It seems that a definition of history should include all things that have ever happened.
That definition would include all physical events and occurrences. It would also seem that the definition of history would be synonymous with a definition of the past—the sum total of all things that have ever happened. But Williams (4) points out that the past is not history. Things may have happened in the past that were not observed or recorded. History is, therefore, only a subset of the past. As a discipline, history is a study of the past, but it will only reveal a portion of the past, and should be done so as objectively as possible.
There have been many different approaches to the study of history. Idealism is the belief that history can be described in terms of ideas—what people thought and the intent behind their actions. The idealists of the mid- to late-1800s cared not only about events, but on what those events meant. Attaching meaning is not easy, and entails problems associated with interpretation if those interpretations are biased or incomplete. The problem with this viewpoint is that we can’t always know what was intended. Idealism can be limiting in accurately portraying events as they really happened.
Historicism is another approach by which to describe history. Its premise is that “the autonomy of the past must be respected” (Tosh 6). Each age has its own values, and events should be described within the context of those values. One of the problems with historicism is that its approach is tantamount to legitimization of events by respecting the values of the time. That approach inhibits our ability to fully learn from mistakes of the past. Williams (24) stated that some of [it] has nurtured totalitarianism. When meaning takes on a life of its own and affects viewpoints that lead to ideologies that lead to atrocious actions, then you have what humanity experienced with Nazi Germany.
Relativism is the belief that there is no absolute truth and that all views of history are valid. The metaphor of a cut diamond with many facets, each of which represents a unique view of the whole, is what relativism is like: each individual sees the world individually, and each view is valid. Relativism shows its inherent weakness when a viewpoint attempts to deny history, especially in the face of overwhelming proof. A view that the Holocaust never happened is not a view that should be accepted as relevant, nor should that view be worthy of respect.
Despite the approach taken, historians have many issues to deal with. One issue that historians must face is that of social memory. Tosh describes social memory as being “based on consensus” (4). But beliefs based on consensus can lead to error. Just because a majority believes in something doesn’t make it valid. Perhaps the greatest problem for historians is in the accurate reporting of history. This includes problems with perception and interpretation. One action or event may be interpreted differently by different groups, and by different individuals within a group.
Consider the following simple example of a controversial call by a referee during an important football game. If the initial ruling is against the home team, you can be sure that the majority of supportive fans in the stands will be audibly upset. On the other hand, the fans of the visiting team will find gratification in the call, even if they are watching the game on television from across the country. When later describing the incident, fans will likely describe it “their way,” depending on their allegiance. Besides fans of each team, add to the mix the referee who made the initial call, and the other line judges who may have also seen it from nearby. The positions of these individuals and their respective fields of vision may influence the interpretation of the incident and affect its resolution.
Add one more dimension to this example of a controversial call—that of the replay officials—and you have what might be the closest thing we have to a perfect world in recounting history. The replay officials often spend many minutes rewinding the recorded sequence in question and viewing it several times, and from different camera angles. Their two choices for a decision are to either overturn the original call, or to allow that initial call to stand. But the second choice actually comprises two very different alternatives. First of all, visual evidence may clearly support the initial call. But there might not actually be enough evidence one way or the other, and the default position in this situation is to allow the initial call to remain unchanged. The point of this illustration for historians is that the evidence should be able to hold up to scrutiny.
It is obviously impossible to have a replay for most historical events. Thus, those events are left open to interpretation. While professionals within the field of history are demanding of proof just like the sciences are, they cannot be as rigorous in that demand since proof is not always available. Supposition does not equal evidence, and evidence is not equivalent to proof. Since actual historical events can’t be replicated in a controlled scientific environment (with the exception of scientific experiments themselves), history is not a pure science. With regard to rigor, the most that can be said about the discipline of history is that it is part science and part art. But those in history should do their absolute best to acquire as much proof as is reasonably possible, and make written observations that are as objective as possible.
Primary sources should be used whenever available. A primary source is an original item such as an image, document, map, artifact or recording that provides evidence about the past. A secondary source is a means through which a primary source is presented. For example, an article describing an original document is a secondary source as it is written to present or include information about the primary source. Sometimes, an item can be either a primary source or a secondary source, depending on how it is used.
Some sources are better than others. Genetics testing, when applicable, is an excellent method of obtaining proof of identity. It was the method used to prove that Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hernings had children together. The Internet, in contrast, is not reliable as a source. Anyone can post almost anything on the Internet, and with no system in place for peer review, it is prone to error.
Thomas Hobbes wrote in 1651, “The register of knowledge of fact is called history” (Williams 11). Hobbes’ sentence can be broken down into revealing component parts. The “register” refers to the need of history to be recorded in some lasting medium (e.g., print, film, audio). The “knowledge of’ phrase of Hobbes’ statement refers to the importance of US needing to know about something. If we don’t know about it, then it won’t get reported or recorded. The term “fact” is important in that we need truth, not suppositions.
Another issue facing historians is understanding causation. Complex events may have multiple causes. To understand causation, it is important to understand the difference between what is necessary and what is sufficient. When certain necessary factors are in place, additional factors are sufficient to cause the event to occur. Consider the following example regarding the invasion of Iraq by the United States in 2002. It was necessary for Iraq, under Saddam Hussein’s megalomaniacal dictatorship, to have had weapons of mass destruction in the past that were actually used on thousands of Iraqi citizens. It was sufficient for the USA to believe that he still had those weapons for the invasion to have been deemed necessary.
Another example illustrating causation is from the sports world. For a cyclist to be able to win the 23-day Tour de France, it is necessary that the individual have not only a high V02 max[I]
[I] V02 max is a measurement indicating maximal capacity for oxygen consumption by the body during maximal exertion.
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- Dhankhar Singh (Autor), 2008, A Definition of History. What is Historicism?, München, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/441057