What is history?

AlpinLuke

Forum Staff
Oct 2011
27,576
Italy, Lago Maggiore
In Italy history is among the so called "scientific doctrines", that is to say it's not an "exact science", but it's anyway scientific as for approach to the study of the past.

History [like in general all the "human sciences", we can mention also sociology, economics, psychology ...] cannot be experimental and it cannot rely on experimental experiences [This is why it's a "dictory"]. Someone could say that also astronomy cannot be experimental. This is partially correct: it's observative, but it relies on experimental experiences [in labs of physics], so that its observations confirm [or not] what theories say about stars, galaxies ...

History doesn't work in that way: we cannot make an experiment about the Russian expedition of Napoleon to prove a theory about military expeditions. Not only because of the costs of such an experiment, but because today we will never be able to recreate [exactly] the context in which that expedition happened. But we cann apply exact sciences to the study of history. It happens when archaeologists rely on C14 analysis or on the work of geologists about this or that layer ... and so on.
 
Nov 2016
1,563
Germany
There are two types of interests that are directed towards the object of knowledge 'history'.

Hermeneutic interest means: What happened, which participants were involved, what were the motives for their actions? These are the essential questions of the theoretical study of history. The greater the overall context in which understanding moves, the deeper this understanding goes, but without implying a "learning from history", which implies any kind of benefit for contemporary social life.

This benefit is only possible when emancipatory interest is added. This interest is guided by the constitutional right of the individual to personal freedom, which is embodied in laws and social practices in a Western society and is conceived as a universal right of the individual.

Since the 18th century, 'emancipation' has meant the liberation of the subject from compulsive social relations and conditions. Compulsive and arbitrary, i.e. not necessary, are social constellations that are based on a position of power of a part of the social totality that has been achieved through the use of means of violence and that dominates and controls the other part in a way that is not compatible with the principle of human dignity, and thus also with the dignity of those who are dominated and controlled. At the same time, the control and subtlety of the means can reach such a degree that many of those controlled do not even have a clear awareness of their subjection. Only a critical, overlooking and transparent view can distinguish the pathologizing effects of the aforementioned coercive relationships as such from the background of cultural restrictions, which need not reasonably be questioned.

What does all this have to do with learning from history?

A great deal, if the statement of the developmental psychologist Jean Piaget is taken as a basis, that if you want to understand something, you should look at how it came about. A research guided by emancipatory interest will, if it searches for the causes of social repressive conditions, always find them in history, and in doing so discover that those causes continue to have an effect in the present through the centuries and possibly millennia. To illustrate this, a biological analogy: the thrill of speed that grips a person while driving a sports car can be traced back to the excitation of the reptilian brain (= brain stem), which is the oldest part of the human brain. When we speed, the reptile in us awakens. Whoever is aware of this, i.e. who has "learned" this, has a better chance of freeing himself from the addiction to speeding (to "emancipate") than someone who is not aware of this connection.

Habermas cites Freudian psychoanalysis related to the micro-history of the subject as an analogy to emancipatory cognition related to macro-history. The patient becomes aware of his or her traumas and can thus free himself or herself from the inner constraints - at least that is the claim of psychoanalysis. In historical research, too, the analysis of causalities can lead to the dissolution of structural distortions if the "learned" is concretized via law-making and political practice.
 

Tulius

Ad Honorem
May 2016
6,426
Portugal
Actually, it's a bit of a fallacy to assume that science has any specific method. In actual fact in research whatever works is good.
If we don’t have a method, in any science, or in history, don’t we fall into para-science and para-history?

If we don’t use the historical method, source criticism, and all the tools that we gathered all these years, don’t we fall into Fiction? If “whatever that works is good”, we need to ask, it is good for what? For an ideological construction of the past? If “whatever that works is good” we don’t put limits to ourselves, either moral, ethical or other.

In my personal perspective, the absence of method, turns history much more an easy target for fake constructions and restricts it much more as history as collective memory, or history as commemoration, or even history as an ideology.

