Societal and Individual Influences
Having finished the second lecture/chapter in E. H. Carr’s book What Is History?, I feel it’s prudent to comment on things as they come up rather than try and whip together an incoherent mess covering all the topics introduced. For this one, I actually don’t have overly much to say on the historical aspect of this lecture – most of which simply elaborated on the previously explored idea that a historian viewed the past through the eyes of present events and as a product of his/her society – but more branching off to consider what he says about the “society and the individual” (the title of the lecture).
He takes this idea from the perspective of studying the historian to understand the history they are writing, and in turn studying the period the historian is from to understand the historian themselves. A worthwhile exercise I’ll have to test out some time, but the lead up to this conclusion is more fascinating. Here I will set the basis with Carr’s work but then write my thoughts on the concept, not his; that is, this is inspired by what he wrote, but is not intended to be a reflection on or a representation of it. The core of what Carr says is that the society and the individual are inextricably linked and that one is both consciously and unconsciously influenced by the other. He discounts the idea that thoughts and motivations of an individual have any real bearing on history as there is a much more complex web of influences in ‘groups’ of society, as well as the shifts in society itself as a whole. What I wish to hone in on is that link between society and the individual.
We are all individual human beings, each with our own unique perspectives, ideas, motivations, etc. It is this individualism that differentiates us and allows us to direct our own choices. When we are younger, during what is called the ‘formative years’ (generally considered to be 0-7 years old), the polar opposite is true. We are entirely dependent on the society around us and are confined to the influences of that society. Who we are as individuals later in life is heavily, if not entirely, guided by these years, and therefore we are all products of society. As a result, the changes and events that occur to the society will affect you as an individual, just as your actions as an individual will affect the society.
This natural link implies that we are social beings, bound together by the requirements and progress of that society. Society cannot progress without the individuals that form it, and an individual cannot progress without society. One example I’ll borrow from Carr is that of revolutions. When one hears the word ‘revolution’, it is normally associated with the action of rising up against society. But if individuals are a product of society, then the revolution is not contrary to the society but actually a part of it.
I have no clear aim with this piece, it’s more a semi-structured brain dump. More thought and time would be required to write a substantial piece on the communal nature of societies and individuals, but for now the idea of it is in itself interesting, and viewing history (or more accurately, historians) through that lens is also a thought provoking approach.
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