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In 1935, R. G. Collingwood defined the historical imagination as an innate or a priori part of thinking that allows students of history to reconstruct the past. Whether stored in the furniture of the mind, learned through practice, or inherited as genetic inclinations, imagination is indispensable to the historian's craft. The historian's imagination may be richer, more diverse, more inventive than that, say, of an orthopedist, because the historian's present is the surviving but elusive past. Historians have to imagine more because they can never know what actually happened. Like orthopedists and everyone else, historians enter their professions hauling baggage packed haphazardly with images drawn from cultural, personal, religious, moral and practical experience. An orthopedist checks his psychological and social luggage when treating anesthetized muscle and bone in the controlled atmosphere of an operating room. For the orthopedist, the only images relevant for diagnosis and remedy are those produced precisely by x-rays or magnetic resonance. A historian neither diagnoses nor remedies. Instead, relying upon recalcitrant evidence, she tries to explain events that occurred in a dynamic, unpredictable, uncontrollable world already finished.
When historians conduct research and then interpret what they find, they are unwilling and unable to lay aside their every day images of human nature and society. Such concepts, even when wrong, are logically necessary to explanation. Historical imagination organizes the categories that provide a historian with a match between her expectations and the subjects of her inquiry. The historian's juxtaposition, unlike the orthopedist's realistic image, is impressionistic. It becomes satisfying only when it fulfills a cultivated sense of propriety. Although honest historians are persuaded by the information they discover, there are few experiences more pleasing than that frisson of recognition when initial impressions are validated by the historical records. That pleasure is far more agreeable than disappointment. If the records repudiate anticipations then the historian must search for a more adequate explanatory scheme that approximates the truth more closely.