Jan 22

What is History? And Why Is It Important?

Thursday, January 22, 2015 10:12 AM

By

Herodotus of Halicarnassus is considered by many to be the Father of History for his Histories detailing the Persian Wars and the events leading to them.

History is a human endeavor. As such, it is complex, inherently limited, and evolving. What has counted as “history” and how “history” has been investigated have changed greatly since Herodotus. Historians and philosophers debate the purpose of history, how it should be conducted, and indeed what even counts as history. What history actually is has no clear answer, doubtless the debate on history’s essence will continue, but history certainly has a number of elements which must be present in order for an investigation of the past to be considered “history.” History deals with the past. History aims at truth. History attempts to explain past events. These are just a few examples of some of history’s core characteristics. Aside from the question of what history is, philosophers and historians also attempt to explain the importance of history. Answers to this question are also varied. Some historians argue that history has no real importance, relegating history to hobby status. Other historians view history as integral to human existence. These two questions, what is history and why is it important, are essential to a proper understanding and appreciation of history.

Man began writing history as a specific genre of knowledge and literature when the Greek historian Herodotus started his work on the Persian wars. However, though there is a start date for the study of history, man has been concerned with the past for much longer. Before Herodotus, man used myths to convey what occurred in the past, all in an attempt to understand the world and how contemporary events had come to pass. Herodotus’ Histories investigated the conflict differently than previous oral traditions did. Herodotus attempted to use the facts and traveled the ancient world to talk to veterans of the wars and the elders of the many different cities involved to try to understand the truth about what happened in the wars and why the wars even occurred.[1] However, the study of history did not always aim at what modern history does. Herodotus used history to provide guidance on how his contemporaries should act.[2] Medieval historians used history to panegyrize a certain family or important political figure. This use of history completely aligned with the established historiographical rules at the time.[3] History’s aim changed dramatically in the 19th century. German historian Leopold Van Ranke revolutionized the study of history with his maxim, “only to say, how it really was.”[4] Since Van Ranke, historians have aimed at achieving an objective study of the past as it actually happened. In short, the aim of history became to tell the truth about the past.

If the aim of history is to tell the truth about the past one must first answer the question of whether there is actually only one Truth.[5] The two answers to this question, the objectivist, which argues that there is only one Truth, and the relativist, which rejects the notion of an objective truth and sees as equally truthful any account, are completely contradictory and carry important consequences for history. If history aims to tell the Truth, then one must decide whether “truth” actually exists. If “Truth” does not exist, then history does not need to try to tell the nonexistent “Truth” about the past. Relativism therefore gravely imperils history’s purpose. For a relativist, there is no “Truth”, only a number of equally valid “truths.” If two “truths” are contradictory and mutually exclusive, so be it, both are equally true. One person can have their “truth” and another can have a different “truth.” In essence, Relativism kills the very notion of truth, as nothing is actually true, the truthfulness of something being based solely on the subjective choice of an individual. Truth becomes a choice. Historian Karl Weintraub ascribes to just such a view. For Weintraub, history actually shows that truths are time-bound, since often once held eternal truths are no longer thought to be true or the understanding of these eternal truths have drastically evolved.[6] Relativists, like Weintraub, declare “there is no absolute truth.” Because there is no Truth, Relativists must define history as something other than the search for the Truth about the past. Weintraub’s attempt at assigning history a new purpose is an example of this. In Weintraub’s view, history’s usefulness is that it gives humanity a long historical consciousness which helps to curb man’s inherent egotism.[7] However, Relativism in all of its permutations has a serious problem. The position that “there is no absolute truth” is completely absurd, committing logical suicide from the very beginning. If there is no absolute truth, such a statement cannot be absolutely true. Weintraub’s proposed purpose for history is likewise unsatisfying since it attempts to declare truths, principally that “a long sense of time is a need for the living,” which he argues do not actually exist.[8] Relativism is logically incoherent and damages history by undermining, though unsuccessfully, history’s very purpose.

