Ep. 66: Creative Historical Thinking, with Michael Douma, Part One

Michael Douma joins us for the first part of a two-part series to discuss how we should see the past as as an interpretative history.

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Michael Douma joins us for the first part of a two-part series to discuss how we see the past as as an interpretative history. He argues that history is a creative discipline because we choose to arrange facts in a certain way.

Douma goes through his new book, Creative Historical Thinking, and how he typically asks his students to draw a timeline of their lives or a timeline of American history. Quite often, each students’ timeline forms differently. Relating that to the study of the past, Douma argues that every timeline a historian draws, is a different interpretation of the past, creating history. Everyone has a different mental model or “timeline” in which they view their lives and that allows history to be a creative endeavor.

Is the past simply what happened? With that in mind, is history our interpretation of the past? Is history how we give meaning to the past? What is the difference between an error in conception and an error in fact? If you had to drawl the timeline of your life how would you drawl it?

Further Reading:

Michael J. Douma website

Creative Historical Thinking, written by Michael J. Douma

What is Classical Liberal History?, written by Michael J. Douma

Music by Kai Engel

Related Content:

What is the Importance of History, written by David Boaz

Is there a Purpose to History?, Free Thoughts Episode

What is Classical Liberal History?, Liberty Chronicles Episode

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00:05 Anthony Comegna: Michael Douma, is an Assistant Research Professor at Georgetown University. And the Director of the Georgetown Institute for the study of markets and ethics. He’s been on the show before to talk about his book; What Is Classical Liberal History? Which focuses on theory. And now he joins us for a two-part series on his latest book on historical methods; Creative Historical Thinking.

00:30 Anthony Comegna: Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony Comegna.

00:40 Anthony Comegna: So Mike Douma, welcome back on the show, and we’re talking about your book, Creative Historical Thinking. And the first question I have for you, is that you say the past is simply what happened, the past is what happened, in history, is our interpretation of the past and all the things that happened within it. Now, this is not exactly a foreign concept on the show, that the past and history are different things, but could you take some time to really explain that to us?

01:13 Michael Douma: Sure. I’ll work on it if I can. This is a common distinction in just about every history methods book that you see, going back 200 years or more. It’s something that’s quite well known to all trained historians. It’s not necessarily well-known to the public. In fact, I was reading an op-ed, the other day in my local newspaper, and actually I do have a local newspaper in West Virginia, where someone mentioned… They said something like, “History is what happens. We can’t change it, we can’t rewrite it.” And I just thought, “Well, frankly, you don’t know what you’re talking about.” I mean, historians have always made this distinction, that the past is this thing that exists outside of us. The language that historians sometimes use, philosophers of history, they say that the past is mind independent, so it exists outside of our mind. History, however, is dependent on our mind, it is what we, through our own subjective lenses create. We give meaning to the past, we seek patterns, we come up with concepts, and things like say the Industrial Revolution, the Civil War, they don’t exist in the past as fixed concepts and terms, there are things that we define afterwards, after something happens, right.

02:35 Michael Douma: So the point is there’s all this empirical reality of the world around us in the past, but it’s historians who sort through the remnants of it to try to put together coherent stories, they give meaning to it, that arrange it in ways that makes sense to us. And so we, as I say in this book, create history, history is a creative discipline.

03:00 Anthony Comegna: Then let’s dig more into how people actually connect those two things together. If history is more a process that we do ourselves, is it totally dependent upon the facts of the past? Do the facts of the past sort of dictate to us what history is, and how we develop it? Or are these things… Can they really operate totally independent from one another?

03:25 Michael Douma: Yeah. And I know you’re gonna ask me about post-modernism. This is right in that direction. I think maybe one way to look at this is that facts do exist, but we come up with the concepts, we come up with the arrangement of these facts. And there’s an infinite number of ways that we can arrange these, and find different types of meaning. And so we can agree on basic sort of facts. You know, Caesar existed, Rome fell in a certain year, one way or another. But the way the historians, one way that they have traditionally come to terms with finding meaning or pattern in the past that they can agree on, is what’s called the Correspondence Theory. So when we put these facts together they correspond, they don’t contradict each other, then we can say that this is historical truth, or is approaching historical truth as best as we can. Now, of course in history, there’s never a proof. That’s a term falsely imported from logic.

