Asking students what they think history is, what it is for and how it is done invariably arises within historiography papers. The reason is obvious – your examiners want to know whether you can think about the subject, are sensitive to its complexities and appreciate its scope. To answer a historiography question successfully you will need to demonstrate:
That you can think about issues.
That you have read some history books (preferably beyond the standard texts).
That you are aware of (interested in?) the evolution of history as a subject.
That you have a grasp on the theories of history.
That you can develop your own argument in response to a question.
That you understand what historians do.
One of the most common questions asked in historiography papers centres around history as a science or an art. The question is basically another way of asking “what is history?” But to answer it successfully, you have to focus on the art-science aspect.
I have put together a sample essay which, I hope, gives you an idea of how it could be approached. As always, I recommend against plagiarism not only because you could no doubt do better than my feeble attempt but because examiners really can tell the difference between a candidate having a genuine self-generated period of electrified genius and one struggling to remember what they once read on that strange website with the twirly bits around the edges. Use the essay to trigger your own thoughts. I’d be happiest if you criticise it, rip it apart and show where the author has lost the plot.
The essay – History is Science rather than an Art. Discuss.
Beyond the faculty buildings, classrooms and the titles on exam papers it is reasonable to question whether “History” – note the capital – actually exists at all.Historians write histories rather than “History” and it comes in vastly different forms – economic, social, political, art and more. It comes big – world history – and it comes small, such as Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and The Worms. Is history more the endeavour than the product? Again, no. Historians are no longer confined to carrying out literary criticism on old paperwork. They use forensic technologies to study blood lines, pour over economic data to make sense of population fluctuations and they use anthropological techniques to uncover what Hawaiian natives really thought about Captain Cook. History is no longer a tidy monolith but a beach of multicoloured and differently sized pebbles.
Science, of course, is science – deductive, objective and predictive. Or perhaps not. Like history, science, is no longer interchangeable with empirically-derived fact. Quantum theory shattered all that. Photons have become like crowds – sure, there will be a cheer when a team scores a goal, but knowing which individual will cheer is like rolling a dice. And if science is no longer “Science” and histories have replaced “History” we have a problem comparing the two. But the question must be asked because in asking, effectively, what history “is” we can refine out understanding of what we do, how we do it and what the outcome of historical endeavour means and what its value is. And although the boundaries between the arts and the sciences have become blurred and prone to theoretical and methodological incest, there are still traits each holds dear and which can be used to guage history’s place between the once more distinct camps.
The gauntlet for the art-science debate was arguably set by Leopold von Ranke, the 19th Century historian who called for history to be written “as it essentially was”. To accomplish this, the primary sources had to be speak for themselves and the historian’s role was in objectively sewing the patches of the primary source quilt together into a grand narrative. Bias, subjective judgement and the “art” of history would thus be removed and history became empirical, a science of man’s past. The problems here are obvious. First, a historian, with his or her inherent interests, worldview, understandings and culture, is a subjective being. Different historians will derive different, even potentially conflicting meanings, from the same primary source. There may be too many primary sources available to the historian, forcing the historian to decide which ones are most useful for his or her purposes. Again this involves subjectively choice, based on interests or intent. Secondly, primary sources are not photons, molecules or metatarsels but the products of human beings who are partial, whose viewpoints are their own, who may have ulterior motives for putting pen to paper, and who are reliable not as CCTV cameras but by being themselves. This is not to say there are no facts in history because there are: the event/s called the French Revolution did start in 1789. But the grit of history – the hows and the whys – are teased out not empirically but critically, using judgement, skill and creativity and the product, though not necessarily a scientific truth, can offer poetic truth.
Written documents are far from being the only primary sources now scrutinised by historians. Bone remnants, cloth samples, gut contents, wood fragments and so on are all potential primary sources for historians. And the analysis of such items whether to date them or cross reference them increasingly borrows techniques from science, most notably forensic science. Carbon 14 dating has shown the Turin Shroud, for example, was the creation of a medieval artist rather than the death cape of Christ. So far so good. But when it comes to asking the important questions – why and how would a forger create such an object – the historian has to turn to the more traditional skills – judgement, cross referencing with other texts and creatively applying his or her critical thinking.
