Marc Bloch: The Historian’s Craft (Part 6)

This is the sixth part of a seven part series on March Bloch’s classic “The Historian’s Craft.” Access Part 1 and Part 2 and Part 3 and Part 4 and Part 5.


marc bloch orange

“I am well aware, from the outset, that there would be no fire if the air contained no oxygen: what interests me, what demands and justifies an attempt at discovery, is to determine how the fire started.”
-Marc Bloch

The final chapter of the book, containing a little less than eight full pages, deals with “Historical Causation.” As alluded to in the quote above, for the historian, it is never enough to place the implied history of the world – such as gravity, geological formations, etc. – as a reason for history.

A common motif, if you’re a regular reader, is the interactions between science and history. Of course, during the 1940s, Bloch is treading the line in his assertions that history may warrant consideration away from the scientific realm. If there was ever going to be a split, it comes in this final chapter. Bloch wishes to leave the positivism, the social Darwinism, to science. For Bloch, “cause” cannot be positivist, it cannot be left to chance.

Historical reasoning must differ from scientific reasoning. A general in battle cannot claim his loss on gravity or the physiological make-up of the human body and its inability to naturally shield itself from bullets. Science also emphasizes how one “looks” at an issue – are children sick due to the the poverty, or are they impoverished because they’re sick? The “single cause” is still a historical fetish, writes Bloch; it is still an impediment. “The most constant and general antecedents remain merely implicit,” Bloch writes.

“Does anyone consider that the oppressive moral atmosphere in which we are currently plunged comes only from the rational part of our minds? We should seriously misrepresent the problem of causes in history if we always and everywhere reduced them to a problem of motive.”

Bloch does not resign completely to Marx and dialectical materialism, although discussed in the book briefly for theoretical purposes. Bloch is a defender of the individuals place in history, while acknowledging the societal make-up that produces our leaders and followers.

“Is man not himself the greatest variable in nature?” Bloch asks.

He is. And as such, historical evidence and interpretation must coincide with any study of humanity, in any capacity. The Historian’s Craft, if nothing else, enshrines (wo)man are the center of the story. While not saying as much, this push would lead to the toppling of great, white men histories and create new genres of study across the globe.

Yet, I was struck with the ending. I understand his death hampered the finishing of this work, that was not what surprised me. It’s how it is remains un/finished yet complete. Cyclical yet broken. More can be said, but enough has been uttered already. If there is nothing else one can say, I will let whoever previously wrote in my copy of the work sum it up:

Assume Nothing 2

Even as this is “the end” of the work, Part 7 will contend with the legacy of Marc Bloch, around the world and, especially, in Latin America. Research is commencing as you read this, stay tuned.


~ by Daniel on July 2, 2009.

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