Objectivism, the belief in an objective truth, therefore is the only logical alternative. The existence of an objective truth allows history to aim at telling said objective truth. However, due to the limitations of human capabilities, it is likely that knowing the objective truth in its entirety is unlikely. Note that saying there is an objective truth that is unknowable in its entirety and that there is no objective truth are two entirely different statements. The ontological concept of “truth,” truth in its totality, exists whether one knows about it or not. For example, if the president of the United States were to get out of bed, regardless if anyone knows about the occurrence, the president still left his bed. Whether someone knows the truth or is even capable of knowing the truth has no bearing on the actual existence of truth.

There are numerous reasons why historians may be unable to reach the ontological truth. First, the records which historians have available to them are incomplete. Records have been lost due to various natural disasters. Records may not have been kept. Records may ignore important facts about an event. The inability of historians to recreate the event in its totality hampers the historian’s ability to reach the totality of truth. For example, in the battle of Midway, it is possible that the key turning point in the battle occurred when a Japanese sailor picked his nose at precisely the wrong time, causing a chain of events which eventually led to defeat of the Japanese fleet in the battle. This scenario is entirely possible and may be the real reason for the Japanese defeat at Midway. However, the historian will likely be unable to find any evidence of the nose picking, for such a commonplace occurrence probably went unnoticed. Even if another sailor witnessed and further grasped the importance of the event, if the witness died during the course of the battle the historian is left with no record of the event nor of its importance. The incompleteness of records hinders the ability of historians to reach the ontological truth of the past.

Postmodernists also offer another reason to keep in mind in when evaluating the evidence that is available in the records and which further adds to the inability to reach Truth. Postmodernism is philosophy which argues that language is an almost insuperable barrier to knowledge and Truth. Postmodernism’s reasoning is that when two people consider a concept, for example a chair, each thinks of the concept of a chair in a slightly different way and there is no way for either of the two people to understand entirely the concept of chair in the same way or to even know exactly how far off their concepts of chairness are from each other.[9] This problem is compounded even further when the historian attempts to take a concept and interpret it across time. For this Postmodernist, this is simply an insurmountable problem. Certainly, there are some merits to the Postmodernist view which must be considered and which get in the way of knowing Truth. People do not conceive of everything in exactly the same way. Likewise, concepts and language certainly change over time. Both of these facts further complicate the attempt to know Truth since it is impossible to completely understand what the records are saying exactly as the writer understood them himself.

Another reason for the unreachability of the entire truth is the limitations of human capabilities. Humans are limited in their knowledge. One person simply cannot know everything about everything. While one might be incredibly knowledgeable in a number of subjects there is simply too much information for one person to know. Further, even the limited knowledge humans do have is often based on numerous assumptions. For example, it is a scientific fact that the nucleus of a hydrogen atom has only one proton. If an atom has more than one proton in the nucleus, the atom cannot be a hydrogen atom. This fact has been established through empirical experimentation and has been verified by numerous scientists throughout the modern period. However, the number of atoms which humans have observed in order to verify the fact that hydrogen atoms have one proton are statistically insignificant in proportion to the number of hydrogen atoms in the universe which have not been observed. It is entirely possible that humans have by chance only observed hydrogen atoms which have a single proton, while in actuality such hydrogen atoms are the exception rather than the rule. There is also no way to know whether or not this is the case, since the only way to really know the truth would be to observe the composition of all the hydrogen atoms in the universe which is simply impossible. The example of the hydrogen atom highlights the uncertainty in scientific knowledge which hinders humans from being able to know for certain the ontological truth about hydrogen atoms. If people cannot be completely confident in proclaiming the identity of a hydrogen atom the difficulty in reaching the ontological truth about human events, which are vastly more complex than the nucleus of a hydrogen atom, makes knowing the truth in its entirety nearly impossible.

