What is history?

AlpinLuke

Forum Staff
Oct 2011
27,576
Italy, Lago Maggiore
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?
There are different opinions about which should be the social function of history. Personally I tend to think that history is the memory of a society [and, by extension, of whole mankind]. As the personality of an individual is largely based on his memory [we have to remember our experiences, our identity, our knowledge ... to be ourselves] the culture of a society is largely based on his history [national identity included, this is why, as we can see also on Historum, politics tries and influence historiography].

In good substance humans need to know from where they came and who they are. History tells us this. Can we really learn from our past mistakes? About this I allow myself to doubt a bit: during history we have repeated and repeated the same mistakes, regardless historians and chronicles. For example: today we've got the paranoia of the human influence on climate, but Romans destroyed a good part of the post-glacial continental forests because they needed land to cultivate and wood for their constructions and machinery. Today we say "Romans did a wrong thing", but what have we been doing for the rest of our history? We still destroy forests without great sense of guilt ...

But we are this: destroyers of forests, a species who changes the natural environment to adapt it to human needs and desires. Can we change? Again, I allow myself to doubt a bit ...
 

Larrey

Ad Honorem
Sep 2011
6,090
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.
Oh, I didn't say method, of sorts, isn't important in history. :)

And I think I'm repeating myself, but this is why "acribeia", Thukydides "painfull scrupulousness" or thereabouts, in sourcing and references is absolutely crucial in professional history. Since it is what allows a reader to reverse engineer the historian's argument, and assess the materials from which the argument was constructed. And popular historians somehow always gets wrong exactly how crucial this aspect of history is to ensure consistency and transparency. Yes it's terribly convenient, but reduces the value of any history like that to little better than fiction.

It's just that there is often an unwarranted reverence for the sciences. Some of which are in fact mainly historical also, like a lot of biology (subject of old Ernst Mayr's Nobel speech on receiving his prize fx).

Feyerabend put it thus that his methodological ideal was King Kong. And that's fair in the sciences, since the objective is to study nature to find the glitches that indicates that something is going on that we don't yet know about. Which is what experiments are typically set up to try to do. But in that situation what works is more important than rules. (They are "machines to create a future" as put by François Jacob. Part of the counter intuitive situation is that a too controlled and precise experiment is almost as bad as a badly designed and executed experiment – the first will tend to confirm only what we already know, and the latter will create so much "static" from lack of control, anything interesting that might be going on will get drowned out; when what's looked for is an experiment tailored so that an "interesting aberration" can crop up, something unexpected that is still significant and not just an artifact of bad experimental design.) But history cannot do experiments like that.

Conversely the social sciences tend to be able to simply gather more data. That's the typical solution to guarantee relevance and prognostic value in the social sciences – more observation and better data. And again that isn't an option open to history. Historians can search for more documents, and sometimes that might even turn up, but it is completely haphazard and unreliable whether something new might be unearthed. Otoh the possibility that some documentation MIGHT turn up that completely overthrows what we think we know so far also exists, and so limits how certain any historical narrative can be. And historians do have to speculate, and more than they usually let on (kind of a small dirty secret of history), but what they absolutely cannot allow themselves or anyone else is to make things up.

Ideologically we kind of struggle with a still dominant "positivistic" scientistic ideology of science, as laid down in the 19th c. by the likes of Comte and Whewell. It assumes a kind of "great chain of science", where the more supposedly mathematical the better, with theoretical physics at the apex, with all other sciences ranged below it – and mostly historical sciences like biology pretty darn far down, and not very high above things like non-science like history.

The reality of the situation is rather that history is a form of knowledge all of its own, with certain particular challenges. I've had a fair number of encounters with scientists and social scientists about this, and some are positively shocked to learn what levels of uncertainty history has to labour with. But then at least the cleverer ones tend to understand when explained to them that it is in the nature or time that everything they do, with the levels of certainty they are used, to will eventually also be subject to the problems of historical understanding same as everything. We just have to wait for a bit. :)
 
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Larrey

Ad Honorem
Sep 2011
6,090
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?
Not sure about that. There is a lithmus test for any kind of working history, and that is how it should established that the situation after whatever it is the historian is writing about is not the same as the starting point. History at least chronicles change, and when done right gives you the sources and steps in the development of an argument.

But one can be surprised at how much even academic history tends to fail at that basic level, of establishing change.
 

