History: Area of Knowledge #4

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History: Area of Knowledge #4


  • “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” OR “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana

  • “We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.” George Bernard Shaw OR “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.” George Wilhelm Hegel

  • “What experience and history teach us is this – that people and governments never have learned anything about history, or acted on principles.” George Wilhelm Hegel

  • “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” George Orwell (1984)

  • “Anyone who cannot give an account to oneself of the past three thousand years remains in darkness, without experience, living from day to day.” Johann Goethe

  • “History will be good to me for I intend to write it.” Winston Churchill

  • “There is properly no history, only biography.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

  • “History has to be rewritten because history is the selection of those threads of causes or antecedents that we are interested in.” Voltaire

  • “Historians are dangerous people. They are capable of upsetting everything.” Nikita Khrushchev

History: Some Preliminaries

  1. In English, the word “history” is used in two very different senses: history as the series of all past events, and history as the academic inquiry carried out by historians.

  2. Historiography: the study of the writings of historians.

  3. “Our historical knowledge is arguably one of the most important bodies of shared knowledge, and our mechanism for passing on knowledge to future generations is one of our successes as a species” (Heydorn).

  4. “History is more than just assembling the facts of past events; it is an attempt to understand in a critical way the causes, course, and consequences of those events” (Heydorn).

  1. How do we decide which events are historically significant?

  1. Can we be sure whether the historian has the same methodological rigor as the experimental scientist?

History: Scope and Purpose

  1. What is the territory that is mapped by history? What is the purpose of that mapping?

  1. What would our life be like “with no history beyond memory”?

  1. Is the territory of history the past, the human past, or the recorded human past? On what basis would you justify your answer?

  1. Leopold von Ranke (founder of modern academic history): the purpose of history is “to show what happened.” G. R. Elton: History is the search for the objective truth about the past and that historical knowledge is out there waiting to be discovered. (Does the past exist?)

  1. E. H. Carr: “The belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the historian is a preposterous fallacy, but one which is very hard to eradicate.”

  1. In history, “our knowledge needs to be structured and given shape.” Is this “need” different in history than in other Areas of Knowledge?

  1. Two possible applications of historical knowledge might be its use in (a) generating predictions, and (b) giving us the insights necessary to make transformative interventions in the present or future. Which of these goals might be more realistic?

  1. “To understand the past, and to attempt to find the truth about it, may be a factor in rising above the social and cultural norms caused by the actions of people now dead” (Alchin).

  1. L. P. Hartley: “The past if a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Doing things differently might be taken to refer to changes in such things as technology and the pace of globalization, or it might mean something more fundamental about human nature. What would be the implications of each of these readings of the quotation for the usefulness of historical knowledge for prediction and transformation?

  1. History can be “served up to citizens in ways that are intended to bolster a sense of identity, pride, and belonging to a particular state or other community.” (“Getting history wrong is part of being a nation.” Ernest Renan. “The identity of a country is shaped by its collective memory of its military, political, and socioeconomic history.” Heydorn). Is this an important and appropriate use of history?

  1. Is history “the lies of the victors”?

  1. In writing history, “the past has to be given a shape” and “this process is central to the work of the historian.” Is this shape recognized or imposed?

  1. While it is certainly true that there are historians with axes to grind for some particular interest with which they are associated, “It is unfair and inaccurate to suggest that historians are somehow inherently and irrevocably attached to perspectives that favor their country of origin.”

  1. Historians certainly have different perspectives, but “to refer to these differences as biases is not helpful if it suggests that there has been a departure from some objective and absolute truth.” There is no such truth.

  1. Are historians bound by ethical considerations? What are they?

  1. “It does not follow that the existence of different perspectives implies that any perspective is acceptable or that all perspectives are of equal value.” “It may be fruitless to ask for the ‘right’ interpretation of history, but just because we can’t be absolute does not mean the only alternative is nihilism” (Alchin).

