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What is History?

December 27, 2012

History is literally “his” “story” and yet it seems that many lose sight of that one simple fact when attempting to explain and define what “history” is.  Although this way of defining history would seem to be self-evident, those in the field seem to prefer making that which is simple complex.  In order to understand this need for complexity one must first understand the importance of defining history as “his story”.

Merriam-webster.com, provides the following two relevant definitions of “story”:

a : an account of incidents or events

b : a statement regarding the facts pertinent to a situation in question

Although the two definitions are closely related many historians seem bound and determined to completely ignore the difference.  This has had the unfortunate consequence of producing a discipline in search of a mission and whose primary focus is no longer the study of history, but rather the question of what exactly “history” is.  This lack of focus is most often illustrated by the claim made by many that any true rendering of history must be unbiased.

A very fine article which explores the subject in greater depth can be found here, but unfortunately it too seems unable to accept that fact that “his story” is, almost by definition, a semi-biased account which weaves factual data into a narrative that necessarily sees the story of “his” life from his own perspective.  The interesting thing is how many historians argue against this reality, while fully recognizing its existence.  I will now conclude this particular treatment of the subject by quoting the article I linked above while also highly recommending it be read in its entirety.

The divisive effects of two world wars, which undermined the ideal of a common international enterprise informed by an internationally acceptable point of view, and the increasing specialization and variety within the historical discipline itself have left history in much the same state of complex and divided purpose that marks all contemporary intellectual life. The earlier optimism that promised imminent recovery of the truth of the past has been replaced by the belief that no accumulation of facts constitutes history as an intelligible structure, and no historian, however free from crude bias, can be a totally neutral, impersonal recorder of an objective reality.

Once again, I point out the fact that the author ignores the obvious, any attempt to tell “his story” from some mythical objective point of view cannot be accurate as it completely misses the fact that history is not understood simply by chronologically listing a series of events, but requires an understanding and empathy for the object whose story is being told.

Interestingly, the author seems to be increasingly resigned to returning to the definition of history which has been so long out of favor and states almost as much in her concluding sentence:

At the same time, many scholars have turned with sharpened interest to the theoretical foundations of historical knowledge and are reconsidering the relation between imaginative literature and history, with the possibility emerging that history may after all be the literary art that works upon scholarly material.

My only suggestion is that she consider defining history as “his story”.

Thank you, and should I decide to expand on the subject a link to any subsequent articles will be posted below.

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One Comment
  1. Reblogged this on ejnebi.

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