Notes On Martin Davies’ How History Works (2016)

Davies, Martin. How History Works: The Reconstitution of a Human Science (Routledge Approaches to History). 1st ed., Routledge, 2016.

This book “explores how history produces sense (i.e. what it does for itself) and how history functions in the world already shaped … by history, by itself (i.e. what it does for the world).”[p.15]

This book is the third in a series produced by Martin Davies. The other two are Historics: Why History Dominates Contemporary Society (2006) and Imprisoned by History: Aspects of Historicized Life (2010). You don’t have to read the first two to understand this most recent one.

I’d say this book is expert level. I did not feel like I understood what he wrote or why he wrote it. I’m curious what material the author would recommend to better understand the contents of this book.

All-in-all, I might loop back to this book in the future when I’m more educated to see if I can pick up what Davies laid out. My inability to comprehend the point of the book does not speak on the book’s merits. It’s humbling to find works that I currently don’t understand but might understand someday. Due to not quite getting it though, I won’t be recommending it to anyone except those who I think might be able to make sense of it.



“History is, after all, the study of “the Past”.”[p.1]

The introduction talks briefly what the book is about and then goes through 8 things (a-h) that historians and other (non-historical) professionals deal with. I think he did this to argue that history isn’t a special discipline.

a – data: sources, documents, records, artefacts
b – structures of chronology: epochs, ages, eras, periods
c – truth: security, value, civilization
d – orientation
e – non-special places
f – authority
g – sense
h – meaning

“That is the tragic paradox of historical understanding: the way things were, as it afterwards proved, is never the way they really were.”[p.13]

The above quote is just one example of the numerous sentences that I found to be obscure. What things? How was it proved?

“How history works involves far more than defining disciplinary procedures and historiographical methods (as in the multifarious student guides to the discipline and its varieties of academic sub-disciplines). It becomes immediately a metaphysical issue.”[p.15]

This quote sums up the parts of the book that I read. The book focused heavily on (what I think was) the metaphysical and phenomenological aspects of history.

Chapter One

He keeps talking about “history’s self-historicization”. I do not understand this. It sounds like nonsense to me.

I wanted to stop reading the book after the first few pages of chapter one but I continued on just to see if it got any better.

In my opinion, it didn’t get better and so I stopped after finishing chapter one.


As of September 11th, 2021, there was only 1 review for this book on Goodreads and it didn’t have any text explaining why the review was 5 stars.

As of September 11th, 2021, it has no reviews on Amazon.

Leskanich, A. (2018). How History Works: The Reconstitution of a Human Science, written by Martin L. Davies, Journal of the Philosophy of History14(1), 134-138. doi:


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