Does History Change and What Does it Mean for People?
Even in our daily lives, we generally hear remarks, such as “History does not change”, referring to specific constancies. Within those, initially, there is a meaning that what’s “current” will remain so, and function as “status quo” (then current situation). Attempts to weaken the contextual power of the category of change have been built so deep that they can penetrate into daily life. Due to the burden of this construction, people are convinced that the great and precious thing called “change” is very difficult even though they have an optimistic approach despite all, or that it is impossible, assuming a fully pessimistic tone and content. Owing to this background, we live in a world where those, who tell a change is possible and meaningful, are almost treated like “aliens”. That’s why the relationship between history, progress, change and subject/people is of extreme importance.
In his book titled “What is History?”, E. H. Carr (1892-1982), one of the leading historians and history theoreticians of the 20th century, says “… I don’t know how society will survive without an understanding of progress”, which will make more sense when considered with the brief general framework specified in the paragraph above, and by this fact he strongly emphasizes that it is necessary to believe in the category of progress/change/development with optimism as long as life continues. According to Carr, believing in change itself is a building mortar is of vital importance and is a building mortar that helps the foundation of the social sphere remains intact; according to him, the requirements pointed out by the concept called “progress” are very clear. For Carr, there is a specific emphasis that history has always seen change(s) and that people should always bear this belief, and that there will always be a potential.
The concept “potential” functions as a key for all the changes in the history. Deriving from the Greek word “potentia”, this concept is of a functional structure in that it harbors the cores of that which has not occurred but is possible to occur with a strong content. In history, the belief in progress and change is also shaped by this. Right within this context, according to Carr: “To believe in progress is to believe in the progressing improvement of human skills, not in any automatic or inevitable process.” (Carr, 2011: 180). It is possible to say that the concise meaning pointed out by this sentence is the fact that both the field of history and all human sciences apply to subjects/people. The belief that people can change, their skills can be increased or even improved regardless of the conditions is probably the most essential rule of an entire state of vitality. The concepts “vitality” and “change” are almost acting as lego concepts for one another; they complete each other, and only then they can fully find their meanings.
This first approach as represented by Carr stands for the group that sides with progress/change. On the contrary, there is another group represented by Oswald Spengler (1880-1936), claiming that there is cyclicality in history. The cyclical history approach generally functions as a perpetual cycle that constantly renews itself, rather than great changes and break-ups within an entire sphere of history. Within this context, according to Spengler, it is meaningless and wrong to be in a pursuit of a purpose of meaning in the sphere of history. He says it is not possible to conduct a study to determine a scientific way in terms of methods in the sphere of history in direct relation with this; for him, history is a field of “naturalness” and “randomness”. The idea of cyclicality that Spengler observes in the sphere of history is shaped by the concept of “collapse” [German: Untergang], and principally rejects progress.
For those who believe in change, it is naturally not possible to stay equally away from these two groups that are put forward with regards to the context of change in history and are different and even opposite of each other. The idea of cyclicality stands stable as a barrier right in front of the idea of progress that finds its character with the change. On this matter, the unproductive, futile effort meaning borne by a beautiful Turkish saying “vicious cycle”, which is related to cyclicality, clearly shows the distance to the idea of development.
The power of the thing called “change” is characterized by “optimism” having a richer content than individual situations and definitions, and it is needed in various doses in every period of every epoch. Today, however, it is not even possible to doubt the necessity of the need for this. Surviving humanity crises, destructions and wars does not happen only by putting smooth offers for solution through an optimist belief; nevertheless, in the absence of this idea, there would be no solid ground over which smooth suggestions would develop, and as a consequence, it cannot find a proper “soil” for itself to come into leaves.
In that sense, optimism constitutes the initial and most significant part of the change on an individual plain in order to perceive historical changes and to understand their meanings for humans. The placement of the first brick of the meaning and the commencement of the construction of the integrity of meaning are signified by the belief towards the fact that history and each and every individual have a manufactured and changeable structure, and not that they are in a vicious cycle or are functioning on a fixed, unchanged category level. Believing that it is “changeable” creates the ground for everything.
After all, as Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012), one of the significant contemporary history theoreticians, said in his book titled “On History”, “History has acted in a lumpish and winding manner in this century, but it really has achieved a progress.” The progress and change of the history stand for new horizons and meanings for people as well. Believing in those means, beyond an innocent childish manner, believing in people’s capabilities and potentials, in their improvable structures. Humans, in their holistic and complex structure, will be able to do their vitality justice by preserving their optimism despite all; we can say that this is not naiveness, but a requirement of humanity on a minimum level.
Edward Carr, What is History? (Translated by: Misket Gizem Gürtürk) İletişim Yayınları, 2011
Eric Hobsbawm, On History (Translated by: Osman Akınhay), Bilim-Sanat Yayınları: Ankara