And somewhat counter-intiutively, for all the attempts at instilling scientific rigour in students, the reality of the situation is that any researchers who ends up thinking that research is best done by rule-adherence has fundamentally missed the point, and is extremely unlikely to come up with anything but confirmation about what everyone already knew, and not what's looked for, which is the aberrations indicating there is something as yet unknown to work out about nature.
The Academia is usually conservative regarding new ideas. But new ideas and new approaches in scientific matters also come from the academia. So, and this is an opinion, I don’t think that the existence of method implies the absence of knowledge advance. On the contrary, stating that can be a fallacy.

The real difference between the sciences and history isn't lack or presence of formal method, but whether it is possible to perform experiments.
Not all the sciences can perform experiences, and performing experiences is usually quite difficult in all the Human and Social Sciences.

In this case is mostly a question of paradigm. If we are in a paradigm that classifies the disciplines of knowledge as sciences if they can only perform experiences, then history is not a science, since it cannot perform experience in its object, only in its sources. And we have quite a restrict group of sciences.

On the other hand, if we work on a paradigm that considers the experiences only a characteristic of some sciences (usually designated as Natural sciences or Physical Sciences or Hard Sciences… - even if in some of these experiences are not possible, - or even Exact Sciences, as AlpinLuke said - even if we also know that the term exact is also not exact, but by approach), and others that usually can’t (the already mentioned Human and Social Sciences or sometimes called Soft Sciences), then we have a wider group of sciences.

As in all it depends on the premise, on the starting point, on the definition of science. Different starting points will give you different final results.

Natural processes can uniformly be subjected to inquiries like that. The past is unreachable like that, and cannot.
The past can’t, but its vestiges, its remains can.
 
Dec 2011
1,386
Belgium
In Italy history is among the so called "scientific doctrines", that is to say it's not an "exact science", but it's anyway scientific as for approach to the study of the past.

History [like in general all the "human sciences", we can mention also sociology, economics, psychology ...] cannot be experimental and it cannot rely on experimental experiences [This is why it's a "dictory"]. Someone could say that also astronomy cannot be experimental. This is partially correct: it's observative, but it relies on experimental experiences [in labs of physics], so that its observations confirm [or not] what theories say about stars, galaxies ...

History doesn't work in that way: we cannot make an experiment about the Russian expedition of Napoleon to prove a theory about military expeditions. Not only because of the costs of such an experiment, but because today we will never be able to recreate [exactly] the context in which that expedition happened. But we cann apply exact sciences to the study of history. It happens when archaeologists rely on C14 analysis or on the work of geologists about this or that layer ... and so on.
AlpinLuke, I agree with you that historywriting (historiography?) has a lot of help from science. It is unbelievable what an historian can learn from a simple "object" of archaeology, especially in the cross-over (spelling?) studying with different fields of science.
What do you think of the approach of writing history along a scientific method? One gather all the elements, which contribute to the "event". If one don't do the "gathering" along the right scientific method, one can already be criticized by the "honest" historian community.

Sofar the honest gathering of the "available" elements.
But on a certain moment an honest historian has to "construct" a narration, a story, with those elements. And in my opinion this construction is a "theory" for the time being, until one find new elements to compose a new logical theory. We had a thread recently here about "revisiionist history" in the real and honest sense of the word.
And again the historywriter can be criticized for picking up from the elements, those, which fit his theory, but which are seen by the historian community as not logical in the general context.

And from these discussions by honest historians, by constanly adding new found scientific supported elements and revisionist theories, one can come to a broader more defined and accurate picture than in the beginning.

Of course no populist, or in fact any politician or any non historian group, may interfere in this process to use it in their advantage.

I read just in another message about "learning from history" or "giving emotional or ethical value" to historical events. In my opinion is that not "history writing", but just a debatable interpretation by an individual or a group, of these historical events. And as such has nothing to do with history. Perhaps just history, if this "learning" or "giving emotional or ethical value" was the cause in the past of a new historical event that can be studied again as history?

