The Nature of History
History is characterized as both the past itself and a reconstruction or account of the past. As for the past itself, that is what really happened. The historian creates a reconstruction of the past in their own written accounts. In this post, we will examine both the nature of history and how it is presented by historians.
Conal Furay and Michael Salevouris have broken down history into a series of contracting circles that categorize history itself and the historian’s relationship to it. The following will reference the above illustration which is adapted from their work.
This is the totality of literally everything that has ever happened all the way back to the very beginning of the universe*. It includes every event, action, and thought that has occurred. As represented in the above figure, the past, as a construct, far outweighs all of the history that we are actually knowledgeable of. Of course, we could argue that that circle is infinitely large and grows larger with every passing moment.
*Note that the study of the formation, composition and workings of the universe is more within the field of cosmology and astrophysics. The study of prehistory involving ancient societies is more in the wheelhouse of archaeologists and anthropologists (many historians, as well). The study of the fossil record is the purview of paleontologists, and the study of the Earth and its organisms are more relevant to geologists, geographers, biologists, and natural historians.
Events Observed By Someone
This circle represents events that someone actually witnessed. However, note that it is significantly smaller than the entirety of the past. This is because nobody has omniscience and we only see things from our own perspective. If nobody was around to see the event, then it has effectively been lost to history and we are left with only our conjectures and theories on it. Additionally, this circle encompasses everything that has been seen but forgotten about. For example, you probably cannot remember every single thing you did yesterday or the day before that because our brains do not remember every second of every day of our lives. Either through the ravages of time or the fact that the witnessed event was considered insignificant and not worth remembering, these events have been lost to us.
Events Observed and Remembered
This circle includes the above-observed events, but also the inclusion of memories. Events long forgotten or not remembered are lost to us. Consider the events in your life that you can clearly recall, but have not recorded in some form somewhere. These are those events. Now multiply those events by the population of the Earth, and that will only approximate the number of events that are remembered, but not recorded. This circle could also theoretically include events that you have temporarily forgotten about, but something later comes along to jog your memory. It is the classic feeling of nostalgia. “I remember that time when… which reminds me of this one time when…”
Events Observed, Remembered, and Recorded
This circle includes the above observed and remembered events which have also been recorded in some form. Diaries, journals, documents, audio/visual recordings, books, etc. This encompasses the entirety of recorded history. However, it should be noted that there have been far more events that have been documented, but for which the documents have been lost to time for whatever reason. Countless documents have been torn up, buried, gone to the bottom of the ocean, or burned up in flames. Exposure to the elements gradually wears away at physical materials which eventually wilt away into their molecular components. Unrecorded events, as well as those records that have been destroyed, are lost to us. For example, following its defeat in WWII, Imperial Japan put a good number of its secret documents to the torch to prevent them from falling into Allied hands. These documents are forever lost to us, and as a result, historians have had to reconstruct the information contained in them based on other sources.
Events For Which We Have Surviving Records
As noted in the above illustration, these are the extant raw materials that historians (ideally) begin with. They are the different sources that historians can use when constructing their historical accounts. However, just because these records survived, does not mean that they are accessible. There could be some old person’s long-lost diary or pile of photos that are sitting in some basement waiting to be discovered by a curious grandchild. One of the biggest frustrations in doing historical research is the fact that the historian has limited access to certain resources given their wherewithal and with full knowledge that other, perhaps more valuable/suitable, resources exist out there. Personally, I would love to dive into the mountains of documents in the U.S. National Archives or travel the world doing field work and tracking down sources in other countries. The problem is the lack of time, money, energy, language abilities, etc.
Available/Usable/Believable Records For a Given Historical Account
These are the sources that the average historian works with, if only for the fact that they are the most accessible. Bookstores, libraries, personal contacts, the internet, and the historian’s own materials and knowledge constitute the availability of these sources. It is up to the historian to evaluate the sources to determine if they are usable and believable.
The Historian’s “Cone of View”
I’ve modified the above illustration from its source and added this element to it. Furay and Salevouris (2000) compare the historian’s viewpoint to a searchlight casting a thin beam over a darkened landscape. As the historian moves their narrow light beam over the landscape, it reveals the various geographical features, but only those which are directly illuminated by the beam at any given time. Furthermore, any number of historians, with their individual beams of light can shine them over the dark landscape of history (p. 12 – 13). This thin triangle represents that beam of light. Imagine that the historian can stand in one position and pan the beam around. Also note that it only extends out into events for which there are surviving records, and it narrows as it moves outward which represents the narrowing number of sources that the historian has access to. It is possible to locate a potentially useful and surviving source, but if you cannot directly acquire it, then it does you no good.
Simply put, there’s no possible way that any historian, or group of historians, can know all there is to know about the history of everything or even of specific events. The historian’s field or cone of view only extends out so far and only to the limit of which there are surviving records. This is but a tiny fraction of what has been remembered and recorded throughout history, and an infinitesimally small amount of what has occurred in the past.
