Different lenses and lessons from the past

Philipp Blom

In today's second keynote Philipp Blom, author, journalist and historian, began by asserting that certainly things have changed for the better in Europe since the end of the Second World War. The question, he asked, is whether they have changed because we actually learned from history.

Maps never show us anything we didn't already know

A recurrent concept of Blom's keynote was that of different "Mental Maps": Different ways of remembering one and the same thing in various national contexts. Maps, Blom pointed out, are very helpful in navigating history and in trying to make sense of reality. However, they are limited in their explanatory capacity in that they are embedded with our current values showing us only what we already know. "But History, in that sense, is a useful fiction of the past", Blom stated. If we really want to learn from history, we need to understand how these fictions works.

How could they?

In trying to understand history, we always also need to be aware of the fact that we are not ever in a stable position from which we judge the events of the past. We cannot simply take the present as a fixed point in history from which to evaluate the things that have been. Disregarding this fact ultimately leads to asking the very dangerous question of "How could they?". How could people back then have acted so carelessly, so foolishly? Shouldn't they have known better? A hundred years from now, Blom argues, "they" are us. People back then were as rational in their decision-making, as we believe to be today. The fact that we live in a European Union in which we still vote for nationalist parties and give room to xenophobic sentiments should be proof enough, that we should perhaps rather be asking ourselves "How could we?" than "How can we"?


Conference Day: 

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