Help me find a quote about the historical imagination?
July 13, 2011 1:38 PM   Subscribe

Help me find a quote about how people are reluctant to notice the effects of historical and/or social forces on their lives.

I'm looking for a quote for an epigram for something I'm writing. I thought I remembered the sociologist C. Wright Mills having a great one, to the effect that most people are extremely loath to notice the extent to which historical and social forces shape their lives and day-to-day realities. But after searching through all the usual online quote database places, I can't find it.

Unfortunately, I don't have time to re-read the Mills book I think it might have come from. But there's on reason my epigram quote has to be by him especially. Does anybody know a pithy quote that conveys the same idea?
posted by toomuchkatherine to Society & Culture (9 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
The first one that comes to mind for me is "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." - George Santayana
posted by Elly Vortex at 2:04 PM on July 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

People are idiots?

no, no.. sorry.

Ok, Mills, perhaps:

Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both.


What ordinary men are directly aware of and what they try to do are bounded by the private orbits in which they live; their visions and their powers are limited.

posted by edgeways at 2:12 PM on July 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

This lightly edited extract from a post I made a few years ago to a now-defunct blog seems apropos:

Judith Shapiro, a cultural anthropologist and President of Barnard College, wrote an interesting essay a few years ago for the Chronicle of Higher Education, "From Sociological Illiteracy to Sociological Imagination." Her main concern is what we are teaching our students about the social world. Shapiro's students at Bryn Mawr and Barnard showed admirable concern for the plight of those less fortunate and the victims of race, class, and gender prejudice. But they attributed such social problems to individual prejudice, not to social structures that reproduce and reinforce inequality. They lack what C. Wright Mills called "the sociological imagination": the ability, in Shapiro's words, "to move beyond their immediate experience to see how that experience was shaped by larger social and historical forces." She concludes that a liberal education must provide a grounding not only in the natural sciences and the humanities but also the social sciences.
posted by brianogilvie at 2:14 PM on July 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

Shakespeare's "What's past is prologue" isn't Mills, and is obviously a bit broader, but it seems to hit some of the same notes. (It's engraved on the outside of the National Archives in DC, by the way, and stopped me in my tracks the first time I saw it. It's definitely a more poignant statement than I'd expect to find on a federal building.)
posted by mauvest at 2:19 PM on July 13, 2011

I was skimming through the Wikiquote page for Reinhold Niebuhr, and he seems to have made similar points. Here's one:

"The inevitable hypocrisy, which is associated with the all the collective activities of the human race, springs chiefly from this source: that individuals have a moral code [which] make the actions of collective man an outrage to their conscious. They therefore invent romantic and moral interpretations of the real facts, preferring to obscure rather than reveal the true character of their collective behavior. Sometimes they are as anxious to offer moral justifications for the brutalities from which they suffer as for those which they commit. The fact that the hypocrisy of man's group behavior... expresses itself not only in terms of self-justification but in terms of moral justification of human behavior in general, symbolizes one of the tragedies of the human spirit: its inability to conform its collective life to its individual ideals. As individuals, men believe they ought to love and serve each other and establish justice between each other. As racial, economic and national groups they take for themselves, whatever their power can command."
posted by John Cohen at 2:25 PM on July 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

Reminded me of the quote (apparently by Barry Switzer according to a cursory google search)

“Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple.”
posted by TwoWordReview at 2:33 PM on July 13, 2011 [7 favorites]

There's Marx, of course:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.
The tradition of all dead generations weighs like an nightmare on the brains of the living.

posted by Fiasco da Gama at 3:37 PM on July 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

"Humankind cannot bear very much reality."
--T. S. Eliot

It is pithy.
posted by Net Prophet at 4:18 PM on July 13, 2011

This is a long one, but it is a good metaphor. It's from Marilyn Frye's essay "Oppression":
Cages. Consider a birdcage. If you look very closely at just one wire in the cage, you cannot see the other wires. If your conception of what is before you is determined by this myopic focus, you could look at that one wire, up and down the length of it, and be unable to see why a bird would not just fly around the wire any time it wanted to go somewhere. Furthermore, even if, one day at a time, you myopically inspected each wire, you still could not see why a bird would gave trouble going past the wires to get anywhere. There is no physical property of any one wire, nothing that the closest scrutiny could discover, that will reveal how a bird could be inhibited or harmed by it except in the most accidental way. It is only when you step back, stop looking at the wires one by one, microscopically, and take a macroscopic view of the whole cage, that you can see why the bird does not go anywhere; and then you will see it in a moment. It will require no great subtlety of mental powers. It is perfectly obvious that the bird is surrounded by a network of systematically related barriers, no one of which would be the least hindrance to its flight, but which, by their relations to each other, are as confining as the solid walls of a dungeon.

It is now possible to grasp one of the reasons why oppression can be hard to see and recognize: one can study the elements of an oppressive structure with great care and some good will without seeing the structure as a whole, and hence without seeing or being able to understand that one is looking at a cage and that there are people there who are caged, whose motion and mobility are restricted, whose lives are shaped and reduced.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 4:28 PM on July 13, 2011 [7 favorites]

« Older Help me wade through this DSLR nonsense?   |   Chicken Jell-o, yum Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.