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Forum LockedAims and Purposes of History

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Direct Link To This Post Topic: Aims and Purposes of History
    Posted: 20-Apr-2009 at 11:45

To what extent do aims and purposes of each historian distort the construction of history?

 

‘It has been said that though God cannot alter the past, historians can’

--Samuel Butler, ‘Erewhon Revisited’ (1901)
 
While it is alleged that “the purpose of history is to accurately understand the past” (Chris J Bickerton, 2006), it appears that historians also construct history with the purpose of serving a culmination of ideological, social, political, cultural and personal motivations, which subsequently influences the general construction of history. Hence, Samuel Butler’s quote cited above appears particularly fitting, as it invokes that historians possess the power to serve their various purposes through their influences on the construction of history.
Hence can we really believe anything we read? Can objectivity in history ever be achieved?  What do people think?

 



Edited by egyptian goddess - 21-Apr-2009 at 09:43
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Direct Link To This Post Posted: 20-Apr-2009 at 12:23
I think it is important at first, to distinguish between history and historical facts. I believe that it is, to use a similar wording to good old Richard Evans, both possible and desirable to objectively represent historical facts. Historical facts are things like dates - for example, I believe I can objectively state that Alexios Komnenos assumed the Byzantine throne in the year 1081 AD (or CE, if you prefer). Nevertheless, I'm sure someone could argue that my use of an artificially constructed dating system clouds my objectivity - I'm not of this opinion though.

History on the other hand, is a bit more complex. I'll wait to hear from you or others before I give my stance. Smile

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Direct Link To This Post Posted: 20-Apr-2009 at 12:52
Bah.
 
Elton is the man. Evans can go suck a lemon Tongue
 
Shouldn't this be merged with the historiography thread? Its pretty much the same thing. And keep these threads coming along. Historiography isn't talked about near enough on AE.
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Direct Link To This Post Posted: 20-Apr-2009 at 13:02
I was hoping you'd jump into these threads, Parnell! I think I will leave this, and the historiography thread separate for now - see which one attracts a discussion. Oh and I totally support the increased historiography-related thread making.

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Direct Link To This Post Posted: 20-Apr-2009 at 15:54
Knights makes a nice distinction.
 
There are facts and opinions, and opinions are usually assessable by whether they correctly predict and/or explain the facts. Sometimes of course different hypotheses may equally well explain a set of facts, which is what makes horse races.
 
A hypothesis that can happily explain both a fact and the opposite of that fact (within its scope) is pretty useless.
 
Of course a lot of people simply write propaganda with no regard to the facts, making them up or distorting them at will just to back up some political/economic/religious/nationalist position, but that isn't history even if it purports to deal with the past.
 
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Direct Link To This Post Posted: 21-Apr-2009 at 10:00

I’m sorry Knights but I have to disagree with you.

 

Essentially, without taking a cynical postmodernist approach, there is really no such thing as historical facts, and I quote Henry Commager who states “Facts are subjective, they exist in the mind of the historian, and they change their character with each historian.”

 

Leopold von Ranke argued that the construction of history should be based on “the scrupulous use of primary sources to present an unvarnished picture of the facts” and that the historians must “let the past speak” for itself, through the use of ‘empirical’ evidence. Thus, while many historians pursue historical inquiries with the intention of constructing objective history supporting their claims with “empirical evidence” and what Knights refers to as “historical facts”, John Vincent’s argument that “there is a bias in the creation of evidence, and a bias in the survival of evidence”, demonstrates that this approach is impractical. This notion concerning the non-existence of historical facts/events is also exemplified by H Stuart Hughes as he asserts, “what we conventionally call an “event” in history is simply a segment of the endless web of experience that we have torn out of context for purpose of clearer understanding”.

 

Moreover, postmodernist historian Hayden White believes that for the facts to “speak” and tell of the past an historian must place them in a framework or narrative and this narrative is based on the historians decision, whereby in “selecting” a framework the historian is distorting the past. Therefore E.H. Carr is accurate in stating, “The facts speaks only when the historian calls on them. It is he who decides to which facts to give the floor, and in what order or context”.