04:34 Michael Douma: In history, there’s evidence. We work from the evidence, we get towards probable likely conclusions, and we can be at some point proven wrong, and what we’ve come up with. And I’ve always thought there’s these objections, what if there’s some master evil puppet that controls the world, and they’re just faking things for you and I think, “Wow, this guy must be really good,” because I don’t know if you’ve had these experiences Anthony, but I’ll be reading about something for years. I’ll know the subject really well. I’ll go into an archive somewhere, far away, discover a little piece of information that corresponds with what I know, and there’s no way somebody could have planted that piece of information for me to find years later, and I have that moment of revelation, where I’m like, “This all fits together.” There’s no other explanation, besides that this is true.

05:26 Anthony Comegna: Yeah, the realness of it hits you. I think I have had that experience, especially working on the Loco-Focos, such an understudied group of people. You have to go piece little bits from this book, and that book, and search for indexes, and call through footnotes, and go through every letter in an archive collection because there’s just one mention of one word that you’re looking for, and then you find it, and it’s shocking that this piece of the puzzle actually fits in where you thought it did, because you had the rest of the picture put together and you’re just missing a couple of pieces.

06:03 Michael Douma: So you don’t think the Loco-Focos are invention of an evil puppet?

06:06 Anthony Comegna: Not yet, but I am willing to entertain that possibility. [chuckle] Now, I do wanna ask you then, what do we do with sort of out there claims, like if I were to say something completely nonsense to you, like the Norman conquest of England, happened in 2021, led by an army of Nazis from the moon and Mike Pence, the leader of space force? Does that kind of ridiculous claim have any validity whatsoever?

06:38 Michael Douma: Well, you’ve cut that many different ways.

[laughter]

06:42 Michael Douma: No, of course, that one’s easier to deal with, but many historical problems are not that easy. It’s not simply… Well, maybe it is simply, what year did something happen, what year did the Celts arrive in Britain or something? We don’t know the answer to these things. So sometimes we just have tentative arguments out there, tentative positions. I think it is… I think at one point in the book, too, I joke, I don’t know if the Normans invaded the Saxons in 1066, or if it happened in 1065 and the early chroniclers got it wrong. But maybe if I did the research on it, I’d be a little bit more convinced that it happened precisely in that year. So once again, I think as historians, we work towards certainty, and we can know things with higher and higher degrees of certainty.

07:34 Anthony Comegna: Is certainty just to stand inward for consensus?

07:38 Michael Douma: Well, some things nobody else knows besides me or you or anyone? So in history, it’s not dependent on consensus with other people. We’re all creating our own historical consciousness in our mind in determining what we think is true or not. So I wouldn’t say it’s the same thing as consensus, but you definitely do wanna work with other people, throw these ideas around and say, “Do you think this fits?”

08:07 Anthony Comegna: In the book, it seems that you’re arguing that, going against the well-established facts, is not necessarily bad history, because sometimes that’s part of what you have to do to get what you think is a more correct narrative out there, but in many cases it’s very unwise. So if you were to say the constitutional convention happened in the 1750s, it’s a very, very unwise claim to go out there making. And I guess my question then becomes, well, how is it any more unwise to say something like that, than to say that it was a great triumph for republicanism, and liberty, and individual rights, and all of this stuff? If your interpretation of a basic fact is wrong, is that worse than your interpretation of a very big, broad conceptual thing being wrong, or are they both equally problematic?

09:07 Michael Douma: History as a discipline, it’s naturally pretty conservative, in the sense that you need pretty good evidence to overturn the historiographical norm. Generations of people working before you on a topic, have built the path through the woods that leads in a certain direction. The story might not follow that path directly, but if it’s gonna veer off a little bit, you gotta prove where they’re wrong, and what they’re wrong about. So error is a fact, we’re all prone to making mistakes, and further we dig into things, maybe we can discover that we’ve made some historical facts. Errors of concepts is more based on interpretation, is based on your ideology, how you’re coming into this thing, and so I wouldn’t say they’re at the same level.

10:05 Anthony Comegna: It seems to me that an error in conception is much more important or possibly dangerous, damaging to society than in a simple error in fact.

10:17 Michael Douma: Yeah, it’s like this similar argument about… The similar idea that historical myths are very detrimental to society, but it’s not just the myths it’s also our false presumptions, not just the positive stories that we tell, positive in a sense that we’ve built up this certain story, it must be correct, but it’s actually wrong. It’s things that we assume about the past, these conceptions that we have that are wrong. And so, this is actually big in the German, sort of modern German philosophy of history, this Reinhart Koselleck, where you have to understand the concepts as they were used in the time. When we talk about 18th century liberty, we have to understand what that means in the term that these people were using it.

