I have been perusing R. G. Collingwood’s ‘The Idea of History’, which was originally published, so far as I can tell, in 1946, although the author died, sadly, in 1943. Despite its age, it is still noted in my Boys Own Bumper Book of Philosophy as being very influential in the philosophy of history and, as it was on sale (for my very own battered 1961 paperback version) for the princely sum of 1 penny (plus postage; really, the postage rate these days is scandalous to us cheapskates), I decided to give it a whirl.
Collingwood’s judicious assessment of exactly what history is and how it is done is very interesting, and I commend the volume to the historical wargaming fraternity. One or two of his ideas may well have already crept into the blog as it is, so I thought I had better become honest and confess to that, and to give credit where it is due.
Throughout the book, Collingwood is at pains to distinguish different sorts of history. For example, he discusses extensively ‘scissors and paste’ history, where the historian simply cuts bits out of his sources, treats them as authoritative, and does not really question them or interpret them. If two sources contradict, the historian has to make a decision about which is the most reliable and use that one. He might note that opinions on the point differ, but that is as far as it goes.
Critical history, Collingwood argues, is history where the sources are not treated at face value. The authors of the sources (or makers of the artefacts) may have their own problems. For example, a chronicler may simply be misinformed, or report a certain set of events for theological or political (or even legal) reasons. Their informer may be misinformed, and so on. Thus, a critical historian will treat his sources with some caution rather than simply accepting what they say.
This is not to be a historical sceptic, however. The past did happen and people did report it accurately. We do have some chance of reconstructing the past and understanding not only what happened (which Collingwood calls the outside of the event) but also why it happened (the inside of the event). History, Collingwood claims, is the history of human thought.
By this, as I understand it, Collingwood is arguing that what a historian does is try to understand why historical actors made certain decisions, given the choices they were presented with. These decisions were mediated by the cultural, social, political (and so on) milieu in which the historical actors were placed. So, for example, the question posed to Henry V along the lines of ‘shall we invade France?’ is answered in the affirmative according to the lights and understanding of the age. The historian has to understand these in order to understand Henry’s response.
It might be that in this case a modern historian would argue that there were economic reasons for the invasion, or internal political reasons (a young dynasty needing victory in battle over foreigners to authenticate itself, perhaps). But, aside from these there must also have been considerations of honour, what kings do, the legal claims of the English crown to that of the French and so on. The historian would have to have a handle on all of these in order to try to understand the decision making process of the English crown.
History, then, is an imaginative process. The historian has to, in effect, imagine himself back in the English court, with the mental processes and cultural baggage of the time, the knowledge and understanding of the international situation in mind, and to imagine the process of making the decision to invade, where and how to achieve that, and so on.
Thus history has a significant element of imagination about it, but it is not writing a historical novel. The historian is driving at the truth of what happened; a historical novelist does not have to do this, so long as the world they create is coherent and plausible. The historian has to do this and try to ensure that their picture is of things as they actually were.
History, then, has three elements. Firstly, the space and time must be specific, localised if you like. Things happen, historically, at given times and places. Novels can vary widely and wildly, and can be set in a world which simply has the flavour of history. Secondly, history has to be self-consistent. Historically, things happen, and there is usually a traceable cause and effect. Even in historical novels, this need not be the case. The narrator can be, for example, unreliable, and so the novel can unravel in so far as the reader’s knowledge of rationality is challenged. Finally, history has evidence. Now, historical novels can have evidence, as well, but this is more freely interpreted than the historian would allow.
I am fairly sure that the application of this to historical wargaming is clear to most readers, but I will labour the point just in case. The question which arises from this view of history is ‘is historical wargaming more like a novel than history?’
I dare say that more than a few historians would argue exactly that. Wargaming is at best a second or third order interpretation of historical truth, to which is added the insult of random elements, rather than a proper narrative of events and their underlying causes. Thus, this line of arguing would proceed, wargaming can add nothing to the understanding of history.
Nevertheless, I think I disagree, even slightly with that statement. If history needs imagination then, as I have previously suggested, a model of a battle can surely act as a stimulus to the imagination. By an imaginative effort the historian wargamer can enter the mind of the general (or other) and see what decisions could be made, perhaps even understand why some decision were not made.
Thus, I claim, historical wargaming can (but, of course, need not be) something which aids the historical understanding. Of course, many games are not historical; perhaps they are more like novels.