How History is Created by Historians
Updated: Sep 9
History is a subject that has been of great interest since man could communicate. Nevertheless, no clear, unassuming description of the topic can be given. What is history? Why are there so many historical approaches; and why use them? In addition to addressing these fundamental questions, types of sources and how to interrogate them is explored, as well as a study of causal factors and bias. This is all done with those entrusted to ensure the discipline survives throughout the ages in mind. Without these people, these historians, without someone to chronicle the events of the past, history simply cannot exist.
It may be surprising to some that history can be described in an almost indefinite amount of ways. Yet, for all its definitions, plainly stated, history is the study of the past, a catalogue of events that have happened (Stearns, 1). Though the past will occur regardless of any factor, it does not actually become history until someone (i.e. a historian) formulates an account of it. The discipline can entail an abundance of distinct aspects and perspectives. While it can generally be said that dates, names, numbers, and the like are key characteristics of the subject, the breadth of history involves much more than figures to be memorized.
When considering the views of prominent German historian Leopold von Ranke two claims are prevalent. The first concept is that history is simply a science. It is primarily concerned with facts and their causal connection - nothing else. His second model of thought, based on the philosophies of Prussian philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt, claimed that ideas attain realization. The historian has the responsibility to not only tell the story of the past but its meaning as well (Gilbert, 393). Ranke criticized those who felt that history just judges the past, instructs men for the profit of future years, or shows the need for strict obedience to moral laws. He believed that the past is not fundamentally different from the present and argued that if students prescribed to those thoughts, the past would become distorted and false. History should purely say how things actually were and the historian should not go beyond the limits of his task; that is, to show how things were in fact (Gilbert, 394). Interestingly, it is possible that these two claims may in fact, contradict each other in certain ways. Thus, it is up to the individual's interpretation as to what exactly Ranke meant.
Cultural, political, and religious viewpoints must be considered when thinking of ideas and philosophies, technologies and advancements, even mannerisms and behaviors, to name a few. These aforementioned beliefs are manifest in various historical approaches such as empiricism, materialism, revisionism, etc. Throughout time, different methods and theories have been developed to address generational change and certain weaknesses in already existing approaches (Spiegel, 11). Therefore, depending on one's needs and what history will be used for, certain historical approaches may be more appropriate than others.
In constructing their histories, scholars must reference all types of sources while completing their research. According to Yale University, three types of sources exist: primary, secondary, and tertiary. Likely the most "important" of the source types is primary because it is original materials on which all other research is based upon. Primary sources are from the time period involved in a specific study and have not been filtered, interpreted, or evaluated in any manner. They present innovative thinking, report a discovery, and/or share new information. Examples include artifacts, literary creation, diaries, interviews, journal articles in peer-reviewed publications, letters, original documents, and photos (Yale University, 1).
Secondary sources are accounts written after the fact that encompass reflection and analysis. These sources are not necessarily evidence but allow for the discussion of evidence. Essentially, secondary sources are interpretations and evaluations of primary sources. Examples may include bibliographies, dictionaries, magazine and newspaper articles, and textbooks. Tertiary sources are surprisingly rarely utilized, but this may be due to the fact that they are usually a distillation and collection of primary and secondary sources. Not often are researching needs not met by primary and secondary sources. However, when required, these almanacs, directories, fact books, indexes, and the like provide for indispensable insight (Yale University, 1).
So, how does one appraise sources as to their value? At least six factors come into play:
Accuracy and objectivity
Footnotes and bibliographies
Sponsorship (Yale University, 1)
Questions such as "what are the author's credentials?" or "is this information current?" are utilized by historians when assessing the validity of a source's information. Historians must consider the reputation and trustworthiness of not only the author, but the publisher and sponsor (if applicable). Multiple sources may be checked for credibility as well.
Once sources are vetted and consulted, one can begin to assemble a narrative. Though the goal must necessarily be to present an "objective truth," causal factors and biases virtually always affects a historian's work. A Mr. Theodor Clarke Smith of the American Historical Association argues that two groups of historians exist. The first of these (to which he prescribes) believes in a "noble" dream, producing sound, credible, "masterly" works. Conversely, the latter group is full of individuals who threaten the ideal; writers who do not feel it pertinent to be impartial, objective, or fair. These dissenters, Smith maintains, are biased, inflexible, and seek to impose a doctrine without regard to practical considerations (Beard, 74-75).
Another factor that may shape a historian's work is the shared subject matter history enjoys with other disciplines, resulting in interdisciplinary influences. One of the earliest examples of this synthesis is that of nineteenth-century economics, which was frequently historical, as made famous by Karl Marx. Even at the most basic level, interdisciplinary studies borrow methods and theories from one another (Tilly, 61). Continuing in this thought, some philosophers question whether or not history is a science or an art. Indeed, one can describe it as neutral in fact, a "semi-science." While traditionalist historians sometimes argue that it is only in history that art and science meet in "harmonious synthesis," this is not the view held by modern historians. Yet, no kind of general agreement exists about the nature of historical explanation.
A number of theorists feel that history can fall somewhere between Aristotelian physics and Linnaean biology in the hierarchy of sciences. However, this attitude is swiftly rejected by scientists who accuse the discipline of a failure of method and intellect. Unfortunately, art also denies ownership of history, citing a failure of sensibility and will. One of the most well-known proponents of this latter view is Friedrich Nietzsche who felt that history murdered art, making people feel as though everything worth doing has already been done (White, 116). Another example of how bias affects one's work can be found in the case of Irving v. Lipstadt. The defendant, Deborah Lipstadt, had written a book in 1994 in which she addresses the issue of a type of revisionism that seeks to erase Germany's mistakes regarding the Jewish population. In her book, Lipstadt profiled author David Irving as a Holocaust denier, Nazi propagandist, and Hitler apologist that obfuscated the truth by purposely manipulating sources and evidence to fit his agenda (Zainaldin, 27). This accusation was proven to be accurate during the trial when Irving's footnotes were shown to be misrepresented.
As shown above, several influences exist in the discipline of history. Yet, this is to be expected when history holds many different definitions for all sorts of historians, peoples, entire cultures. This is why various historical approaches prevail and why finding and vetting sources is so important. History is truly an exclusive witness to all affairs.