Historical Imagination

Historical Imagination

Historian and philosopher Robin G. Collingwood describes the writing of history as the creation of a picture, a picture that utilizes whatever evidence is available and imagination to create a broader narrative of the past. This idea has come to be known as historical imagination.

Why do historians use imagination? How do they differentiate between the practice of being imaginative and the writing of sheer fiction? A growing number of historians in the late 20th century have sought to tease out these differences as a way of making history-writing less about a simple recording of events and more about helping readers place themselves into that past. In this sense, historical imagination gives students of Historical Studies an understanding that history is at least partly a creative art.

Collingwood outlined his thesis on historical imagination in the late 1930s. Historians since then have analyzed and teased out the concept. A few key principles emerge:

  • First, historical imagination is not fiction. The writing of history must be based on whatever real evidence is available. In her essay The Historical Imagination: Collingwood in the Classroom (Here is a more accessible version of this document. This is copyrighted material. Please do not copy or distribute further), Lynn Lemisko notes that any historic accounting of the past must deal with two important factors:
    • It must be about a place and a time period that actually existed; in other words, one cannot write about a Civil War of 2019 and call it history,
    • It must be based on evidence gathered from reliable sources. In other words, one cannot claim that General Robert E. Lee plotted to overthrow the U.S. government because there is no evidence available that indicates this was the case.
  • Once it is made clear that a historian is not creating a past but rather using imagination to interpret known facts, historical imagination has three key roles:
    • Re-enactment. As Lemisko explains, the gathering of evidence is the first step to writing history. Once the evidence is amassed, historians have the opportunity to immerse themselves in their data, and to imagine themselves into that past. This imagining of the self into the past offers a way of knowing something that realistically is unknowable. For instance, we all perhaps have some sense of what Lincoln looked like and the sound of his voice based on photos and drawings we have seen of him and of the manner in which his speeches, letters, and other documents were written. But we are building that knowledge of Lincoln on the basis of our imaginations.
    • Interpolation. Historical documents give us many insights into the past, but they do not tell us every single detail. For instance, we might have learned from one record of Thomas Jefferson’s disdain for persons of African ancestry and in another about his liaison with slave Sally Hemings. It is up to us then to interpret these documents by imaginatively — yet accurately and fairly — filling in the gaps.
    • Interrogation. Once we have our evidence in hand, we must look at it critically. Lemisko, in reviewing Collingwood, describes his process as acting like a lawyer, placing the documents, artifacts, and other materials of the past into a witness box, where we ask probing questions in an effort to make sense of what we’re studying.

Lemisko has developed a useful strategy for students who wish to use Historical Imagination in her essay. The strategy is worth examining as you delve into the research activity and written assignment for this module. Briefly, however, the strategy consists of the following steps:

  • Ask a question to guide the research. The assignment prompts in the Research Activity and Written Assignment accomplish this goal.
  • Gather primary source documents.
  • Ask questions about the documents to gain insights about what they’re telling you about the past.
  • Immerse yourself in the past, using the documents you’ve studied and the knowledge you’ve gained through your questions as a guide.
  • And finally imagine, analyze, and interpret the past.

Historical imagination is an artistic practice in and of itself. It is of particular value when we’re trying to understand a topic, an encounter, an event, or person of the past.

Creative Commons License

By Himanee Gupta-Carlson, Ph.D. Empire State University. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


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