Though it is impossible to know the full truth, it is still possible for historians to aim at telling the full truth. If all historians aim at telling the full truth it may be possible to achieve a very close approximation of the truth. While there can only be one Truth, a plurality of historical interpretations may all share in a part of and help to illuminate this one Truth. As scholarly understanding of a past event becomes more complete, new records become available and better methods develop all the time, it is possible to discern which aspects of historical interpretations are true and which are false. The enterprise for reaching the truth is a communal activity. “The system of peer review, open refereeing, public disputation, replicated experiments, and documented research-all aided by international communication and the extended freedom from censorship-makes objective knowledge possible.”[10] The community of scholars, freely debating the merits of different historical interpretations and using a plurality of methods and sources, are able to extract the truth from the various competing interpretations in order to establish fact and bring human knowledge closer to the whole Truth. The Postmodernist claim that the barrier of language is insurmountable also does not bar historians from attempting to aim at Truth. While the historian must interpret the records, the very evidence of the past constrains the historian from trying to force the records to say whatever he wishes.[11] The fact that the texts were likely understood differently than how modern readers understand them simply means that historians must be more aware of their own assumptions.[12] The community of scholars further constrains the interpretation of historians because scholarly consensus can acknowledge when a certain interpretation of the records is unsound. As historians Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt and Margaret Jacob rightly point out, “telling the truth is a collective effort.”[13] Since the aim of history is to tell the truth, history too is a collective effort.

That history concerns the past does not need much explanation. If history concerned the future, since the future has not yet happened and is still fluid, it would be fiction. Since the present passes in an instant, history cannot deal with the present. However, history is concerned with more than simply recording past events. Historians try to explain and understand the significance of past events. Genealogists, chroniclers and antiquarians are all concerned with the past but differently than a historian. “Antiquarians preserve, chroniclers record, and genealogists trace.”[14] Historians, while sharing these other occupations’ fascination with the past, “seek significance, explanation, and meaning.”[15] Historians try to understand what happened, why it happened, the context in which what happened took place and how what happened affected other events. The explanation which history attempts to provide is a key component of history’s identity.

In order for the historian to explain most effectively in order to reach the truth about the past, historians attempt to be as objective as possible. Historian Leopold Van Ranke in an attempt to make history more “scientific” gave the advice that a historian should attempt “only to show, as it really was,” that is without any biases clouding the realities of the event.[16] However, a number of historians and philosophers wonder if it such an attempt is even possible. Charles Beard, a famous early 20th century historian, wrote that objectivity in history is impossible because historians “cannot actually observe their subject matter; because their documentation of the past is fragmentary; because they must make selections even from the partial record that is available to them; because they must arrange their materials in reporting their results; because, in employing organizing concepts, they impose a structure on the past which it never really had.”[17] However, though objectivity is often interpreted synonymously with “valueless” perhaps an objective history should not be a valueless one. In fact, a valueless history is likely impossible. Even in the “objective” world of science, in which objectivity could be assumed to play an integral role, values play a part. Scientists must also make choices about the problem they are going to investigate, how best to answer this problem by observation and experimentation, and the way in which they interpret and explain the results of the test they devised. As philosopher William Dray points out “all inquiry is selective.”[18] Objectivity cannot mean valueless since by its very nature inquiry requires someone to make value judgments. “For if value judgment is logically ingredient in the very idea of historical inquiry, it would make no sense for historians even to aspire to be objective.”[19] Historical objectivity requires something other than simply being valueless.

For historians objectivity means that one is open to what the evidence shows. The historian must not warp the evidence in order to support their own personal historical agenda. “To be objective, in other words, is to be open to alternative possibilities, to be willing to take criticism seriously into account, to be scrupulous and painstaking in presenting arguments, and to draw conclusions only where evidence for them can be adduced.”[20] By allowing the evidence to make a historical argument for itself, rather than the historian misusing the evidence in order to construct a desired narrative, historical objectivity is feasible and “scientific” history as Van Ranke proposed is possible.

