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Transcript of History ToK
What is History?
What is your definition?
Study of the past?
Evidence: present traces of the past
Too little - especially ancient history
or too much - especially recent history
Significance of events
facts do not speak for themselves
Explaining and understanding
History v historiography
a series of past events
an academic inquiry carried out by historians
or how we know history in the first
sense of the word
Why study History?
"More or less bunk" Henry Ford
1. Sense of identity
and make sense of present
e.g. Middle East
2. A defence against propaganda
history can be abused by leaders of a country
autobiographies of leaders
Orwell:" Who controls the past controls the future, who controls the present controls the past."
[Article on "Religion in America"]
3. Enriches our understanding of human nature
by showing us what human beings have thought and done in a wide variety of circumstances
but history does not "show" that certain things are inevitable (war, races unable to live together) - we can change the future.
offers the imaginative interpretation of historical fact and it gives meaning to the contexts of historical fact. Thus history creates realities.
Why is history written?
regret/revisionism - apologias
collective memory - provide group identity
constructs historical facts into framework of knowledge
filters out illogical
places the structure of validity upon the historian's selection of facts
frames the thought and gives it status and strength
use of language
Bias: shows intent of historian - selection, type of evidence, omission of evidence, framework of attitudes and intent of historian
Reliability: relevance, appropriateness and worth of source
Primary source: authentic but might be biased
Secondary source: evaluation and analysis by historians after the time of the event and selected by intent
Intent: purpose or preconceptions from which historian approaches history
Schools of thought: various established and new frameworks of historical thought, e.g. traditional, revisionist, Marxist
History and Ways of Knowing
The past no longer exists so it may be hard to believe that they existed - an air of unreality
It cannot be changed so is it objective?
"In a very real sense the study of history is concerned with a subject matter more objective and independent than that of the natural sciences. Just because historical matter is in the past, is gone... its objective reality is guaranteed; it is beyond being altered for any purpose whatsoever." G. R. Elton (1921 - 94)
But our knowledge of the past is problematic
we know it by by reconstructing on the basis of evidence which exists in the present
memory is fallible
evidence is ambiguous
But objectivity is an important ideal
How can the past be known?
TRUTH IN HISTORY
Based on historical fact
Approached from multiple perspectives
Cannot claim to be absolute except in terms of historical facts
Is sensitive to paradigm shifts and interpretations
Written by someone there at the time
'bedrock of history'
but already contaminated:
How can the four knowledge tools of perception, language, reason and emotion distort the production of a primary source such as a diary?
fallible eye-witness statements
perceptions shaped by interests, expectations and culture
emotion may affect perception
and what to write down and how to describe it
and how to shape into a coherent narrative
exaggerate events in emotional language while down playing others (or ignoring)
reflect the interests of a particular group so distorted picture
so people with power control many primary sources
and we know little of the illiterate - blank pages in history
history of wars written by the winners (Orwell)
We need to be aware of the limitations of primary sources
Who wrote it?
What was their motive?
How long after the event was it written?
Compare different primary sources
May agree about the facts (dates) but less agreement about the meaning and significance of such facts
More than just a catalogue - explain and interpret
A selection of a selection
select from available primary evidence
Advantages of hindsight
know how things turned out
Disadvantage of hindsight
hindsight bias - inevitability of events, wise after the event
Historian is a product of cultural paradigm
events are judges though the lens of audience
who may be products of another time and paradigm
Can be original
freedom from bias
History is dynamic - reflects the values of the time
But there are constraints:
cannot run or re-run experiments
do not come to history as a "blank slate" (tabula rasa)
evidence is in continuous renewal
history without judgemet is sterile
The informed judgement of the historian is what instructs the interpretation.
Traditional school > new evidence > paradigm shift/change of attitude > revisionist school > traditional school (Gallipoli)
1. Topic choice bias
and questions asked or does not ask
but can study objectively
2. Confirmation bias
use only evidence which supports own case and ignore counter-evidence
true in natural and social sciences
but can look for counter evidence
3. National bias
pre-existing cultural and political bias
sensitive issues which touch on national pride
but different nationalities can critique each others work
4. Pluralistic approach
look at history from different perspectives
does not mean we abandon the ideal of historical truth
or say that there are many truths
Bias is less of a problem in ancient and medieval history - less personal involvement
But an historian has to be selective - or be overwhelmed with facts
select on the basis of their own paradigms
"study the historian"!
history is a social construct
Bias and Selection
"The facts are like fish swimming in a vast and murky ocean, and what the historian catches will depend partly on chance but mainly on what part of the ocean he chooses to fish in and what bait he chooses - these two facts of course being determined by the type of fish he wants to catch. By and large the historian will get the facts he wants." (E. H. Carr)
1. Describe and explain
Explain in terms of causes
- but difficult to do in complex situations
"The human universe is so enormously complicated that to speak of the cause of any event is an absurdity." (H.A.L. Fisher (1856-1940)
Causal factors might include:
- geographical conditions
- social and economic conditions
- individual motives
- chance occurances
2. Great person theory
"The history of modern Europe can be written in terms of three titans: Napolean, Bismarck and Lenin." (A.J.P. Taylor 1906-90)
- get inside minds of people to see what they thought which caused them to do
something (R.G. Collingwood 1889-1943)
- useful but may be difficult to empathise with Hitler and other monsters
- but why limit yourself to the perceptions of one person
- and advantage of historians is to have hindsight and see significance of events
How important are individuals?
Theories of History
3. Economic determinism
Karl Marx - technological and economic factors are the engines of historical change
Karl Popper said that any idea of the predictability of the future was incoherent
4, Chance events
play a role
but history is not an entirely random process
We may not be able to find any fixed patterns, but a good historian can still help us to make sense of the past by distinguishing its main strands and weaving them into a meaningful narrative,
Theories of History
History driven by a mixture of great people, technological factors and chance events
'A historian must combine the rigour of the scientist with the imagination of the artist.' To what extent, then, can the historian be confident about his or her conclusions?
'History is part myth, part hope, and part reality.' Critically evaluate this claim, and consider the extent to which it might also be true of other disciplines.
Using history and at least one other area of knowledge, examine the claim that it is possible to attain knowledge despite problems of bias and selection.
What similarities and differences are there between historical and scientific explanations?
Discuss the roles of language and reason in history.
Past Essay Questions
George Orwell (1903-50) writing in 1944:
Up to a fairly recent date, the major events recorded in the history books probably happened. It is probably true that the battle of Hastings was fought in 1066, that Columbus discovered America, that Henry VIII had six wives, and so on. A certain degree of truthfulness was possible so long as it was admitted that a fact may be true even if you don't like it. Even as late as the last war it was possible for the Encyclopedia Britannica, for instance, to compile its articles on the various campaigns partly from German sources. Some of the facts - the casualty figures, for instance - were regarded as neutral and in substance accepted by everybody. No such thing would be possible now. A Nazi and a non-Nazi version of the present war would have no resemblance to one another, and which of them finally gets into the history books will be decided not by evidential methods but on the battlefield....
During part of 1941 and 1942, when the Luftwaffe was busy in Russia, the German radio regaled its home audiences with stories of devastating air raids on London. Now, we are aware that those raids did not happen. But what use would our knowledge be if the Germans conquered Britain? For the purposes of a future historian, did those raids happen, or didn't they? The answer is: If Hitler survives, they happened, and if he falls they didn't happen.