As the dominant sentient species on planet Earth, humanity has predominantly maintained a desire to record history for as long as we’ve been aware of our past. From the earliest oral histories passed down from community elder, to the sophisticated forms of digital recordkeeping we use today, history is an intrinsic part of being human. The ability to understand the past and how it affects the future is unique to humans, as far as we know, and it goes without saying that humans are the most advanced record-keepers on the planet. But while we spend much of our lives contemplating the details and subtleties of history, we rarely consider what history itself means, how the essential ties to our past are constructed, and what constitutes a historical event deemed worthy of in-depth study. Historians attempt to makes sense of not only the past, but also the ways in which we understand the past. As the primary and respected guardians of our past, historians are confronted with uncertainty when piecing together historical accounts; uncertainty that is mitigated through scientific research, empirical analysis, and an understanding that history is subject to change. By its very nature, history will continue to evolve and historians must do the same by combining new research techniques with tried and true analytical practices to come to a more perfect understanding of the past. History is ultimately a science that demands to be studied in an empirical fashion if any certainty about the past is to be understood.
Art or Science?
History is a nebulous and often misunderstood subject, largely because it toes the line between subjective art and objective science. First, it is important to note that history is ultimately a product of human perspective and experience, which means that it cannot be thought of in absolute terms of scientific certainty. As technology advances and it becomes easier for firsthand accounts of events to be objectively recorded, it is important to note that authorial intent and biases will always play a major role in the narrative and how data is presented. Marc Trachtenberg illustrates this point by first saying that “the very notion of historical objectivity is now often considered hopelessly naïve.” (Trachtenberg) Trachtenberg acknowledges the fact that an objective and completely accurate record of the past is nearly impossible to maintain for a number of reasons, primarily because authorial intent influences historical accounts in such a manner that aligns with political motivations and personal worldviews at the time. As Trachtenberg states, “the problem is that the "privileging" of certain types of history necessarily implies the marginalization of everything else.” (Trachtenberg) In light of this, it may be tempting to write off history as ultimately unknowable “soft science” since the study of one aspect invariably excludes the study of another. However, it has more in common with scientific fields of study than it does with artistic fields of study because of the role evidence plays in history’s construction and the varying factors that go into creating an accurate historical account.
Beware Bias and Prejudice
Historically, dominant cultures and imperialist nations have had first crack at defining what history signifies as victors in major conflicts and are typically the ones in the best position to have their particular brand of history recognized. The term “revisionist” history gets bandied about with regards to modern political historians attempting to erase or somehow alter historical understanding of the past (i.e. claiming the Holocaust or American moon landing was a hoax) but it is just as important to understand that history has potentially been revised at the time of its initial recording. As Furay and Salevouris state, our knowledge of history is based entirely on surviving records that are as subjective and prone to error as the ones who penned them (Furay and Salevouris, 13). Therefore, it is important to understand history for what it is – a subjective account of events that should not be taken as gospel truth, as objective accounts of the past are nearly impossible to obtain. Even in instances where photographic or concrete evidence is obtainable, the means by which it is staged, framed, and ultimately presented all speak to a human bias present at the time of its recording. This does not mean that history is necessarily invalid because of its subjectivity or that a lack of completely verifiable evidence is somehow a blemish on the discipline or practice of history itself. By cross referencing historical texts and taking all (not just the ideologically dominant) records of the past into account, historians can arrive at a working definition of events as perceived by those who experienced them.
Taking into account the inherent subjectivity of history as a discipline, it is important to note that history is relative to the ones writing it as well; more of an imperfect study of events versus an absolute science. Nevertheless, it is necessary to understand that various research techniques are as vital to the study of history as with any rigorous academic research that any semblance of certainty can be attained. As Professor Munslow explains in his dissertation on the nature of history, modern historical approaches are advancing beyond the emphasis on empirical “truth” and getting back to the core of the historical field, epistemological analysis (or the study of methods of history and the techniques used to convey them) (Munslow). As much as the discipline of history has changed, Munslow believes that despite advancements and the varieties of history that have emerged over the years (i.e. a greater emphasis on feminist history, advancing LGBTQ history) “there remain two steady points in the historian's cosmos: empiricism and rational analysis.” (Munslow) This essentially means that despite advancements in technological developments surrounding the study of history, the historian’s greatest tool remains their ability to rationally make sense of events presented to them, and to analyze them in an objective and empirical matter.