 

Hence clearly there appears to be no existing distinction between historical facts and history.



Edited by egyptian goddess - 21-Apr-2009 at 10:07
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Direct Link To This Post Posted: 21-Apr-2009 at 10:52
Egyptian Goddess;

I'd like to discuss your use of Carr's quote first of all. In his 'What is History', Carr makes an equivalent distinction to the one I made in my first post - that of 'historical facts' and 'history'. He terms these "facts of history" and "facts of the past", respectively. The former, he goes on to explain, are objective for all intents and purposes - my example of 'dates' in history, for instance. The latter however, "the facts of the past", are those which he views as being the primary concern of historians. For the remainder of the book, after setting these out in Chapter One, Carr deals with 'facts of the past', which he goes on to make the 'fish in the ocean' analogy about. Thus, in your quote Carr is referring to these 'facts of the past', which are subjectively interpreted and subsequently represented, by the historian. His quote is not talking about 'historical facts'. In essence, I am saying that what Carr deems 'facts of history', and what I mentioned earlier as 'historical facts' are objective, whilst Carr's 'facts of the past' (my 'history') are open to selective representation by the historian.

Now in regards to the rest of the post. I will apply what I have said above, to my argument.

You quoted Commager as saying "Facts are subjective, they exist in the mind of the historian, and they change their character with each historian". Here, either Commager is denying that say, 'dates', are objective (ignoring the occasional bit of contention between sources - I am talking about uncontentious dates, like the year which the First Fleet arrived in Australia - 1788); or, he is purely referring to what I discussed above as 'history'/'facts of the past'. I do not see how a historian can possibly 'subjectively interpret' and then 'selectively represent' a date in history - a 'historical fact' - or at least, get away with doing so. I therefore think it is desirable and possible to represent historical facts objectively.

When arguing against Ranke's quote, you use the quotes of another historian or two as evidence of why Ranke is wrong. I don't believe this method is justifying your position, as one could equally reverse the situation and argue that your quotes are wrong, by merely using Ranke's quote. Just someone might write or say something, doesn't mean it can't be unfounded, illogical or without basis.

Clearly, it is crucial to distinguish between the nature of history, and historical facts. Gcle raises an excellent related point about hypotheses - either a null or alternative hypothesis can be used to quantify or falsify and objective fact. And I thought, just for the sake of it, I'd close by stating what everybody probably already realises. If you are arguing that nothing can be objectively 'true' or 'fact', then no weight is leaned to your argument, by the very contradictory nature of it: "nothing is true --> what about that statement? --> circularity"...

Regards,

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Direct Link To This Post Posted: 21-Apr-2009 at 11:35
Originally posted by egyptian goddess

Hence clearly there appears to be no existing distinction between historical facts and history.

All you clearly show is that a few people claim that there is no existing distinction between historical facts and history. You haven't produced any argument to say they are right to claim it.
 
There are those who claim the whole of reality is illusion. That doesn't prove it is - or even give any reason to think it is.
 
Knights' answer was excellent.
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Direct Link To This Post Posted: 21-Apr-2009 at 11:54
Originally posted by gcle2003

All you clearly show is that a few people claim that there is no existing distinction between historical facts and history. You haven't produced any argument to say they are right to claim it.
 
Essentially I have posited my view, simplistically, but used a culmination of views to deminstrate that I am not alone in my views. I agree Knights makes a very compelling argument, particularly in regards to my misuse of E.H. Carr's view. However I do not not withdraw my view and continue to maintain that there is no distinction between facts and written history, in that facts do not exist until the historians create them.