But surely there are some areas of history where a scientific approach can produce history worth its salt without all this “art”. Economic history (cliometrics) for example? It’s got numbers, tables and charts and so it looks scientific. Douglass North said economic history was to describe and explain the performance and structures of economies over time. The “structures” he is refering to are the political, judicial and cultural entities that helped shape the economies of the past. They attempt to piece together histories of economic growth, patterns of trade, resource spread, price fluctuations and so on. Sadly, GDP figures were not scribed by medieval monks and the main hurdle faced by economic historians is how to draw economic data from the multi-layered documentary legacy bequeathed by past societies. The work of economic historians can be startling and revelatory but they face the same essential question as all other historians – what can we glean from a given source? Making sense of the past requires the same ingenuity and leaps of faith and imagination whatever the approach.
Science attempts to uncover the systems underpinning our bodies, the material world and the universe beyond. It attempts to be predictive and prescriptive. Sometimes science fails in this – quantum mechanics, for example, or medicines failing to act in the same way on two different bodies. It fails in history too. If we believe World War One was the product of an arms race between Britain and Germany can we form an equation running thus: states plus arms race equals war? No, because the French and the British were engaged in an arms race up until 1905 and they did not go to war. Does the arbitrary mixing of different cultures or tribes inevitably lead to dictators such as Saddam Hussein in Iraq or Tito in Yugoslavia? Again, it can do (as in the cases mentioned) but it is not inevitable – look at Tanzania, for example, or India, or Canada. There is no laboratory for controlled experiements in history. It cannot be prescriptive or predictive because the same set of circumstances never recur.
That said, historians too, rather like biologists and astrophysicists, have attempted to uncover systems. In history, these systems are thought to be found in the past. If past societies were different to our own then there has, ipso facto, been change. Discover the cause of change and you uncover the engine of history, or so the thinking appears to have run. Vico in his Scienza Nuova, for example argues civilisations are caught within a recurring circle – the divine, the heroic and the human. Karl Marx saw history as the teleological product of class struggle that would inevitably lead from capitalism to a communist emancipation of the proletarian. More recently Thomas Kuhn in his “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” argued scientific knowledge does not follow a line of inherited knowledge but undergoes abrupt transformations under a burgeoning intellectual pressure on the existing paradigm. This revolution, called a paradigm shift, is forced by the previous paradigm being found wanting in its ability new scientific findings.
The theorisation of history has radically changed the intellectual terrain historians travel through and reside in. Marxism as an explanation for the past, for example, has been found wanting. But it radically changed the field by shifting historians’ attention from the history of kings and leaders to the lives of the normal people. The cliche is “history from below” but in practice this radical shift in focus has led to some of the most dramatic new departures in history including the aforementioned The Cheese and the Worms by Carlo Ginzburg, Braudel’s The Mediterranean in the Philip II and Robert Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre.
Theory has also reshaped the way history is written. Edward Gibbon’s the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire started at the beginning and finished at the end.Today’s historians break past experience (okay, their interpretations of past experience) down into constitutent components in a manner resembling reduction in science. Sahlins’s How “Natives” Think: About Captain Cook, for Example does not tell the story of Cook coming to Hawaii, having a party and then being killed. Instead, the various experiences and meanings involved in the encounter of Cook and the Hawaiians is broken down into chapters headed variously “calendrical politics”, “The Language Problem” and “Lono at Hikiau”. It is not a story. It is not a narrative. It is stories. It is about the various meanings the same “event” – Cook’s arrival – meant to people present. The arrival of Cook, as such, becomes a text, its interpretation wildly varied through differing worldviews. The event is elucidated by broken down, subjected to the borrowed skills of an ethnographer and its meanings, as opposed to meaning, teased out and presented in a non-linear manner.
Sahlins’ work would probably have left von Ranke confused. It was not what he had in mind when he urged the telling of the past as it really was. The subject has changed beyond recognition not just over the centuries but in the past 50 years. History is not a science, though it uses science. It is not strictly a social science, though it uses skills from the social sciences (and vice versa). But history is always art. Whether in recreating the soundscapes of Elizabethan London, recreating the climatology of 14th Century Florence or writing 300 pages on Captain Cook’s death in Hawaii, the historian uses his critical and emotional capacities to unravel, extract, interpret, cross reference and then repackage his or her findings into a cogent, subjective and meaningful piece of writing. Taken together, these histories, diverse and expansive, contradictory and revelatory, are “History”.