What is History?

This week Clio’s Current embarks on the first of a four-part series looking at history as a discipline, how the craft has evolved over the past several decades, why history is an important tool today, as well as what separates historians from journalists and other professionals.

Today, as social media and open source websites allow unprecedented access to information, everyone can in some way or another do history. Among the general public one need only visit the "comments" section on a news article or blog to see Wikipedia cited as a way to substantiate claims. Admittedly, some Wikipedia entries are much more accurate than others, but this is a topic for another post. Nonetheless, we think it's worthwhile to explore what history is, as well as what history isn't, to highlight how historians differ from other professional writers and scholars.

Before we go further we need to make a distinction between history and the past. Put simply, the past is everything that has ever come before the present, an endless number of actions, words, thoughts, events, and ephemera that take place simultaneously all over the world every day. History, on the other hand, is the conscious selection and manipulation of evidence (i.e. sources) from a particular period in the past, and then presenting that evidence in a cogent and articulate way. An important part of the historian's arsenal, however, is to understand the past by suspending his or her knowledge of the present. In effect, the historian makes decisions about what parts of the past will be highlighted and what parts will be left behind. History is a selective process; the past is not.

Out of all of the social sciences (i.e. sociology, political science, anthropology, criminology), the study of history has the longest pedigree. Chroniclers in Ancient Greece sought to document the exploits of war and conquest, often in an attempt to promote one's reign over his or her people. Tacitus, an historian living in the Roman Empire from 56-117 ACE, similarly wrote on various emperors, as well as an history of the Roman Empire itself. He also wrote Germania, which described the customs, conventions, law, and lives of the Germanic tribes over which the Romans sought to extend their rule. During the Renaissance in the Italian states, the program of education known as "humanism" advocated greater attention to rhetoric, the use of ancient (biblical) languages, as well as greater attention to the past. In any case, the study of the past had a utility. It had an application beyond simply writing and presenting dates and facts. Machiavelli and others in Renaissance Florence believed that a knowledge of the past made for better rulers in the present. This was just as important for a man in the political sphere as it was to speak and write eloquently.

Modern historical scholarship as we know it today, however, really began in the early nineteenth century. Universities, beginning in the German lands, institutionalized the study of history and awarded some of the first degrees in the subject in the late 1790s. During the Enlightenment intellectuals and leading statesmen across Europe put increasing emphasis on science and the use of reason to understand the physical world. This also had important consequences for the study of history, particularly as the study of history was infused with scientific methods. Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886), who grew up during and witnessed the destructive impact of the French Revolution on his German town, was highly influenced by positivism and the use of evidence to support claims. For Ranke, the connection between the sciences and history was clear: he called the study of history Geschichtswissenschaft, or historical science, and the historian was a historical scientist. Ranke is generally thought of as the father of modern history because he argued that the historian required documentary evidence to support any historical argument. He believed that history was both an art and a science—an art because it required an eloquent, story-telling ability that was both captivating and articulate, and a science because the historian needed to be impartial and examine the documentary evidence that historians had at their disposal before making any authoritative claims.

Ironically enough, despite his emphasis on impartiality, von Ranke was a product of the time in which he wrote and was heavily influenced by his Lutheran confession, as well as his view that conservatism and a strong state provided security against liberalism and revolution (i.e. instability and violence). Additionally, following the claim that history required documentary evidence, von Ranke argued that any period of the past without documentary evidence was not subject to study. This applied to prehistory and, very often, the study of women and their role in the world. Instead, the study of history, von Ranke maintained, should focus exclusively on the study of politics and the state, which for him also meant church history, and those areas of the past which left behind a trail of documentation.

At any rate, the historical principles von Ranke articulated were of inestimable importance for later generations of historians. Many of his ideas, like the historical seminar, found their way into French universities and, to a lesser extent, British and American ones.

In the 1930s, British philosopher R.G. Collingwood (1889-1943) commented on what he believed history to be. Historians in the English-language world have overestimated the innovativeness of Collingwood's book, The Idea of History (published posthumously in 1946), probably because of language barriers and a general anti-German sentiment found at universities during and after the First World War. Like many German scholars before him, Collingwood argued for a dissociated look at the past when writing history. He also believed that evidence is almost always tainted and incomplete, and it was therefore up to the historian to draw out inferences from documentation.

Around the same time, French historian Marc Bloch (1886-1944) and his colleagues founded the highly influential school of history known as the Annals. We might explore the Annaliste impact upon the writing of history in the next post, but for now it's important to take note of Bloch's book The Historian's Craft, which he was writing at the time of his death in Nazi-occupied France in 1944. Although in general agreement with his continental predecessors about the impartiality of studying the past, as well as the importance of documentation to support claims, Bloch thought it was crucial for historians to not necessarily judge the past (as a lawyer would do) but rather understand the past based on a sound knowledge of the context in which events unfolded and people lived. This meant that historians were to suspend their knowledge of the future and not let future events influence the historian's understanding of the past.

By the end of the Second World War, history, as understood by its practitioners, was firmly rooted in the university system across Europe and North America. This is a necessarily truncated and selective view of the many historians who have contributed to the discussion of what history is, but their ideas and practice of history has had an enduring effect on the study of history today.

Today, as a new year of undergraduates prepare to study the past, it's worthwhile to consider what history really means. The necessity of evidence, which the historian explores impartially and cautiously, remains one quoin in our craft. In order to accomplish this, and depending on the area on which one focuses, language is a fundamental component of the historian's craft. Historians of Christianity are usually required to read the biblical languages of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, while historians of the Second World War often read various European languages. This is an important part of the historian's toolbox, without which we only rely on secondary sources (i.e. books and articles written by others) to understand the past. Historians exercise autonomy and authority, as Collingwood once claimed, over one's subject and raising questions about evidence and events in the past is also an extremely important part of our job. To revisit, reassess, and rethink comfortably-held certainties advances an understanding of our current conditions. In the following posts, we'll explain why the study of history remains an important craft and how we can apply our skill set to understand better the world in which we live.