  1. What does it mean to say that an historian is more like a painter than a photographer? Do you agree?

History and Ways of Knowing

  1. Language

  1. “History can be described as the study of the recorded past” (Heydorn).

  1. Language is the dominant medium for historians, both for that “recorded past” and for passing on historical knowledge.

  1. Facts (e.g., M. K. Gandhi was shot on January 30, 1948. The U.S. invade Mexico in 1846.)

  1. Explanation: “An explanation in history is a plausible theory that explains the relevant source material and fits other accepted theories” (TOK). An explanation of the Mexican-American War would require interpretation of the evidence.

  1. Interpretation (e.g., “The life and work of M. K. Gandhi paved the way for a modern Indian democracy and, without him, Nehru would never have become India’s first prime minister in 1947.”)

  1. Causation. Cause and effect. “There may be an infinite number of causes of a single event.” How far back does a historian go? How does the historian limit the relevant causes? (What Cleopatra’s nose had been slightly shorter?)

  1. Evidence

  1. Reliability

  1. Accuracy

  1. Reason

  1. Historians use reason to evaluate sources.

  2. Historians use inductive reasoning to generalize conclusions from particular pieces of evidence.

  3. Historians also use deductive reasoning. They may have a general hypothesis and look for particular evidence to support it.

  1. Imagination

  1. “As works of imagination, the historian’s work and the novelist’s work do not differ. Where they do differ is that the historian’s picture is meant to be true.” (R. G. Collingwood)

  1. In what ways might it be appropriate or inappropriate for a historian to use his/her imagination in his/her search for historical knowledge?

  1. Memory

  1. The problem of hindsight bias: the tendency to imagine that events in the past were more predictable than they actually were.


  1. Do historical facts create theory, or does theory create facts?

  1. A starting place is always the interests – the desire – of the historian, to find answers to his/her questions. Historians must select their data. Selection is not an option. But historian must strive to avoid bias. (Bias = systematic errors or blind spots.) (Alchin)

3. What is the basis of the selection?

-- Historians’ interest (influenced by the culture’s interest)

-- History is written by the winners (but losers’ voice is not silenced!)

-- Analytical and conceptual apparatus

  1. “All history must be based on a sound interpretation of the evidence” (Heydorn). What does that mean?

  1. R. G. Collingworth: The task of this historian is to understand both the “outside” of an historical event as well as the “inside” of the event (where “outside” means the observable behavior and the “inside” means the thoughts, motives, and mind-set of the actors). If the study of history is concerned with understanding the “inside” of the event, how is it similar to or different from the study of psychology?

Some Grand Theories of History

  1. Arnold Toynbee: History can be organized in terms of the rise and fall of civilizations.

  1. “Whig” history: “Events of the past are viewed as inevitable progressive march to the enlightenment of the present.” (“Can be used to put the present state of affairs on a pedestal and glorify those who wish to be seen to have established them.”) “There is strong pressure to see the present as a culmination of the past, or a milestone on the road to salvation.”

  1. A. J. P. Taylor and _____________. Great people are the agents of change in history. (“The history of modern Europe can be written in terms of three titans: Napoleon, BIsmark, and Lenin.” Taylor)

  1. Marxist: Economic and technological factors are the causes of change. Conflict between social classes created a pattern of events that developed independently of the actions of individuals.

  1. History is cyclical.

  1. History is progress.

History and Personal Knowledge

  1. What is the significance of history for you as an individual and its impact on your perspective?

Knowledge Questions

  1. Is it possible for historical writing to be free from perspective?

  2. How does a historian assess the reliability of sources?

  3. How can one gauge the extent to which a history is told from a particular culture or national perspective?

  4. What is the relation between the style of language used and the history written?

  5. What is a fact in history?

  6. How can historical accounts be assessed?

  7. What distinguishes a better historical account from a worse one?

Prescribed Titles on History

  1. Compare and contrast our approach to knowledge about the past with our approach to knowledge about the future. (2008, 2009)

  1. What similarities and differences are there between historical and scientific explanations? (2009, 2019)

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