Tulius

Ad Honorem
May 2016
6,426
Portugal
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?
There are professional historians that already (tried) to answer to that question. And they are still working on it. And we can make the same question for any science of for any field of the human knowledge.

Among other things, History tries to answer to fundamental questions that the men pose while reflecting about themselves: Who are we? From where did we come?

And @AlpinLuke gave a partial good answer when he related History with the memory of the mankind (and I said “partial” not in a depreciative way but because I think the answers will always be partial, in the sense of incomplete). In that perspective History is a Corpus of knowledge. A database, using informatics terminology. But that explanation is partial, because history is not only the accumulation of data, the accumulation of partial facts, it is also its treatment, its understanding, that arrives to us as a narrative, or with the help of a narrative. History is not the narrative itself. The written narrative is the delivery system.

Besides, history, has Auxiliary Sciences, and is also an Auxiliary Science to other fields of human knowledge, being the other fields Sciences or not. And this allows decisions, informed decisions, that the humans want for the future in those fields of knowledge, for instance in politics and political science. And here I am using the words “politics” in its sense of “governance”, “decision making”. And here we can have an apparent paradox, while history should aim to be neutral in the research of the understanding of human past (Marc Bloch jokes with this: "Today, we should laugh at a chemist who separated the bad gases, like chlorine, from the good ones like oxygen. But, had chemistry adopted this classification in its infancy, it would have run the grave risk of getting stuck there, to the great detriment of the knowledge of matter." p. 144, in other words History should understand and not judge – and this was said and written by a French man, from a Jewish family, that joined the resistance against the Nazis during the WWII and wrote part of the book in the prison where he was tortured and died), the decisions that we can make with that knowledge are not neutral: the decisions about education, including the education of history, decisions regarding any field of science research, decisions for the future. So the answer to the question “to where we go?” escapes the field of History. Even if some historians often forget that.

Also, while History aims for neutrality about the treatment of its object, never fully reaching neither the object or the aimed neutrality, the Education of History, the Teaching of History, doesn’t have necessarily that aim. The Teaching of History can’t aim to be neutral, since it is a tool of the state, of the governance, or in the case of home teaching, of the progenitor.

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.
You don’t expect from history a scientific response, and don’t believe that is possible, but there are people, historians, sociologists, philosophers, that expect that and believe it is, and aim for it. That was the reason of my post #52.

By the way, as historians have a bias, so any scientist from any science has, and that bias influences their field of research.

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.
True, for the journalist, and for the historian, or for any scientist. But the historian is not a story teller, as I pointed previously, the narrative is the delivery system. We, as humans, like the dramas, the stories of history, the anecdotes, even the gossips of history, but the historian should aim for the understanding of the past and, by the way, should be careful with the adjectives, especially the ones related with good/bad, with morality, with political decisions.

In that regard journalism, that looks much more to the present (and to the recent past, and there collides often with history), present us a similar objective, the search for the journalistic truth/historical truth. Naturally I am using here the word “journalism” in a way that is difficult for us, today, with what we see today about “journalism”, with our biases to understand and envision, due to the situation that today’s journalism felt. Some years ago I would say that this is not journalism. But now it is the new normal.

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.
But history is not a set of opinions. Even if often they appear in history.

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?
Not sure if I understood the question: Would they (historians) prefer to evade those themes that you mention? In my perspective no.
 

Tulius

Ad Honorem
May 2016
6,426
Portugal
Larrey,

Quite a good post you have there. And here we mostly agree.

Oh, I didn't say method, of sorts, isn't important in history.

And I think I'm repeating myself, but this is why "acribeia", Thukydides "painfull scrupulousness" or thereabouts, in sourcing and references is absolutely crucial in professional history. Since it is what allows a reader to reverse engineer the historian's argument, and assess the materials from which the argument was constructed. And popular historians somehow always gets wrong exactly how crucial this aspect of history is to ensure consistency and transparency. Yes it's terribly convenient, but reduces the value of any history like that to little better than fiction.
Fully agree. Even if I recall when I was a teen reading history books, I found pretty boring all those references. Today I am reading a book… and think… hummm… there should be a reference here. In pop history I think it begun to be more often an editor’s choice. Now, is as you say… often it's terribly convenient.