11:05 Anthony Comegna: I think it’s interesting that… To answer this question, you went right to a metaphor about following a trail through the woods.

11:13 Michael Douma: Well, do you have better metaphors for historiography? ‘Cause that’s how I like to think of it as… Historiography is a general direction, or like lots of strings woven together to form a shawl or something.

11:29 Anthony Comegna: Yeah. I think it’s interesting because you went right for that sort of natural metaphor. And you say one very important claim that you make throughout the book, that you bring out early on and you discuss it more throughout, is that not only is history a creative discipline but all historical thinking is metaphorical.

11:49 Michael Douma: Yeah. So we deal with facts, and we order these facts based on the concepts we have, and where do we get these concepts from? From metaphors and analogies of the physical world around us. And so I start with this idea that a lot of our abstract thought is grounded in physical reality, and then we create metaphors, we create analogies to explain the abstractions, to explain cause and effect, and to impart deeper meaning into longer processes, because we can’t see behind the scenes what is the causal mechanism of a lot of the bigger movements of history. So instead of talking about the complications of all of Rome’s history, we talk about the rise and fall of Rome, and it’s much easier to think in these physical terms. Well, we know Rome didn’t literally rise, it didn’t literally fall. But we use this in a metaphorical sense to say that it got more powerful and then it got weakened, and we simplify the whole process therefore with one analogy and one metaphor.

12:55 Michael Douma: This isn’t a fact of history that Rome rose and fell. It’s our conception of all the movements of history, the physical movements. What we’re looking at afterwards, we say this is one trend that we see, and everything that happened in the Roman or even the Roman Empire is a concept that we’re forming.

13:16 Anthony Comegna: I think it’s especially interesting in idea that all history is metaphor. All of our concepts, all of the things we project on to the map, these nation states, these borders, these conceptual ideas of what an empire is, and who governs whom, and all institutions that we have built up, and all kinds of cultural baggage, everything related to history is metaphorical, all our thinking about is metaphorical…

13:39 Michael Douma: Well, not all of it.

13:40 Anthony Comegna: Okay.

13:43 Michael Douma: We have have non metaphorical, non abstract thought, we have literal statements, like the fact that North America existed 100 years ago, we don’t need a metaphor to make those kind of statements. But to understand processes, to understand causes and effects in history, and what I already… What we’re really doing in history is understanding individual motivations, individual actions, and to understand those a lot of times, most often, to explain anything abstract at all, we need a metaphor.

14:13 Anthony Comegna: Now, I guess that… Yeah, that brings me to my next point, which is about the book. It has these great visualizations running all through it. And these great ways for people to connect their abstract thought to the actual pages in the history book that they’re reading, and then do that work for themselves. I think if you read through this book, and you pay attention to all the visualizations you have in it, you might start to think very differently about the history books that you’re reading, and consciously construct your own historical metaphors or analogies to start thinking about the past. So I wondered if you could talk just a bit about all the different kinds of visualizations you have in the book.

14:57 Michael Douma: Yeah, so this is Anthony, the most right-brained book, that I could possibly write as a left-brained person.

[chuckle]

15:07 Michael Douma: And I started off by doing this in my classrooms, where I would have people draw time lines. I would have them put American history down on a timeline. Or I’d have them draw how they conceive of the day, how do they break it up into different segments. Or how do they conceive of the timeline of their own life and break it up into different segments? And what I noticed is, everybody had their own little idiosyncratic way. It’s that sometimes the year would transgress, move from left to right on the page, sometimes top to bottom. Sometimes things would be in a circle, sometimes you would add other elements to your timelines, to your descriptions of time, showing another access to your level of happiness, or your location, or something like this, encoding other information than just the passage of time.