History requires a historian to be aware of and to try to limit his personal biases in order to ensure that his biased assumptions do not unduly influence the conclusions of his research. In “scientific” history, the sources drive the historian’s conclusions. However, though biases can be detrimental to historical research, bias still has a place in legitimate historical inquiry.[21] Biases are natural and are likely a product of both nature and upbringing. They are deeply ingrained and color the way an individual looks at the world. Since bias is so deeply ingrained, completely eradicating one’s personal biases is impossible. Bias, however, if properly managed is not a problem for historians. Personal biases lead to historians looking at historical events through different analytical viewpoints. For example, if a number of historians were to study the reasons for the outbreak of the First World War each could investigate and explain the outbreak of the war in different ways. A historian who view nation-states as the principle actors in history and who believe in realpolitik might explain the cause of the war as the various geopolitical threats to Germany. While the historian may believe in economic and social factors which contributed to the war, the historian would stress the importance of the political and military situation. A social historian might stress the recently unified Germany’s desire to be a major world, not merely central European, power. An intellectual historian might stress the rise of nationalism as the most important catalyst. Each historian may acknowledge the role of a plurality of causes, but due to personal biases place greater importance on one aspect. The result of this would be a number of histories arguing for the true causes of World War I. This allows the community of historians and the interested reading public to view various competing interpretations and decide for themselves which interpretation, and which parts of different interpretations, seem the most sound. Each historian, by pursuing a different explanation for the causes of World War I influenced by different personal biases, gathers more evidence for the community to use to discern the truth. By arguing for the supremacy of nationalism in the causes of World War I the intellectual historian increases the information available to reach the truth, either by providing new evidence which supports his interpretation or by analyzing old evidence in the light of his own personal biases. If one is careful to be aware of and ensure that personal biases do not unduly influence historical inquiry by forcing the evidence to fit the historian’s desired conclusion, personal bias is perfectly natural, acceptable, and even illuminative.

This essay has established that history is a human attempt to tell the truth about the past. There is only one truth, though it may be impossible for humans to know it completely for various reasons. History is not simply recording past events. History requires an attempt at explanation and tries to understand why what occurred in the past actually happened. In order to do this, a plurality of explanations may occur and each explanation may contain a piece of the real truth. The competition of various interpretations adjudicated by the community of historians and the reading public allows humanity to reach a close approximation of the truth. Is the attempt to tell the truth about the past important? The importance of history is not universally acknowledged even by historians. Those who do regard history as important often highlight different reasons for history’s importance. History is important, but for reasons which might surprise most of the lay public.

If a layperson is asked why history is important, the response is likely to be some iteration of so that people can learn from past mistakes in order to ensure that they are not repeated. The oft-quoted phrase “history repeats itself” exemplifies this view. This cyclical view of history is almost totally wrong. While major events, like births, deaths, famines, and wars, seem to repeat themselves if viewed with an extremely macroscopic lens, if each event is examined closely one sees that one event bears little resemblance to another. The two world wars illustrate this point. If viewed macroscopically the conflicts resemble each other closely. One might even try to characterize World War II as World War I refought. However, if just the events which precipitated the war are examined the conflicts begin to appear much less similar. World War I began due to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, the system of European alliance, and the precarious security situation of Germany. In 1914, Germany sat between a France, desiring revenge for the humiliation of the Franco-Prussian war, and a Russia desiring to assert its role as Slavic protector against Austria-Hungary. World War II did not begin for any of these reasons. World War II began over the German invasion of Poland. In 1939, Germany did not sit between two powerful and aggressive neighbors. In WWI, communism did not factor into the calculations of any of the major powers. By contrast in WWII, the Axis powers saw themselves in an anticommunist crusade against the Soviet Union. And these are but a few of the differences between two major conflicts which occurred in roughly the same place, with the same participants, separated by only about twenty-five years. History clearly does not repeat itself for it can be easily demonstrated that two historical events are not nearly similar enough to be considered the same event merely playing out at a later time.