It's just that there is often an unwarranted reverence for the sciences. Some of which are in fact mainly historical also, like a lot of biology (subject of old Ernst Mayr's Nobel speech on receiving his prize fx).
Oh! I am not one of those that makes an altar to science! Pardon me the analogy, I just think that is like representative democracy: It is pretty bad, but it is the best that we can find… :D

Feyerabend put it thus that his methodological ideal was King Kong. And that's fair in the sciences, since the objective is to study nature to find the glitches that indicates that something is going on that we don't yet know about. Which is what experiments are typically set up to try to do. But in that situation what works is more important than rules. (They are "machines to create a future" as put by François Jacob. Part of the counter intuitive situation is that a too controlled and precise experiment is almost as bad as a badly designed and executed experiment – the first will tend to confirm only what we already know, and the latter will create so much "static" from lack of control, anything interesting that might be going on will get drowned out; when what's looked for is an experiment tailored so that an "interesting aberration" can crop up, something unexpected that is still significant and not just an artifact of bad experimental design.) But history cannot do experiments like that.
I have “Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge”, someone gave it to me on some Christmas or on some birthday, but believe it or not, I never read it (besides the index and a look to the introduction), and them my interest changed to other thing... curiously your post made me think of it… I should read it…

Conversely the social sciences tend to be able to simply gather more data. That's the typical solution to guarantee relevance and prognostic value in the social sciences – more observation and better data. And again that isn't an option open to history. Historians can search for more documents, and sometimes that might even turn up, but it is completely haphazard and unreliable whether something new might be unearthed. Otoh the possibility that some documentation MIGHT turn up that completely overthrows what we think we know so far also exists, and so limits how certain any historical narrative can be. And historians do have to speculate, and more than they usually let on (kind of a small dirty secret of history), but what they absolutely cannot allow themselves or anyone else is to make things up.
Yes, historians often had to fill the blanks, with the best explanation possible, speculation or better, elaborating thesis. As often other scientists make deductions. All the sciences have margin errors. Most specially on this part. And the true is always temporary. Until a better one arrives.

Ideologically we kind of struggle with a still dominant "positivistic" scientistic ideology of science, as laid down in the 19th c. by the likes of Comte and Whewell. It assumes a kind of "great chain of science", where the more supposedly mathematical the better, with theoretical physics at the apex, with all other sciences ranged below it – and mostly historical sciences like biology pretty darn far down, and not very high above things like non-science like history.
Outside France, or the continental Europe, I don’t think that the “"positivistic" scientist ideology of science” was dominant, but even after it faded away many authors from other schools of tough continued that line, even if there were ruptures. I quoted here Marc Bloch from the Annales, or Carr or Collingwood, (don’t know exactly in what school I should put these…), and Veyne (also from the Annales but on the opposite direction), but the mathematics begun to “invade” history only in the 20th century with the Annales, and today that idea still didn’t pass to the masses that consume history. Who uses maths in this forum? Or in a pop history book?

The reality of the situation is rather that history is a form of knowledge all of its own, with certain particular challenges. I've had a fair number of encounters with scientists and social scientists about this, and some are positively shocked to learn what levels of uncertainty history has to labour with. But then at least the cleverer ones tend to understand when explained to them that it is in the nature or time that everything they do, with the levels of certainty they are used, to will eventually also be subject to the problems of historical understanding same as everything. We just have to wait for a bit.
 
Feb 2019
1,115
Serbia
History is more of a political construct nowadays. Sadly.
I disagree. While there are many political factions in many countries that abuse history to push their own narratives this is nothing new. There have been several cases where certain people or groups of people would be commissioned to draft an ''official'' history of an event. These official histories would be written shortly after an event occurred and as such the ones writing it would have very limited access to sources from the opposite side. They would also be biased and look to inflate their own achievements and contributions to events while minimising their faults. History has always been abused by crackpots and politicians, it's just that we get exposed to this abuse more with the advent of the internet. On the contrary, we also have access to more sources and better options to learn what is right ourselves. Even if the abuse of history has increased we have better means to counter it.
 

Tulius

Ad Honorem
May 2016
6,426
Portugal
History is more of a political construct nowadays. Sadly.
More than… in the 12th century where the monarch gave lands to the monasteries that wrote their chronicles, or after the 15th century when the monarch had directly the royal chroniclers under their umbrella? This just to give two examples…

I don’t think so. And here I fully agree with Mastersonmcvoidson.

Today History knows more about the past than ever. Let us keep it that way.
 