*edited by Knights - I fixed up the 'quote' box for you*


Edited by Knights - 21-Apr-2009 at 13:15
"Each Age tries to form its own conceptions of the past. Each Age writes the history of the past anew with reference to the conditions uppermost in it’s own time". (Frederick Jackson Turner)
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Direct Link To This Post Posted: 23-Apr-2009 at 21:32
Originally posted by egyptian goddess

Originally posted by gcle2003

All you clearly show is that a few people claim that there is no existing distinction between historical facts and history. You haven't produced any argument to say they are right to claim it.
 
Essentially I have posited my view, simplistically, but used a culmination of views to deminstrate that I am not alone in my views. I agree Knights makes a very compelling argument, particularly in regards to my misuse of E.H. Carr's view. However I do not not withdraw my view and continue to maintain that there is no distinction between facts and written history, in that facts do not exist until the historians create them.
 
I would qualify this statement by saying that interpretations of historical facts as they come down to us are not created until historians apply their craft and publish those interpretations. 
 
What we get at are not the cold, hard facts in the Rankian positivist sense, but interpretations of the facts as they come down to us and we process them through our own intellectual and cultural conditions and assumptions.  However, with most academics and historians, who are considered in their communities to be intelligent, rational beings, there is a conscious choice that can be made to make a determined effort to suppress those assumptions and strive for at least a shade of objectivity.
 
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Direct Link To This Post Posted: 24-Apr-2009 at 11:07
Your qualification is correct, but it is by no means a minor one. No historian believes that "the facts do not exist until the historians create them". If they did they wouldn't be historians. And if the historians created the facts, they wouldn't be facts.
 
Even the most extreme antagonists of the popular media do not believe that the media invent facts: they believe they tell lies about what the facts actually are or were.
 
BE's qualification changes the statement from an ontological one ("facts don't exist until invented") to an epistemological one ("we only have perceptions of the facts, not the facts themselves"). The epistemological statement is correct, just as the ontological one was wrong: you cannot derive an ontological position from an epistemological one.
 
 
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Direct Link To This Post Posted: 24-Apr-2009 at 11:51
To get back to the original point, I have to take great issue with the idea that there is an inherent 'purpose' in history. Human beings assign purpose to things - a tool has a purpose in that it is created by men for manual tasks, history is written by men to instill order to the chaos of the traces of the past. It has no purpose unless one attempts to assign purpose to it. A good example is the often vain parallels drawn between Lincoln and Obama - parallels helped by the President himself. Its nonsense. The conditions of the US in the mid 19th century differ vastly from the conditions of the mid 20th or early 21st century. There is no parallel unless you choose to create one. And they rarely last. History as a purpose to 'learn from past mistakes' is a nonsense, every generation created new dilemma's that require fresh idea's to fix them, borrowing from the past doesn't work. Which is why all this hot air about purpose is a waste of time.

Essentially history writing is an exercise in reason. It is a deductive activity which attempts to create a narrative of events and to explain the causes that led to these events. One's interpretations of the causes of events may frequently differ, and usually differ quite profoundly depending on ones political stance. But the essential narrative remains - IE, Constantinople fell in 1453, The European Second World War broke out in September 1939, Urban II called the first Crusade in 1096 etc.

Historians will differ on the causes of these effects. The causes of World War II, so brilliantly elucidated by AJP Taylor in 'Origins of the Second World War' is a great example of the 'new history writing' of the 60s, but it does not challenge the fundamental narrative of events. It does challenge the prevailing analysis and interpretation of the causes of those said events. Again, history is an exercise in reason and is by argument - by one historian challenging another's thesis, by testing and verifying it - that one comes to a reasonable and rational conclusion. There is a reason why so many popular history books are held with righteous scorn by so many history professionals.

On a concluding note I would have to say I agree with Elton when he says historiography is interesting in itself as a sort of parlour game while drinking high priced wine. But when the history moves away from analysing the causes and effects of history towards discussion on individual historians as an historical phenoma in themselves when it pulses towards the ludicrous. History is a noble subject, thankfully far removed from the innane terminology and jargon of philosophy and political science. Lets keep it that way.
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Direct Link To This Post Posted: 24-Apr-2009 at 12:58
Parnell has requested that this thread be closed, to save confusion and redundancy, because of the 'Historiography' thread. I thought I would check with Gcle and Byzantine Emperor before doing so, as they are active in this thread recently - what do you two think?