15:58 Michael Douma: And I started to draw a parallel with this, and with what I’m familiar with from cultural geography which are called mental maps. So I started to think of this concept, which I think I’ve coined. Other people have done similar things, but what I call mental timelines. And so I think it’s very important for people to talk about and show how do they conceive of history? How do you draw it in different ways? It’s not natural to draw a timeline left to right, and straight. Some people treat this as common sense. But if we’re all allowed to show our different conceptions of time or different diagrams and visualizations for how we think things happen, we’re better able to transfer our knowledge and our perceptions to others, and we’re also better able to open up the discussion in the room to recognize that maybe somebody that doesn’t understand history, it’s not ‘cause they’re dumb, it’s because they don’t have this right metaphor, they haven’t thought about it long enough, they don’t have this diagram on a piece of paper, on the chalkboard that they can relate to and use as a scaffold to put their other information on.

17:08 Michael Douma: So I think it’s that relaxing atmosphere, allowing people to say, “I’m not good at history, or I see things in a different way, that then opens up the classroom to be creative, because to be creative you have to be comfortable.

17:27 Anthony Comegna: You have students, draw these kinds of things a lot, you go out looking for them in other books, you solicit examples from people of their own mental maps and mental historical timelines. I’m wondering, could you describe maybe the most interesting or captivating one that you’ve seen?

17:45 Michael Douma: Yeah. There’s one that I use in the book, which I like, because it highlights a lot of different elements of people’s thinking when they transpose their mental timeline to the paper. And so, this one from… One particular student from a few years ago, starts off left to right, and it’s got some… It starts at some point on the left with her birth, but before that she fills in chunks of decades and eventually disappears. She doesn’t know anything before 1950. So there’s a void in history before 1950, and then the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, is informed by her movies that she’d seen, like movie Grease or something, I remember is on her timeline, and maybe a little bit from the knowledge of her parents. But she’s informing me through this diagram that she’s essentially historically ignorant of everything before her parents generation, that it just doesn’t appear on her mental timeline. And then when she gets to her life after a few years, the timeline no longer goes from left to right. It starts going in a circle, it goes up into the right, and starts going clockwise, around.

18:50 Michael Douma: And she breaks up the circle into different places where she lived, so I don’t know, maybe you do this, some of our listeners here. I like to think about my life as, “Oh, it was the two years I lived in this one location, one year… ” But that’s because I’ve moved around a lot. I’ve had other students that… One of them that they laughed about, was a student who said that he broke his life into different sections based on what girlfriend he had, so if he thought about his mental timeline, he could say, “Oh, that was when I was with this person.” And they use this as a sort of mnemonic for placing things on your timeline. So another metaphor I like to use for this is like a clothesline, and you hang facts on your clothesline, and it can change the shape, you can put different things on there, but then when you think about it, those facts are still hanging there, you have this image and this model. So anyway, this one particular student had this interesting timeline ‘cause it incorporated lots of bending of the timeline, different types of information, drawings, divisions into different locations of where she lived. She encoded a lot of information on a simple timeline.

19:58 Anthony Comegna: Part of what I find so interesting about that section, is that you come up close and personal with the idea that really all of this stuff is so arbitrary. You’re telling your own individual story of whatever it is. So that basic point that you made upfront, about the difference between the past and history, it comes out so clearly when you sit down to actually do this on your own, and put pen to paper as it were.

20:22 Michael Douma: Yeah, who’s to say what’s correct? You know when it’s your mental timeline, you can say this is correct. I think we all have this… We want to give in to the textbook’s description of something. A lot of people think that there’s some… I don’t know, committee on history somewhere that writes it down in the textbook and they trust it 100%. But no, you can challenge that for being incorrect, for being drawn in a way that’s not intuitive. What facts did they select to put on their timeline? Why are those the important ones? It’s always wars and presidents. If you talk to legal historians, for example, they talk about things like this presentation I think at Georgetown Law School something about the Lochner era.

21:05 Anthony Comegna: Yeah.

21:06 Michael Douma: And I’m like, “Oh, like you know who Lochner is.” Barely. [laughter] But they break American history down not into the reign of presidents, but into the different Supreme Courts. They tell you about different eras in… I’ve never even thought about this, as a way of deciding like American history was so different during the reign of this one set of judges than another. So we’ve been thinking about it wrong or differently the entire time. That’s why those lawyers, legal historians have a very different conception of what matters in history.

21:41 Anthony Comegna: Are there any mental timelines or maps that you’ve seen that you don’t find especially compelling, you wouldn’t draw yours that way, but they’re very challenging for some reason?