Trying to use the study of the past in order to predict future events or to establish overarching “laws of history” is likewise flawed. History cannot have laws, at least not like those in science which can be used to predict future behavior. Scientific laws are based upon repeated experimentation and observation. A scientist can create an experiment with a dependent and an independent variable and the scientist is aware of the identities of both variables. Further the scientist can repeat the experiment multiple times in order to attain a degree of certainty when saying the independent variable is the cause of a certain reaction. This is not so in history. There is a great deal of uncertainty about the past. Records get lost or destroyed. Therefore when trying to postulate laws of history, the historian is completely unaware of all the variables involved in a historical incident. Further, due to history’s nature as a study of the past, it is impossible to repeat the same occurrence under exactly the same circumstances. For example, if a historian trying to prove a historical law decides to use World War II as the test case, it is impossible for the historian to replay World War II. The historian cannot hold a certain variable constant about World War II and then conduct the war again in order to see how holding that variable constant affects the war. Plus if the historian did manage somehow to fight World War II once again since history is necessarily time-bound it could not be the exact circumstances as it is not occurring at the same instant in the past.[22] Historical laws cannot be formulated from events in which one is unsure of the identity of the variables and how these variables affect the outcome of historical events. Even if a historian could identify all of the variables it is impossible to test any hypothesis dealing with these variables sufficiently to formulate any kind of historical law. Historical events cannot be repeated and a variable held constant in the way scientific experiments can. Due to these impossibilities historical laws used to make predictive statements about future events are simply unsound. [23]

Some historians who understand these limitations of history decide therefore that history has no real usefulness. Such historians relegate history to a sort of hobby status with its only importance consisting in the amusement provided to them and those who care enough to read about their work. However, even though history should not be used to predict future events and laws of history are illusory, there are still a number of reasons why history is still important.

Historian John Arnold defends the idea that enjoyment plays a role in history’s importance.[24] People enjoy history for a number of reasons. History is full of interesting stories. Van Ranke himself noticed that often history is “more beautiful and in any case more interesting than romantic fiction.”[25] Fiction is incredibly varied, but ultimately unreal. The past is also extremely varied, but everything in the past actually happened. Many would be surprised to learn that many things which one couldn’t imagine in their wildest dreams actually occurred. It seems impossible to imagine that a diplomat would threaten another country’s president with a bullwhip over an insult to his brother or that this event would lead to the largest punitive expedition the U.S. ever assembled before the Civil War.[26] Yet, this actually happened. In a very real sense “the past is a foreign country.”[27] The oddity of the past offers people great stories, stories which few could believe are true, but the beauty is that these stories actually are. Part of history’s beauty is that it shows the variety of the human experience across time and space. This sheer variety is often very entertaining.

History’s ability to show the variety of the human experience, apart from the sheer enjoyment this offers, is also important for another reason. There are a number of lessons to be learned from human experience. These lessons, however, are different from those assumed by most of the laity. Past mistakes cannot be made by modern people. Even if a mistake looks similar to one made in the past it is made under different circumstances than those under which the original mistake took place. But there are lessons of a different kind to be learned. One can look at the decisions of a past leader and see what may have been missing in that leader’s decision-making process, those things which the leader may have not considered, and use this example to remember to consider what the past leader did not. History offers a host of events to use as case-studies, not of the kind which tells someone to concretely do this or to not do that so that a desired result happens, but the kind which highlights what may be useful to consider in a certain circumstance. It certainly may be true that such lessons might be gleaned from a critical and analytical consideration of the situation, but few people remember to consider every possible permutation of events in their decision-making process. History’s losers also showcase the effects of poor decisions, cautioning people as to the possible outcomes of their blunders.

Gleaning lessons like these from history is a great intellectual exercise. Arnold points out “studying history necessarily involves taking oneself out of one’s present context and exploring an alternative world.”[28] This requires a good deal of critical thinking and analytical skills as well as imagination. History provides a chance to develop all of these. History also allows a greater appreciation for one’s present experience. “To study history is to study ourselves…because history throws us into stark relief.”[29] The more one knows about how things were, the more one knows about how the present is both different and the same. History also allows one a greater appreciation for the present because of one of the very important services history provides: context.

