An Intelligent Person's Guide to History

John Vincent

Duckworth 2005
A book review by Danny Yee © 2006
An Intelligent Person's Guide to History is more a collection of essays than an integrated guide, with largely independent chapters on a scattered range of topics. The selection of topics is Anglo-centric and the approach idiosyncratic, reflecting Vincent's personal foibles and his background as a historian of 19th century British diplomacy and politics.

The focus moves between key historians and schools of history, with chapters "Historical Imagination: Why Collingwood Matters", "The Whig Interpretation of History: Why Butterfield Matters", "History as Structure: Why Napier Matters", "Theories about the Past" (on Marx, Weber and Toynbee), "The Evolution of Historical Study: Bede to Acton" (covering only Britain), "Economic History", and "Modern Schools of History" (on social history and the Annales movement). Other topics covered include morality, causality, bias, and the importance of "kings and battles".

Vincent is a contrarian: the biographical sketch on the dust-jacket trumpets his "uncompromising and unorthodox views" and "frequent vilification in the media", while a postscript describes Oxford University Press' rejection of the book, apparently for lack of political correctness. And the presentation often seems designed to shock: Marx is "an awesomely justice-loving individual from a vanished individualist world", an "essentially libertarian rebel and individualist", while "dwelling on the Jewish holocaust exaggerates the goodness of mankind".

Much of what Vincent writes consists of aphorisms or throwaway lines that don't withstand deeper consideration, turning out to be banal or just plain wrong. He argues that history is not archaeology because archaeology is "a method and not a body of knowledge". He comes up with "five big reasons" why history "does not resemble natural science", not one of which does anything at all to distinguish history from paleontology. Arguments that history is "not just about kings and battles" are turned into strawmen, while Vincent suggests that the prevalence of mass deaths this century "does not leave much space for the non-political 'everyday life'".

Though muddled in many places and frustrating in others, An Intelligent Person's Guide to History is easy to read, entertaining, and provoking. I can't, however, recommend it to a generic "intelligent person", since those without a background in thinking about history are likely to find it misleading.

Note: the original version of this review contained a quote taken out of context, which reversed the meaning of a passage which was actually advocacy for Asian history.

November 2006

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%T An Intelligent Person's Guide to History
%A Vincent, John
%I Duckworth
%D 2005 [1996]
%O hardcover, index
%G ISBN 0715633708
%P 185pp