An emphasis on objectivity and empirical rationality has become increasingly important as technology advances and more “concrete” methods of history replace less verifiable forms. The earliest forms of history consisted of oral narratives that were passed down from person to person until the advent of writing made them more concrete (or at least less likely to change without someone noticing the difference.) Oral traditions make for poor firsthand accounts the further removed the account is from the source. In other words, an account relayed by the grandchild of someone who witnessed something historical is less effective than an immediate firsthand account from the person that was there. Modern recording devices are doing much to close the gap between historians and primary historical sources but historians must remain vigilant when piecing history together from audio, video, and other technology-based recordings. In other words, do not accept them as pure fact without question. As Munslow states, it is important to recognize “the figurative assumptions that underpin authorial activity in creating the text and which are already (in a pre-empirical sense) and necessarily brought to the historical field, often determining the selection of evidence and its most likely meaning.” (Munslow) This means that it is vital to consider precisely why firsthand accounts were created in the first place and what the creator of various historical sources was attempting to accomplish at the time of their creation. Context is essential to consider and the core of history is more than just digesting a wide array of historical “facts.” History means wading through numerous, often conflicting, accounts of an event and using rational thought and empirical reasoning to make sense of the best possible truth of the situation using all available reasoning techniques, grounded in both objective research and analytical debate.
Technology and Evidence Gathering
The tools and scientific approaches historians use to chronicle events of the past are ever changing, adapting to new forms of communication and technology to remain relevant. The ways in which history is recorded, debated, and ultimately conveyed to modern and future audiences constantly change as communication technology continues to advance and adapt. The advent of easily accessible information via the Internet has changed the science of history radically in the past twenty years and more than ever it is important that scientific methods are employed in accurately recording and analyzing historical “facts.” Furay and Salevouris illustrate the issue with gathering historical information by breaking down all available information and showing how much of it is truly “usable” to historians. “Unlike a scientist who can experiment directly with tangible objects, the historian is often many times removed from the event(s) under investigation.” (Furay and Salevouris, 13) This essentially means that historians often must make use of more rigid evaluation techniques as they have a limited amount of information to work with and often no way of acquiring more. History, then, can be thought of as the reconstruction of varying data, sources, and information and in that sense it is more similar to scientific study than to artistic storytelling. As Furay and Salevouris point out, “History is not fiction. Different historians will interpret the past differently…but in all cases their accounts must be based on all the available reliable evidence.” (Furay and Salevouris, 16)
Evidence is the bedrock of historical study. If history is the science of making sense of the past, then solid research and investigation techniques are essential to paint an accurate picture of the way that events transpired. Initially, it may seem that firsthand (or primary source) accounts would be the most concrete and reliable sources of evidence, but one must also take into account human biases that everyone possesses inherently and unconsciously that may color an interpretation of historical events. The question of “where meaning comes from in history” (Munslow) is one that faces historians whenever they analyze evidence and derive meaning from it; are they taking the “truth” of the event itself and presenting it as-is, or are they (in the process of gathering and synthesizing information) interjecting their own interpretation into their work? Thus, objectivity in the gathering and synthesizing of data is absolutely essential to the science of history as it minimizes bias as much as humanly possible while understanding that all human endeavors are invariably prone to bias and error. “Even theories in so-called “hard sciences” are subject to the vagaries of time, place, and circumstance” (Furay and Salevouris, 16) which essentially means that the researcher, to a certain extent, is affected by the biases of research they are taught as well as the values and ethics of their day. Thus it is prudent to understand that evidence is likewise prone to bias and the only way to make sense of the past that evidence presents is to correctly analyze and interpret varying sources, rather than privileging one account of the past over another. Advances in gender and racially focused history are helping to shed light on areas of the past previously ignored within mainstream historical thought; modern historians therefore have a duty to take multiple points of view into account when compiling any historical record. Only through varied and rigorous academic research, grounded in empirical scientific methods, can an accurate picture of the past be forged.
History, by its very nature, continues to change and evolve over time. As time marches on, historians must adapt and continue to evolve in order to present an accurate understanding of our past. This can be difficult as any understanding of the past is unavoidably tied to subjective accounts of events which are difficult to recognize and even more difficult to interpret. But through scientific and philosophical techniques of reason and research, historians can arrive at a more perfect understanding of the past by rigorously examining evidence and analyzing as many sources as possible to ensure that a complete understanding of the past is derived and properly presented to the world. Whether we completely understand our history in an objectively factual sense is not nearly as important, as arriving at such certainty is very likely impossible. What is important is that we keep in mind that history is the pursuit of truth through evidence, the process by which we understand the past, and through improved understanding, a way in which we may come to better understand ourselves.
Furay, Conal, Michael J. Salevouris, and Conal Furay. "The Nature of History: History as Reconstruction." The Methods and Skills of History: A Practical Guide. Arlington Heights, IL: H. Davidson, 1988. 11-25. Print.
Munslow, Alun. “What History Is.” What Is History: History in Focus. Fall (2001). n.pag. Web. January 20, 2015.
Trachtenberg, Mark. “The Past Under Siege: A Historian Ponders the State of His Profession And What to do About It.” Wall Street Journal. July 17, 1998. Print.