History provides context for contemporary life.[30] Many of the aspects of everyday life which most take for granted come from the past. Social norms did not spring instantaneously, but are rooted in the past. Likewise, though history cannot be used to predict exactly how someone will react, it does provide some clues as to how they might and why they might react in in a particular way. Take for example Russia’s actions in the Ukraine. Without any historical context, Russia’s actions appear like wanton aggression. However, when the fact that Russia has been invaded twice and that one of Russia’s principal defensive advantages has been enormous amounts of territory in which to withdraw, one can begin to understand what Russia’s calculus might be. A Ukraine under European influence brings the possibility of invasion by a European power closer and decreases the amount of territory in which Russia has to operate a strategic defense in depth. With this context, Russia’s actions in the Ukraine can be understood and how Russia might decide to act in the crisis might be guessed.[31] The context which history provides illuminates unquestioned aspects of everyday life and can be used to understand people’s actions in that life.

Along with the context which history provides, another important role history serves is to provide a national identity. The concept of the modern nation-state relies to a large degree on a shared identity provided sometimes by a common culture, language, or history. History’s power for the modern nation-state is that it shapes what citizens believe about themselves and their nation. “Nations need to control national memory, because nations keep their shape by shaping their citizens’ understanding of the past.”[32] Historians have a tremendous role in crafting the national narrative. As the members of society who actually study and search for the truth about the past, historians control to a large extent what and how something is remembered. “Historians fashion the nation’s collective self-understanding.”[33] History’s role in creating a national identity and historians’ ability to control how history is understood by the nation gives historians tremendous power.[34] Historians must understand the power which their profession gives them and ensure that they do not abuse this power. If historians attempt to pursue truth and not to simply attempt to use history to further their own goals, history can educate the public and establish a national identity based in truth, not the self-serving narrative of the historian.

History is an attempt to learn the truth about the past. History attempts to understand and explain what and why things happened the way they did in the past. This attempt requires a community of scholars freely debating the merits of different interpretations in order to arrive at a close approximation of the truth. History is important. It is important because it showcases the variety of the human experience. History also provides context for everyday life, explaining how the modern world got this way. Finally, history helps to forge national identity. The truth is incredibly powerful. The historian’s duty is to pursue and protect it.

[1] John Arnold, History: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 16-7.

[2] Ibid., 18.

[3] Ibid., 24.

[4] Ibid., 36.

[5] In this essay Truth and truth are not interchangeable. Truth refers to the concept and reality of truth.

[6] Karl Weintraub, “A Historian’s Task in Time,” University of Chicago Magazine, http://magazine.uchicago.edu/0406/features/weintraub.shtml, (accessed May 3, 2014).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob, Telling the Truth About History (New York: Norton & Company Ltd, 1995), 204. Referred to as Appleby.

[10] Appleby, 281. The authors refer to this model as the New Theory of Objectivity.

[11] Ibid., 255.

[12] Ibid., 269.

[13] Ibid., 309.

[14] Ibid., 257.

[15] Ibid., 257.

[16] Arnold, 36.

[17] William H. Dray, Philosophy of History (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1993), 35.

[18] Ibid., 39.

[19] Ibid.,, 36.

[20] Ibid., 56.

[21] Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob argue similarly that bias is necessarily present in historical inquiry and that the presence of such bias does not necessarily mean that objectivity is impossible. However, the authors do not consider how personal bias may actually contribute to historical knowledge. See Appleby, 254-6.

[22] H.R. Trevor-Roper in John Tosh, Historians on History (New York: Pearson Education Ltd., 2009), 212-3.

[23] This paragraph is based off of conversations with Dr. Love. Oakeshott, quoted in Dray, 12-3, holds a very similar view of the impossibility of historical laws because of the unrepeatability of historical events.

[24] Arnold, 122.

[25] Ibid., 35.

[26] The event in question is the Water Witch Incident of the 1850s between the U.S. and Paraguay.

[27] Arnold, 6.

[28] Ibid., 122.

[29] Ibid., 122.

[30] John Tosh, The Pursuit of History, 36-8. Marc Bloch writes something very similar in Historians on History, 186-8.

[31] History used in this manner is a conditional prophecy which H.R. Trevor-Roper argues is possible to be gleaned from historical study. See Trevor-Roper in Historians on History, 212.

[32] Appleby, 154.

[33] Ibid., 155.

[34] Michael Howard similarly notes the ability of historians to influence how an event is remembered by the public and the power this gives to historians. See Howard in Historians on History, 194-5.