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Locations of History

Akash Bhattacharya

By Deba Prosad Chowdhury
K.P. Bagchi and Company, Kolkata, 2015, pp. 320, Rs. 895.00

VOLUME XL NUMBER 2 February 2016

Deba Prosad Chowdhury’s The Idea of History in a Changing World disaggregates the different historical moments that produced the conceptual frame of modern scientific history. Tracing its philosophical foundations in Herodotus and Thucydides, Chowdhury locates its founding concepts in post-enlightenment philosophical discourses of humanism, rationalism, progress, objectivity and scientific thought. Chowdhury succinctly summarizes the ideas of a range of thinkers—of medieval Christianity, Renaissance and Enlightenment, Romantic philosophers, down to the Gottingen professors who gave a decisive shape to the discipline of history as it exists today. The book however does not stop at capitulating the past the discipline has given to itself in order to emerge as a stable, bounded body of knowledge cleansed of ‘amateurisms’ and protected from radical anti-foundationalism. Chowdhury goes beyond a mere recapitulation and flags questions that could potentially open up new conversations regarding the epistemology of the discipline. Yet one is left to wonder whether Chowdhury’s unwillingness to subject the discipline’s conceptual frame to scrutiny actually does injustice to his endeavour by thwarting possible conversations. Let us take, for example, the key question that the author asks right at the outset: why do working historians avoid philosophical discussions about history? According to Chowdhury it is a ‘serious cognitive lapse’, one that the book seeks to rectify without proffering possible reasons behind such a lapse. The lack of training in philosophy is suggested as a tentative reason but Chowdhury clearly does not find such an excuse acceptable. Why indeed, let us ask with the author, have working historians displayed such reluctance? We could surmise that a discipline defined on the basis of a sharp separation between the theoretical and the empirical finds such discussions unnecessary. Moreover such discussions do have the potential of upsetting the separation, and indeed the conceptual frame of the discipline, by historicizing the discipline: demonstrating how history emerged as a discipline by cleansing itself of and in turn delegitimizing multifarious ways of relating to the past. Chowdhury’s approach to the philosophy of history circumvents the possibility of the above-mentioned crisis. One could turn a blind eye to the historical sensibilities history excluded in order to become a discipline and merely trace the present-day discipline back in time. In other words, instead of asking how a set of figures came to be known as past masters of a discipline, one could stop at asking what ‘contributions’ these past ...

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