21:55 Michael Douma: Yeah. This whole book started when I was talking with my brother about the fact that I see the year as a circle, and that summer months are at the top, the winter is at the bottom, and it goes around clockwise. And I always thought this was natural, and I started investigating with other people, and asking them and they don’t. They draw their year, their calendar in different ways. My father draws it in the reverse format, I believe, with winter at the top, summer at the bottom. And so if you talk to these other people, it challenges me because I can’t think… It’s intuitively wrong for me to think of a timeline going from right to left, or thinking of the year as a circle, but going counterclockwise, I have to really think about it, until you recognize it is arbitrary, there’s no reason. Well, I don’t think it’s entirely arbitrary. I think it’s… The circle of course is a metaphor for the sun going around the Earth, and timekeeping being based on the sun and the moon as it was originally.

22:54 Anthony Comegna: Yeah, starting your line at the left or the right is totally… It doesn’t have any bearing at all on what you’re actually representing, does it? Or even whether you choose to use a circle or not, you could do a square and have each corner a seasonal quadrant…

23:11 Michael Douma: Or even thinking of history as a timeline, who’s to say it’s a line and not a circle, or that it’s just… What if our metaphor is it’s chaos like the snow you used to get on your old TV?

23:25 Anthony Comegna: Yeah, in a way, I think, I mean when Neil Howe was on the show, the author of The Fourth Turning, the generations guy, when he was on the show, we thought history was more like a corkscrew shape, and that sometimes there was… It was mainly progression, but there’s a lot of backsliding involved and people kind of stumble along and learn lessons and so they get a little spurts as they go. There’s always some turning back. [chuckle]

23:50 Michael Douma: Well, that’s an interesting metaphor, but I think Howe, and I don’t know his work very well, but a lot of those speculative histories, they want to propose that there’s some propulsion force at work. So is the corkscrew metaphor simply a reflection of what has happened? Will it necessarily happen in the future? Why is it always spinning in the same direction? Is it consistently spinning this way? I think a lot of this stuff is seeking patterns in perceiving more. We’re pattern seeking creatures. We want to look at the past and say that it follows some sort of type of pattern, and none of these speculative histories are all that convincing. They never find laws, they never find patterns that hold up. Now, of course, they’re moving more and more towards big data and trying to get tons of empirical evidence to prove that every 10 years, this happens or every generation that happens, and…

24:47 Anthony Comegna: Or predicting future outcomes.

24:49 Michael Douma: Yeah, I don’t know, to me it’s not too different from the people that used to do the Bible code stuff, or trying to find some esoteric pattern that only they have the algorithm [25:03] ____.

25:04 Anthony Comegna: It makes me think maybe the… At least my off-the-cuff libertarian picture of history might look more like a scatter plot, or it’s just a bunch of individuals scattered around doing things, and sometimes you can find a pattern where they’re closely linked together and they’re leading in a common direction.

25:25 Michael Douma: Yeah, some critics of my position might say that, my view is that history is chaos. I don’t know if I would say that’s entirely correct, ‘cause I think, like I said before, we ascribe meeting and find our own patterns, and so I just say that there’s not one overarching metaphor or one overarching pattern of history. Well, there may be, but I don’t think we’re able to divine it, and we’re certainly thus far haven’t been able to find it. But that doesn’t mean that there’s not a lot of small scale patterns that happened. I mean pattern every day is I go to sleep and then I wake up, that’s a pattern, but we could be like, philosopher like Hume and say that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s gonna happen tomorrow. There’s not some built-in cause and effect of the universe that says I must rise and wake every day.

26:07 Anthony Comegna: And it seems like it’s in the space where we make those metaphors that we actually have historical debates that are meaningful. You have to engage in that abstract language for the meaning.

26:25 Michael Douma: And this is part of my argument that continues in the book where I say, “We need to have lots of experiences, we need to see how other people draw things, we need to travel the world, we need to learn other subjects.” We never know where the next source of information is gonna come from, that’s gonna provide us with some metaphor that’s gonna help explain to us some historical event.

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26:47 Anthony Comegna: There’s the end of our first show with Michael Douma and his book Creative Historical Thinking. If you enjoyed what you’ve heard today, be absolutely sure that you tune in next week. There’s lots more inventive historical thought on the way.

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27:09 Anthony Comegna: Liberty Chronicles is a project of libertarianism.org. It is produced by Tess Terrible. If you’ve enjoyed this episode of Liberty Chronicles, please rate, review and subscribe to us on iTunes. For more information on Liberty Chronicles, visit libertarianism.org.