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Direct Link To This Post Posted: 24-Apr-2009 at 14:53
Originally posted by Parnell

Essentially history writing is an exercise in reason. It is a deductive activity which attempts to create a narrative of events and to explain the causes that led to these events. One's interpretations of the causes of events may frequently differ, and usually differ quite profoundly depending on ones political stance. But the essential narrative remains - IE, Constantinople fell in 1453, The European Second World War broke out in September 1939, Urban II called the first Crusade in 1096 etc.
[...]
History is a noble subject, thankfully far removed from the innane terminology and jargon of philosophy and political science. Lets keep it that way.
Is it so? I'm not sure what types of histories are you reading but in many enough recent scholarly journals and books I'm reading I see a weaker impulse to create narratives of events or explain causes.
Some scholars simply get to say "we don't (or sometimes even can't) know how some things happened or why did they happen". They study the sources (written sources, to address your comment in particular) and draw the conclusions which can be safely drawn, refraining from vicious speculation only for the sake of having a story. Of course, for the great public the story is valueable (but that only proves the 'post-modern' point), for a honest quest for truth I think the narrative is often just a simulation, a pretext. There are many histories of the Roman Empire, of the Ottoman Empire, of the Crusades, and many differences between them. Which will you follow?
You make this point about dates, but most of the dates/chronologies are supported by a handful of sources, often many of dubious reliability. This inherent scarcity and unreliability of sources enabled crackpots like Fomenko to promote their revisionist chronologies. I'd grant you that the relatively recent events are somewhat better sourced, but once we get to Middle Ages or earlier (since you mentioned the Crusades and the siege of Constantinople) the things are less and less certain, even in chronology. Even for those with some confidence in sources, there are a lot of uncertainties: if it happened, when it happened, where it happened, etc. what you'd proabably call a "fact". You wouldn't believe how many chronicles are misdated or undated, how many names are distorted or simply wrong, how many sources are actually not independent but represent a single information channel (thus they actually represent only one source), how many "facts" are actually clinging on the assumptions of some (reputable) scholar, quoted over and over.
Moreover it isn't fair to separate chronology from other historical interpretations, because after all, they all come from the same sources.  And chronologies can be heavily debated, too.


Edited by Chilbudios - 24-Apr-2009 at 14:55
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Direct Link To This Post Posted: 24-Apr-2009 at 17:48
Originally posted by Chilbudios

Originally posted by Parnell

Essentially history writing is an exercise in reason. It is a deductive activity which attempts to create a narrative of events and to explain the causes that led to these events. One's interpretations of the causes of events may frequently differ, and usually differ quite profoundly depending on ones political stance. But the essential narrative remains - IE, Constantinople fell in 1453, The European Second World War broke out in September 1939, Urban II called the first Crusade in 1096 etc.
[...]
History is a noble subject, thankfully far removed from the innane terminology and jargon of philosophy and political science. Lets keep it that way.
Is it so? I'm not sure what types of histories are you reading but in many enough recent scholarly journals and books I'm reading I see a weaker impulse to create narratives of events or explain causes.
Well, yes. What we are discussing is whether that's good, bad, neutral or uncertain. There's a weaker impulse to create verse drama, but that doesn't mean drama should always be in prose.
Some scholars simply get to say "we don't (or sometimes even can't) know how some things happened or why did they happen". They study the sources (written sources, to address your comment in particular) and draw the conclusions which can be safely drawn, refraining from vicious speculation only for the sake of having a story. Of course, for the great public the story is valueable (but that only proves the 'post-modern' point), for a honest quest for truth I think the narrative is often just a simulation, a pretext. There are many histories of the Roman Empire, of the Ottoman Empire, of the Crusades, and many differences between them. Which will you follow?
If I'm interested enough, the one I derive for myself from reading the sources and what has been written by other people (and including interrogating eye-witnesses and participants). If I'm not that interested, by comparing different versions and seeing where there is common ground and where there isn't.
 