The Historical Account
All of these circles constrict the information down into what the historian can access and what they can work with. Through an examination of the evidence, a synthesis of the knowledge, and the development of a thesis, the historian works to produce a historical account.
The historical account is the reconstruction of the past. It is important to understand that the historian themselves factors into the making of the historical account, and each historian has a slightly different interpretation of the events. Historians are only human and capable of errors. Not only that, but personal biases, beliefs, and idiosyncrasies can unconsciously influence a historian’s work. Everyone has a unique frame of reference based on our values, assumptions, interests, and experiences, through which we interpret the world. Hence, there is an element of subjectivity to every historical account and there is no way to completely eliminate bias (Furay & Salevouris, 2000, p. 15).
Is There Any Truth in History?
This all begs the question: If historical accounts always contain bias and subjectivity, then is there any “truth” in them?
Perhaps this question is more appropriate for a philosophical discussion on epistemology, but yes, we can argue in favor of truth in history and historical accounts. The answer lies in the use of evidence.
History Derives Truth from Evidence
It can be said that history is a story based on corroborating/verifiable facts. Any type of existing evidence of an event demonstrates a tangible link between the past and the present. In other words, even if the evidence is sparse or difficult to interpret, the fact that surviving records, in the form of primary source material, exist shows us that the past did, in fact, happen. While historians can view any event from any perspective they choose, and then create a narrative of said event, that narrative must be supported with evidence. The subjectivity of history comes from the interpretations, which are up to the historian and do not invalidate the evidence (or the past) itself. While they cannot escape the clutches of bias, the historian must be able to justify their views (no matter how strong or convincing) with relevant evidence. A historian’s claims that fail this basic test will quickly be discredited by other historians (Furay & Salevouris, 2000, p. 16). Indeed, it appears that many people are confused about the difference between facts and interpretations. Many assume that interpretations constitute facts and replace the subjectivity of the former with the objectivity of the latter. (A more in-depth examination of historical interpretation is for another post.)
The danger is when the historian becomes close-minded to other evidence and interpretations (valid or not), especially that which contradicts their own views. Furay and Salevouris (2000) note the term “Procrustean” in reference to the ancient Greek bandit, Procrustes, who would strap his victims to a bed and then cut their legs off if they were too long, or stretch them out if they were too short. The point is that some historians go so far as to make the evidence fit their theories. A kind of cherry-picking or confirmation bias, if you will. Just because there’s no alignment between the evidence and a theory, does not invalidate the former. Finally, it is important to note that history, as with any field, is not static. Research is influenced by the values and attitudes of the times. New evidence can come to light, new interpretations can be written, and old ones revised (p. 15 – 16). The historian must be open to viewing multiple interpretations and accepting new evidence that either supports or refutes their work. We also need to be careful about bias and draw conclusions that can be supported with evidence, as opposed to reading into what is not there and basing judgments on our preconceptions. From good evidence comes a supportable thesis, but not the other way around. A thesis, by itself, does not suddenly conjure up good evidence.
For these reasons, this is why we cannot just fabricate evidence and use it to advance some fantastical version of reality. Nor can we let our personal views override the analysis of evidence or the introduction of differing interpretations. This is easier said than done, but the fact-checkers will pick apart your work otherwise. For example, there are Holocaust deniers who contend that the Nazi’s attempts at exterminating the Jews in WWII never happened. They believe that it is all just a giant, far-reaching conspiracy that uses fabricated evidence and fictitious personal accounts. Not only are there massive leaps in logic in the conspiracy theories of Holocaust denial, but there is a dearth of evidence from any number of official and independent sources that verify such events did, in fact, occur. Yet, that stands as a perfect example of Procrustean thinking. Some people have let their personal prejudices overwhelm their ability to think rationally, but of course, they would never admit it. Arguably, the issue at that point is less about interpretation and more about bigotry. On a lighter note, you may have personal convictions that unicorns exist and have the “fossilized” (read: 3D-printed/molded plastic) unicorn horns to prove it, but sooner or later, someone is going to do a detailed analysis of your evidence and debunk it.
In general, history as an academic field is focused on recorded events. This presumes some form of documentation left over from the past. Papers, books, photos, video and audio recordings, etc. The nature of written history is one of reconstruction based on existing evidence. Still, it pales in comparison to the totality of events that have actually occurred. Sadly, for that which there is no surviving evidence, we can only conjecture. The historian’s job is to take the raw evidence and reconstruct the past. Any number of historians can interpret the same evidence differently, but the fact is that the evidence itself demonstrates that the past was real. The historian’s account is what is subjective.
Furay, C., & Salevouris, M.J. (2000). The Methods and Skills of History: A Practical Guide (2nd ed.). Harland Davidson.