Gevorg A. Tshagharian
The article examines the historical perceptions of Scottish thinker and writer Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) in the light of the emergent historiographical concepts of the era. Herein, it reappraises, in typological manner, the author’s peculiar contribution to the European historiography and humanities of the 19th century, entirely free from the radical-ideological colourings. An attempt is made to observe Carlyle’s comprehension of the past on the background of the further metamorphoses of historical thought. With this end in view, the translation and scrupulous annotations of Carlyle’s essay “On History” (1830) are tended to provide insights into the apprehension of the author’s historical conception.
Thomas Carlyle’s first essay on history presents some of his innovative approaches on the activity which was to engage him from the 1830s onward. It maintains that the recording of history is one of the activities which defines us as human beings; that history must involve society and other provinces of thought as a whole, and not be restricted to chronicles of historiographers or annalists; that history in all its inscrutable mystery can never be thoroughly apprehended. The essay also presents Carlyle’s pioneering distinctions between, on the one hand, narrative and action and between the artisan and the artist, on the other. Carlyle challenges the notion that history is “Philosophy teaching by Experience” and argues that because “History is the essence of innumerable Biographies”, neither the recording of historical experience, nor the drawing of philosophical truths from that experience is an easy task. Carlyle suggests that the historian should approach history not with the theoretical aspirations of philosophy but with the eye of faith, which recognizes the infinite mystery in History.
There is, Carlyle argues, “a fatal discrepancy between our manner of observing” events “and their manner of occurring”. While man inevitably conceive of history as a “Narrative” (a “successive” series of events), it is in reality an “Action” (a “simultaneous” group of events, related to each other not just by linearity but by “breadth” and “depth”, “Passion and Mystery”). The historian best able to embody the “Action” of history is not the “Artisan”, who works mechanically with discrete phenomena, but the “Artist”, who works with a sense of the organic whole.