Published Humanitas, Volume XXIII, Nos. 1 and 2, 2010

Prudent and effective political conduct is dependent on historical knowledge that recognizes the boundaries between the possible and the impossible. This line of demarcation is obscured by the limits of human understanding and the obfuscating ideologies that take a partial truth or reality as its whole. The antidote for ideological obfuscation is philosophical insight and clarity. Too often American politics has been conducted on ideological rather than philosophical grounds by using a particular ideological perspective to interpret history rather than using history to shape policy. Prudent policy stems from historical and theoretical knowledge that manages to avoid reading one’s contemporary desires and values back into history. An example of the latter is what Herbert Butterfield calls “Whig history,” which uses the past as an instrument to validate current partisan political and ideological interests in a way that cannot bear the weight of balanced and truthful historical analysis.

The limits of politics and power can only be known if historical experience is analyzed in a genuine search for the proper ends of politics and life more generally. Important scholarly works can provide policymakers with essential insights into the nature of politics and help mark the boundaries between the possible and the impossible. Walter McDougall’s…

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