What motivates historians

In this essay series, I will write down my own thoughts about Eliezer Yudkowsky’s essays on the Rationality: Ai to Zombies –series from the point of view of a historian. My reason for writing these is primarily to organize my own thoughts regarding the use of rationality as a mental tool in my own profession, and as such, I do not presume to even attempt to appeal to a very wide audience. However, if you are reading this disclaimer and find my essays insightful or entertaining, more the power to you and I implore you to go and read the original essays, if you have not already.


Truth: 1. The quality or state of being true.

1.1 That which is true or in accordance with fact or reality.

1.2 A fact or belief that is accepted as true.


Accurate knowledge of scientific truths of the (1.1) kind let us manipulate the world, but no space shuttle is going to crash based on whatever we think is historically true, as historical truths all fall neatly into the (1.2) category of truths. What then drives historians to seek the truth, if it is only ever going to be our best guess with no significance in the grand scale of things?

Again I return to the analogue of gardens and windows and artists, as I will probably do in the future as well on this blog. To reiterate: Gardens are temporal realities in history, windows are pieces of sources through which we peer through at the historical events and contexts, and historians are the artists who draw what they see through the window, filling in the blanks where the view is smudged or obscured. These pictures are both for colleagues and for wider audiences.

In his essay ’Why Truth? And…’¹, Yudkowsky proposes three separate modes of motivation for truth-seeking: Curiosity, pragmatism, and morality. All of these motivations come into play when historians decide on which window to peer through and start sketching to share the view with others. However, I would argue that curiosity plays the most significant role in this process for historians.

The pragmatic motivation for historians to conduct research drives them to focus on topics that are not curious just to ourselves but others as well (especially if they are willing to pay us), so that we may keep food on our table. On a wider scope, we cannot boast much pragmatic utility. Nothing we may discover has the kind of practical use that discoveries in natural sciences yield. Even if historians discovered irrefutable evidence that Hitler was secretly a Finnish man and in cahoots with Mannerheim and the rest to build Greater Finland, it would not necessarily motivate society to change anything about where we are proceeding. Instead, often the pragmatic concerns of agenda-driven agents would often best be served if history were shrouded in mystery, as this gives more leeway for lay interpretations that can be utilized for political gain.

In countering these agents lies the morality driven motivation of historians. We should be the ones to discover and bring to light the truth of historical events and ideas, so that they could not be twisted to serve whatever narrative is trending at any given moment. The problem with morality driven research is that it seems that often the historians with a very clear sense of moral duty also have specific expectations of what they will discover. As such, they need more integrity to not become-the-monster and twist their findings to suit their own agenda, if what they find is not what they thought it would be. You should never set out to do research to prove someone wrong, and serious self-reflection should always be practiced when a historian analyzes what draws them to a specific topic.

Curiosity is the motivation that cannot be removed from the study of history, as the gardens are innumerable and the choice we make about which one to focus on almost always rests on our curiosity.  Sometimes convenience overrides curiosity, but more often than not, historians decide to tackle vistas that are trickier to interpret just because we are curious about what we will discover. The pitfall of curiosity is finding there was nothing of significance there after all. As the picture is unfolding, a historian may realize that the picture contains nothing of interest even to themselves, and certainly will not catch the attention of anyone else. Finishing the picture can become tedious in this case, and the temptation to add in garden gnomes may become overpowering.

In this case, the curious historian does well to borrow a page from the morality-driven historian’s playbook and remind themselves that history still attempts to be science rather than literature. We are here to discover the truth, even if it is only the soft (1.1) kind.


¹ Yudkowsky, Eliezer. ”Rationality: from AI to Zombies.” Berkeley, MIRI (2015). 15–18.




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