Mar 2019
52
Europe
More than… in the 12th century where the monarch gave lands to the monasteries that wrote their chronicles, or after the 15th century when the monarch had directly the royal chroniclers under their umbrella? This just to give two examples…

I don’t think so. And here I fully agree with Mastersonmcvoidson.

Today History knows more about the past than ever. Let us keep it that way.
We have more sources, more systematized history today, more than ever, yes. I was referring to the general sense of history. There will always be individuals who are well-informed about history but the general understanding of history remains quite poor. Even though we have the best communications ever. That doesn't seem to affect the populations overall.
You just cannot explain the communisation of the West out of nowhere... It's due to VERY poor knowledge of history.
And by the way, it also depends greatly on which particular country we are talking about. The resources of East European history are scarce. There are just more viewpoints, rather than more proof which ultimately is the problem.
The political factor blows away the historical one.
You can see it even in wikipedia.
I've tried to make a minor edit of some things (like adding a different picture of a ruler, a historical one) and moderators don't like it so they deny changes.
No more than selected few moderate wikipedia according to their own interests.
 
Dec 2011
1,386
Belgium
There are professional historians that already (tried) to answer to that question. And they are still working on it. And we can make the same question for any science of for any field of the human knowledge.

Among other things, History tries to answer to fundamental questions that the men pose while reflecting about themselves: Who are we? From where did we come?

And @AlpinLuke gave a partial good answer when he related History with the memory of the mankind (and I said “partial” not in a depreciative way but because I think the answers will always be partial, in the sense of incomplete). In that perspective History is a Corpus of knowledge. A database, using informatics terminology. But that explanation is partial, because history is not only the accumulation of data, the accumulation of partial facts, it is also its treatment, its understanding, that arrives to us as a narrative, or with the help of a narrative. History is not the narrative itself. The written narrative is the delivery system.

Besides, history, has Auxiliary Sciences, and is also an Auxiliary Science to other fields of human knowledge, being the other fields Sciences or not. And this allows decisions, informed decisions, that the humans want for the future in those fields of knowledge, for instance in politics and political science. And here I am using the words “politics” in its sense of “governance”, “decision making”. And here we can have an apparent paradox, while history should aim to be neutral in the research of the understanding of human past (Marc Bloch jokes with this: "Today, we should laugh at a chemist who separated the bad gases, like chlorine, from the good ones like oxygen. But, had chemistry adopted this classification in its infancy, it would have run the grave risk of getting stuck there, to the great detriment of the knowledge of matter." p. 144, in other words History should understand and not judge – and this was said and written by a French man, from a Jewish family, that joined the resistance against the Nazis during the WWII and wrote part of the book in the prison where he was tortured and died), the decisions that we can make with that knowledge are not neutral: the decisions about education, including the education of history, decisions regarding any field of science research, decisions for the future. So the answer to the question “to where we go?” escapes the field of History. Even if some historians often forget that.

Also, while History aims for neutrality about the treatment of its object, never fully reaching neither the object or the aimed neutrality, the Education of History, the Teaching of History, doesn’t have necessarily that aim. The Teaching of History can’t aim to be neutral, since it is a tool of the state, of the governance, or in the case of home teaching, of the progenitor.



You don’t expect from history a scientific response, and don’t believe that is possible, but there are people, historians, sociologists, philosophers, that expect that and believe it is, and aim for it. That was the reason of my post #52.

By the way, as historians have a bias, so any scientist from any science has, and that bias influences their field of research.



True, for the journalist, and for the historian, or for any scientist. But the historian is not a story teller, as I pointed previously, the narrative is the delivery system. We, as humans, like the dramas, the stories of history, the anecdotes, even the gossips of history, but the historian should aim for the understanding of the past and, by the way, should be careful with the adjectives, especially the ones related with good/bad, with morality, with political decisions.

In that regard journalism, that looks much more to the present (and to the recent past, and there collides often with history), present us a similar objective, the search for the journalistic truth/historical truth. Naturally I am using here the word “journalism” in a way that is difficult for us, today, with what we see today about “journalism”, with our biases to understand and envision, due to the situation that today’s journalism felt. Some years ago I would say that this is not journalism. But now it is the new normal.



But history is not a set of opinions. Even if often they appear in history.



Not sure if I understood the question: Would they (historians) prefer to evade those themes that you mention? In my perspective no.

Tulius, although I discussed the subject that much in the past, I nevertheless learned a lot from you, as in this post to Grant and the one to Larrey. Thank you.

Kind regards, Paul.
 
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