So, if you like, I subjectify. But what's so new about that? Why call it modern, let alone post-modern? 'Post-modern' was invented to describe the art we now call 'post-Impressionist' because 'modern' has moved on. Not too long ago the likes of Pollock were 'postmodern' then Warhol and Lichtenstein and Hockney: now we have advanced beyond that.
 
But at least in those classifications there was visible similarity between the artists involved as well as contemporaneity. There is no such distinguishing style about postmodernism in history. Vocabulary differs but basing such a categorisation on vocabulary is like classifying movie stars by their make-up.
You make this point about dates, but most of the dates/chronologies are supported by a handful of sources, often many of dubious reliability. This inherent scarcity and unreliability of sources enabled crackpots like Fomenko to promote their revisionist chronologies. I'd grant you that the relatively recent events are somewhat better sourced, but once we get to Middle Ages or earlier (since you mentioned the Crusades and the siege of Constantinople) the things are less and less certain, even in chronology.
If postmodernism were significant, the period would make no difference. As itis all you are saying is that the longer ago things happend, and the less literate the society the less sure we are of what happened.
 
So what? That's precisely what I mean by trivial. It's a fact, but drawing attention to it as though it were some new kind of discovery is at root absurd. Even Aristotle would have been happy to admit he knew far less about what happened 200 years before his time than about what happened 30 or 40 years before.
Even for those with some confidence in sources, there are a lot of uncertainties: if it happened, when it happened, where it happened, etc. what you'd proabably call a "fact". You wouldn't believe how many chronicles are misdated or undated, how many names are distorted or simply wrong, how many sources are actually not independent but represent a single information channel (thus they actually represent only one source), how many "facts" are actually clinging on the assumptions of some (reputable) scholar, quoted over and over.
Moreover it isn't fair to separate chronology from other historical interpretations, because after all, they all come from the same sources.  And chronologies can be heavily debated, too.
How can you possibly write "You wouldn't believe how many chronicles are misdated or undated"? There isn't a person in this forum that doesn't already believe that.
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Direct Link To This Post Posted: 24-Apr-2009 at 17:50
I don't mind the thread being closed as long as we can refer back to it if necessary, which a little cutting and pasting will take care of.
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Direct Link To This Post Posted: 24-Apr-2009 at 18:19

I'm in no mood of feeding such trolling. In this thread or the other one.

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Direct Link To This Post Posted: 24-Apr-2009 at 18:51
Originally posted by Chilbudios

I'm in no mood of feeding such trolling. In this thread or the other one.



The only one trolling is yourself mate. Why do people get so offended over this??
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Direct Link To This Post Posted: 24-Apr-2009 at 18:52
What trolling?
 
Wasn't me who said "You wouldn't believe' when he obviously would.
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Direct Link To This Post Posted: 24-Apr-2009 at 19:47
Originally posted by Parnell

The only one trolling is yourself mate. Why do people get so offended over this??
I'm not offended at all, I simply choose to ignore trolling instead of getting in an endless discussion with this fellow.
Replying to someone and not addressing his points but diverging the discussion is trolling. Participating in a subject with strong opinions, expressed repeatedly, however without having the proper knowledge also leads often to trolling. Since Graham's unthoughtful reply has little to do with my own post which he quoted (I really don't care in this thread about his dilemmas on postmodernism, about terminology, about drama and prose, about art, Warhol, movies, make-up and similarly irrelevant crap), if it's not trolling what is it? Trolling and spam?
 
And by the way, watch for that brown nose Wink


Edited by Chilbudios - 24-Apr-2009 at 19:51
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