At this stage in our conversation, the subject rather than separated from from the object—as would have seemed desirable to von Ranke and his followers—instead have fused together within a swirling mass, giving rise to the question of whether historians could ever find a compelling reason to separate them.

And although [art] too, can never fully reveal these depths, it can give us an intuitive understanding of them, can give us a sympathetic sense of them through unmediated seeing. Only a path no longer purely scientific, this is, no longer purely causal can lead us a step further into the depths of reality. Where science fails to, it is wiser for history use these supra-scientific means than to apply scientific means where their application must lead inevitably to false results.[5]

Here, Meinecke has hit upon a fascinating argument: our ability to uncover the object is stronger when we don’t try to alienate that object from the subject. It is overly simplistic to get lost in the debate of whether history is an art or science, but that can clarify the problem for further analysis, debate, and development. In Hegel’s terms the subject and object don’t correspond to, but rather transcend, the art and science dichotomy. Can the science and art of journalism applied to historical scholarship take us back to the formulations of Wilder and White’s intentions? Where science is lacking can art fill in the gaps? Or vice versa? Of course, in scientific inquiry, it is sometimes impossible to replicate the conditions one is attempting to study. We cannot put ourselves back into the work chambers of our famous designers. Even if we could, would Mr. Miller’s cross examination or Mr. O’Connell’s exclusive interview uncover Wilder and White’s artistic inclinations as they are captured in the plans they produce?

An empowering resolution of these questions can be found in Charles Beard’s work. He was a dominant influence on 20th Century American historiography. Like Miller and O’Connell today, Beard was concerned with the relation between our past and our future environment and his own community’s social issues. As pragmatism was giving way to analytical philosophy, the debate within history faculties raged over the questions of whether history can be a science, and whether that study can or should be conducted according to scientific constraints. Beard offered an answer on how we might hold historiography to the positivist promise to which some of its practitioners aspire. Beard’s essay “That Noble Dream” reveals some of his conclusions: “Seekers after truth in particular and general have less reason to fear a [positivist methodology] than they have to fear any history that comes under the guise of the Ranke formula or historicism.[6]” Beard in the speech finally embraced the position that history as an object cannot be removed from the totality it forms with its subject.

Still more pressing, because so generally neglected, is the task of exploring the assumptions upon which the selection and organization of historical facts proceed. In the nature of things they proceed upon some assumptions concerning the substance of history as actuality. We do not acquire the colorless, neutral mind by declaring our intention to do so. Rather do we clarify the mind by admitting its cultural interest and patterns—interests and patterns that will control, or intrude upon the selection and organization of historical materials.[7]

Rather than discounting the subjective like von Ranke, or embracing it like Droysen, Beard made the inclusion of it and the explicit criticism of it part of the content of historical “truth”. Of course, Beard did not discover the end of history and his work did not resolve these questions, but he finally did seem to embrace that the dialectic process is perpetual and the historian is a necessary ingredient in it. And this perpetual conversation can shed light on one’s approach to the study of the events in question.

The waterway or body now known Capitol Lake is a much loved landmark and the more we study its history, the more we can approach an appreciation of our community. We also learn, thanks to the work of Miller and O’Connell, more about the sentimental attachment each of us have for our community, in its current form. On the other hand, if someone were to discover that lost plans actually proposed a radically different lake or estuary other than our current options, would that limit or change our views of what we believe the future should be? To read our subjective view by present aspirations back into it as O’Connell implicitly believes Miller does, we also unfairly confine the study of the past to unnecessary rigidness even if the work is defensible by scientific standards. The desire or necessity to see primarily ourselves in history as subjective, is always lurking. At times that subjective view certainly can cloud the object of study itself, but can a historian ever remove her fingerprints from her work? Inadequate and useless remnants, evidence, source materials, perjuring witnesses, falsified affidavits, need not thwart the work. The inability to resolve the truth of our past—if only because we didn’t live then—need not be a cause of remorse, nor should it become a reason to believe studying history is a futile act.

Beard said in the first line of his famous two volume work, The Rise of American Civilization, “the history of a civilization, if intelligently conceived, may be an instrument of civilization.” As we have seen that civilizing agent is not a static moment, but a dynamic process whose end is not the discovery of the truth of the past (even if that were possible). The civilizing arises through relentless action itself and this includes the study, production, consumption, and perhaps most of all, criticism of history. The fusion of these threads of thought is the driving spirit behind the study of history and as long as that criticism, back and forth, and perpetual development continues, subjects like Beard, Droysen, Meinecke and probably von Ranke too as well as their objects, will civilize us. As Hegel wrote: “Geist is the spirit of self-activity itself.” The phrase may well have particular poignancy for the historian in all of us. As we experience and delight in Miller and O’Connell’s work (like others who are as deeply committed) it becomes easier to conclude that the action or work should never end, but should continuously push us to further action: “Criterion of Spirit is its action, its active essence.  It makes itself what it essentially is.”[8] That action occurs with the study of the history of Capitol Lake, as much as it does with our action to any future form it may or may not take.

*Many thanks to Thad Curtz for his frequent reading recommendations and his patience in discussing the questions they provoke.



[1] Bernstein, Richard: Praxis and Action, University of Pennsylvania Press (October 1, 1971), 22

[2] Stern, Fritz (1971). The Ideal of Universal History. In Varieties of History (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Vintage, 57

[3] Stern, Fritz (1971). Positivistic History and its Critics In Varieties of History (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Vintage, 141-142

[4] Ibid.at 141-142

[5] Stern, Fritz (1971). Historicism and its Problems In Varieties of History (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Vintage, 270

[6] Stern, Fritz (1971). That Noble Dream In Varieties of History (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Vintage, at 328

[7] Ibid. at 328

[8] Bernstein at 21

This entry was posted in Summer 2011. Bookmark the permalink.