Kind regards, Paul.
 
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AlpinLuke

Forum Staff
Oct 2011
27,576
Italy, Lago Maggiore
AlpinLuke, I agree with you that historywriting (historiography?) has a lot of help from science. It is unbelievable what an historian can learn from a simple "object" of archaeology, especially in the cross-over (spelling?) studying with different fields of science.
What do you think of the approach of writing history along a scientific method? One gather all the elements, which contribute to the "event". If one don't do the "gathering" along the right scientific method, one can already be criticized by the "honest" historian community.

Sofar the honest gathering of the "available" elements.
But on a certain moment an honest historian has to "construct" a narration, a story, with those elements. And in my opinion this construction is a "theory" for the time being, until one find new elements to compose a new logical theory. We had a thread recently here about "revisiionist history" in the real and honest sense of the word.
And again the historywriter can be criticized for picking up from the elements, those, which fit his theory, but which are seen by the historian community as not logical in the general context.

And from these discussions by honest historians, by constanly adding new found scientific supported elements and revisionist theories, one can come to a broader more defined and accurate picture than in the beginning.

Of course no populist, or in fact any politician or any non historian group, may interfere in this process to use it in their advantage.

I read just in another message about "learning from history" or "giving emotional or ethical value" to historical events. In my opinion is that not "history writing", but just a debatable interpretation by an individual or a group, of these historical events. And as such has nothing to do with history. Perhaps just history, if this "learning" or "giving emotional or ethical value" was the cause in the past of a new historical event that can be studied again as history?

Kind regards, Paul.
I don't know if you are familiar with the environment of Egyptology, but that's a great example of how "honest historians" can begin to fight like dogs ...
The greatest problems come when a historian is also an author of books sold to the public [academic essays and articles are a different matter]. That historian [in this case an Egyptologist] has to defend his [or her] persuasions like they are the factual reality.

In particular this is really evident about the so called "Amarna Period" [Akhenaten, Nefertiti, Tutankhamen ...]. I have counted 5 main different historical reconstructions with a good number of "followers" about that period and well more "minority reports" ... How is this possible? Because there are no certain evidences, so that there is room for speculation. But when a historian [an Egyptologist] has to write a book for a publisher ... that historian has to show to be sure to know "The Truth" [general public adores historians giving final answers ... until other historians give different final answers ... and so on ...].
 
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Tulius

Ad Honorem
May 2016
6,426
Portugal
I don't know if you are familiar with the environment of Egyptology, but that's a great example of how "honest historians" can begin to fight like dogs ...

The greatest problems come when a historian is also an author of books sold to the public [academic essays and articles are a different matter]. That historian [in this case an Egyptologist] has to defend his [or her] persuasions like they are the factual reality.

In particular this is really evident about the so called "Amarna Period" [Akhenaten, Nefertiti, Tutankhamen ...]. I have counted 5 main different historical reconstructions with a good number of "followers" about that period and well more "minority reports" ... How is this possible? Because there are no certain evidences, so that there is room for speculation. But when a historian [an Egyptologist] has to write a book for a publisher ... that historian has to show to be sure to know "The Truth" [general public adores historians giving final answers ... until other historians give different final answers ... and so on ...].
I think you have there for one side the "honest historian" that in many areas usually says (and writes): “I do not know”, “We do not know”; on the other side, you have the book seller, the pop-historian (or the worst: the Thesis seller). Sometimes those two sides aren’t from the same coin.
 
Dec 2011
1,386
Belgium
I don't know if you are familiar with the environment of Egyptology, but that's a great example of how "honest historians" can begin to fight like dogs ...
The greatest problems come when a historian is also an author of books sold to the public [academic essays and articles are a different matter]. That historian [in this case an Egyptologist] has to defend his [or her] persuasions like they are the factual reality.

