History is a mode of thinking that wrenches the past out of context and sequence, out of the way it really happened, and reorders it in an artificial way that facilitates understanding and remembering…. Historians—whether Everyman, recalling his immediate or distant past, or professionals, attempting to reconstruct the past by studying relics of it—deal in generalizations. To make a generalization is to observe tangible particulars and reduce them to abstractions. Even in considering what is directly and visually observed, that is the process….
And yet, subjective and artificial as it is, such thinking can communicate an understanding of objective historical reality, much as a map, another contrivance of the imagination, can convey an understanding of objective topographical reality. Whether it does so depends largely upon the level at which the generalization is made. As we live our lives, events unfold simultaneously on a number of levels, from the personal and local to the national and international. The subject matter under investigation dictates both the level of generalization and the questions and data that are relevant to it. Normally these are more obvious to the later investigator than to the participants in the events being investigated, for, though the historian seeks to understand from the participants’ point of view, he knows—as they cannot know—how the story comes out.
— Forrest McDonald, Recovering the Past: A Historian’s Memoir
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