What Is History?


Kleio, the muse of history

History is an attempt to understand the temporal evolution of the human experience. As a type of inquiry into the nature of reality, it compares and contrasts with other such enterprises.

News-gathering is sometimes said to be the first draft of history. It is an attempt to record forever the people and events of a given episode in a given time and place. Its virtue is timeliness of reporting, rather than the depth of study and introspection which is possible with history. It is also capable of fostering additional investigation in a timely way, to examine the actors of a drama after the fact, because those actors remain alive and impassioned by recent events.

History, as we elect to define it here, does not enjoy the live sources available to news-gathering. One might call it olds-gathering! Its fodder consists of post-mortal documents alone, whether textual, phonographic, photographic, or other. While it can use forensic means to help verify the allegations of document provenance, it has no method to cross-examine the human beings who are the ultimate artificers of said records. In this, it cannot aspire to the lofty standards of public justice, and must make judgments based on a mere preponderance of evidence, far short of any complacent certainty. It is therefore even further short of the rationalistic standards of physical science than something like legal decisions. Conventionally, historians define a "historical fact" as something on which at least two primary sources not known to be false agree.

The distance history endures between events and their digested retelling benefits from the advantages of perspective and debate, but suffers from a lack of implicit contextual knowledge, even when the historian is no amateur, but deeply versed in the period he studies. For in the attempt to interpret the old to a newer generation, do we not exploit the implicit contextual knowledge of our own times, and so add yet another layer to the onion the future historian must unravel? What terrible "telephone game" distortions result!

The problem of history by "bucket brigade" - such as suffered by traditional testimony handed down within a family by oral means alone - is mitigated by the availability of original sources, a salvation which is all the more practical in recent times because of the historically fantastic wealth of contemporary humanity - and the even more recent collapse of the cost of storing and transmitting information enabled by digital technology. But even in the face of such bounty we are still at the mercy of past interpreters, for they designed to save and pass on what they thought was valuable and trashed the rest, in a long reign of human poverty and misadventure. And even if they did not physically lose or destroy the old, their very act of interpreting gave some things our keen attention and many other things only our indifferent scorn. As rich as we may be now, our life is still quite finite and so must be our curiosity and diligence. Some say that a work of art is never finished, only abandoned. Perhaps we must say the same of works of history.

Then there is the issue of honesty. Honesty of sources, messengers, recorders and interpreters all. People like to rationalize their sins, their errors and their follies. Sometimes they even avidly design to perjure themselves in their cause. And beyond ego, there is commitment to things beyond one's self which can also motivate the sacrifice of frank truth to what is measured to be a greater good. And of course one can neither lie nor tell the truth unless he really understands what he has supposedly done or witnessed, rather than what he just thinks he has.

And for history to be more than a soulless recital of cold details, one must apply the human heart to give it meaning to human beings. In that not all persons in all times agree what is true and false, good and bad, beautiful and ugly, this limits the historian's ability to weave a meaningful story from facts that can speak to all people. And when political need makes a received belief, however false, a sacred one, and its detractors seditious agitators rather than honest scholars, trying to uncover and spread the truth can be not only unrewarding, but potentially fatal. That, perhaps, rather than any fraud, is why a document like Procopius' Secret History exists.

If scholarly history - the examination and digestion of primary sources by professionals to create secondary works - is an imperfect and even controversial enterprise, then surely the simplified standard mass history disseminated by a regimented political order is even more open to question. In this, the recent books by James W. Loewen, previously professor of sociology at the University of Vermont, are illuminating. These are Lies My Teacher Told Me and the sequel dealing with historic sites titled Lies Across America. History can be a powerful tool of social and political control. If one can keep people ignorant or even deceived, the use of force is not even necessary.

What is the justification for history? Some people enjoy history as a fine art, a fascinating story all the more exciting because not only could it have happened, but at least some of it probably did. Others see history as an instrument of moral justice, a way to vindicate martyrs who could not survive to see their memories purged of shame, and a way to bestoy on villains at last the punishment they escaped in life. But history can be of genuine practical utility as well, because it helps explain what people are, what they are likely to do and why they are wont to do it. Perhaps in a fast-changing world it is folly to try to apply yesterday's solutions to today's problems. But if history does not quite repeat itself as some claim, surely it very often rhymes!

Ron Feigenblatt

Readers interested in the profession of historian and occupations benefiting from the study of history are directed here.

Readers interested in pursuing the question raised and answered above may want to study articles on historiography and historical methods, as well as our own brief commentary titled Historiography and Technology.

Some of the assertions made above find resonance with some of those in a famous book of the same name by the influential E. H. Carr. In 1987 a professional historian's review of the book offered the opinion that:

For many today What is History? is the most influential book on history thinking published in Britain this century... the central ideas in the book constitute today's mainstream thinking on British historical practice.

We find it ironic that a man such as Carr whom we think was so often tragically mistaken about the world in which he lived should have such an abiding influence on the methodology of understanding it, even long after his personal demise. - RF