In particular this is really evident about the so called "Amarna Period" [Akhenaten, Nefertiti, Tutankhamen ...]. I have counted 5 main different historical reconstructions with a good number of "followers" about that period and well more "minority reports" ... How is this possible? Because there are no certain evidences, so that there is room for speculation. But when a historian [an Egyptologist] has to write a book for a publisher ... that historian has to show to be sure to know "The Truth" [general public adores historians giving final answers ... until other historians give different final answers ... and so on ...].
Alpinluke, I completely agree with you concerning the fact that even reknowed historians can fight and not logical discussing with each other, especially if they are political affiliated...but in my opinion are that not "honest" historians.
We have had in the last years for instance here in Europe the German "Historikerstreit" and in France the discussion among French historians about "Aristote au mont Saint Michel"
from Sylvain Gouguenheim.
We had here already three threads related to Gouguenheim's book about the role of the Islam in the coming of the Renaissance. I think even one from me. And perhaps that is always the danger when historical events goes up the political tour. In France there was a lot of turmoil among the Muslim population, the right wing and left wing leaning historians.

But again as Tulius said it, there are "honest" historians and others. And about the other side of the "booksellers", I would add the historians with a political affiliation (or perhaps a religious affiliation too?), who let interfere their "beliefs" in their "historical work". I just recently, discussed on a French forum a left affilated historian, who is criticized that she let interfere her political opinions, into her historical work. The same can perhaps be said about right wing leaning historians in France as the example that I just mentioned.

Kind regards, Paul.
 

AlpinLuke

Forum Staff
Oct 2011
27,576
Italy, Lago Maggiore
I would differentiate between a private educational system and a public one.

In Italy, with a public educational system, we've got the problem of politically oriented historians, but in countries where education is private and academies mean business it happens that professors have to defend their stance and their academic reputation [to attract students who pay a lot of money to study in those academies].

The problem comes when professors of different private academies defend different opinions about the same matter. This is what I've been noting in the field of Egyptology.
 

Tulius

Ad Honorem
May 2016
6,426
Portugal
Just saw the thread, saw some interesting comments there even with my growing difficulties in French.

I would differentiate between a private educational system and a public one.

In Italy, with a public educational system, we've got the problem of politically oriented historians, but in countries where education is private and academies mean business it happens that professors have to defend their stance and their academic reputation [to attract students who pay a lot of money to study in those academies].

The problem comes when professors of different private academies defend different opinions about the same matter. This is what I've been noting in the field of Egyptology.
I don’t think that is a problem in the field of Egyptology. I think that problem exists for any area of History, or, maybe for any area in the Academia.

And in a previous post (probably not in this thread) I noticed that this exists more in the USA and (less) UK, and it is precisely because what you are saying.

One system, the public, is more independent of the financial pressure, and so more autonomous, but can (?) be more porous to political influences.

The other, the private, is much pressured by the necessity to survive… selling, selling books, selling seats in the classroom. Even if what it sells will take it away from its core object.

Indirectly, even if we don’t want, this is related with our political stances, should the countries Educational system be more public or more private? Or a mix?
 
Nov 2019
334
United States
I'm most interested in this thread as it raises the questions I have been wanting to ask of professional historians. I am not, I am simply someone who peripherally studied and loved history all of my life.

So I ask a question as someone who is looking outside into history; what is it that society as a whole should rationally expect from history?

I do not expect from history a scientific response, I don't believe that is possible. From the standpoint of any event occurring, the interpretation of what occurred, much less it's meaning will be colored by the confirmation bias, or cognitive bias of the individuals reporting it. As I once pointed out to a journalist, no one writes any story that doesn't contain their biases, no matter how diligently they work to hide them; their choices of nouns, verbs, adjectives, pronouns, and adverbs will disclose those facts to those willing to discern them.

We are left to evaluate those many opinions, as individuals who must determine their value, and in fact I am dependent on the disparate dispersal of those reporting to help me to more clearly see an event.

For most people, right or wrong, history should be the story of what happened and what worked, and what failed, and hopefully, why. A tall order for historians, and I sense that it is one most would prefer to evade, should they?