History

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Tomorrow is a mystery,
but yesterday is

History

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Wie es eigentlich gewesen
History is an account, mostly false, of events, mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers, mostly knaves, and soldiers, mostly fools.
—Ambrose Bierce[1]
History is the study of everything that has been - specifically that has been recorded (generally in writing). It is an ongoing study which attempts to sort out exaggeration from devaluation, lies from less serious lies, and mistakes from oversights, with the ultimate goal being a book that will present "Truth" of a person, a country, or humanity itself's "past" to the unhappy student who must memorize it all.

And "the truth" Oscar Wilde reminds us, "is rarely pure and never simple.”

Contents

[edit] Views of history

How history is viewed by and large depends on who needs to tell the story, and what their goal is. Ironically, history itself is almost always less about the past, than it is about the present. Most "history" that has ever been told to anyone carries an agenda. That is, someone chooses the particular story they choose, with the particular interpretation on it, to explain something about their particular view of their world, right now.

How the past plays out, and therefor the story they tell of it, has been perceived differently by people in different times and cultures. For instance, ancient societies such as the Babylonians and the Hellenic Greeks tended to think of history as a circle: as time progressed, events would repeat themselves, although under different circumstances each time.

By contrast, medieval and renaissance scholars and chroniclers viewed history as a progression through a sequence of different ages, starting with the creation of the world and ending with the Second Coming of Christ and the judgment of mankind. It was usually believed that there were seven such ages.

Modern academics tend to look at the past and the study of it less as a specific series of events that have unfolded and need to cataloged, with some true sense that the "truth" of what happened in these events can be uncovered, but rather as a way to understand the players in any given event, and the various views about the events. They have recognized that since what is being studied is often written records, a scholar must take into account that the writer had biases and an agenda, and that the scholar himself has biases and agendas. Modern historians understand that by and large, history is a creation.

[edit] Historical Method

Depending on the place and time, history as has been classified as either a humanity or a social science[2][3] Regardless of classification, modern historical research is supposed to follow certain techniques and standards.

All other things being equal, the closer a piece of evidence is to an event the more it is valued. These approach yields these descending levels of evidence:

1) Contemporary evidence: Material that dates to the time the person or event actually happened such as documents, media coverage, or eyewitness accounts.

2) Derivative evidence: Material that incorporates or relies on contemporary evidence that has since been lost, such as accounts of events written in ancient times.

3) Comparative evidence: Material that gives details that can be checked against known phenomena of the time.

Historians evaluate this evidence in two primary ways:

Source criticism

This entails determining the reliability of a given source,[4] [5][6], procedures regarding contradictory evidence, [7] and quality of possible eyewitness evidence [8] including indirect witnesses and oral tradition. [9]

Synthesis: historical reasoning

This entails argument for the superior explanation (that is, determining which theory is more likely to explain a given bit of evidence?)[10] sometimes using statistical inference[11] and/or argument by analogy.[12]

[edit] Great Man vs Great Moment

For most of its existence history has assumed the great man hypothesis, i.e., that human events are almost entirely the product of 'great men' whose charisma, intelligence, wisdom, or political skill shaped their world. Such a narrative suited societies accustomed to monarchism and aristocracy. However, this approach often is not supported by the records of the time.

The counter-thesis, first suggested in 1860 by Herbert Spencer[13] but expanded in the 1970s thanks to system theoryWikipedia's W.svg[14] proposed that "great" men were the product of the economic and social forces around them and that anyone else in that particular place and time could have done more-or-less the same thing.

James Burke's 1978 Connections TV series popularized the Great Moment concept by showing inventions as the product of a series of interconnecting economic and social forces rather then the product of great men.

Consider the transistor in the context of this Great Moment concept. The field-effect transistor was patented by Julius Edgar Lilienfeld in Canada in 1925 and in the United States in 1926 and 1928 and German inventor Oskar Heil in 1934. But the high-quality semiconductor materials and technological advances needed to make such transistors economically viable didn't exist in either the 1920s or 1930s. So the patents basically sat collecting dust until Bell Labs in 1947 and Compagnie des Freins et Signaux in 1948 use them to produce the point-contact transistor.

The Watt steam engine provides another example of a Great Moment. The steam engine had been around for decades (as Newcomen's atmospheric engine) before Watt made an improvement... which created a new problem. The new design required a precision unavailable in Newcomen's day; but (thankfully for Watt) a cannon borer that had exactly the precision he needed had been developed. As result, Watt got credit for "inventing" the whole steam engine rather then simply improving it.

In his Cosmos show Carl Sagan portrays the discovery of the Americas as Great Moment: "The lure of the spice trade, improvements in navigation, competition among rival European powers. The discovery of America around 1500 was inevitable."[15]

[edit] Written by the victor; History as propaganda

History is written by the victors.
—Winston Churchill
History consists of the tales we like to tell each other about our predecessors. And every generation constructs its stories to suit its own outlook and agenda. [..] Propaganda, thy name is History.”
—Terry Jones (2004) "Chapter 8: The King" Terry Jones' Medieval Lives

It's often said of history that it is written by the "winners," for they generally control the media and academic narrative. This same phenomenon holds not merely with literal victors, but also with dominant segments of society. Most history has been conveyed through literature; people too poor to be educated or those who work too hard to have time to write, these peoples have been unable to tell their stories. Dominant classes have frequently discounted narratives of the working class and various minorities, finding them "irrelevant" to the "significant" history. However, more than once the ruling class and the writing class were not the same. For instance, the Vikings are portrayed so overwhelmingly negative in sources written during their heyday because the Old Norse had next to no writing, but the cities and cloisters the viking raiders attacked did. And after getting your skull bashed in by some bearded guys with funny helmets, you are not exactly inclined to pen a nuanced defense of the Nordic proto welfare state or their egalitarian views of women.

Of course this is not literally true: the great Athenian historian (and slightly less great general) Thucydides was on the losing side in the Peloponnesian War, and there are a myriad German books about the First and Second World Wars. But equally, few books are written by dead people, or published by those without access to printing presses. And even when written by the losing side, they may reflect the beliefs and ideologies of the victors.

It would be more accurate to say history is a form of propaganda; not so much what actually happened but what someone wants the reader to believe happened. Terry Jones' Medieval Lives shows just how inaccurate the "history" we are taught can be. For example, one of myths taught as fact for a long time was Columbus proved the Earth was round. In fact, illustrations and works of fiction from the middle ages portray the Earth as a globe. For example, Gautier de Metz's Image du Monde (1245) has an illustration depicting the Earth as a globe and Dante's Divine Comedy (1320) has the protagonist emerging in the southern hemisphere seeing constellations unknown to people in the northern hemisphere.

And this historical revisionism need not take decades or even years to happen. In the case of Abraham Lincoln it happened in a matter of days. It can be argued from the contemporary material that Lincoln was perhaps the most hated President of the United States, North or South. But his assassination on a Good Friday changed all that. By Sunday morning the North had turned Lincoln into a kind "American Moses who brought his people out of slavery but was not allowed to cross over into the Promised Land"[16] and later the South would eventually portray him as their "Greatest Friend" who if he had lived would have spared them from Reconstruction.

Even the date when an event happened can be propaganda. Take when WWII began for example. There are contemporary reliable sources that present Dec 7, 1941, Sept 3, 1939, Sept 1, 1939, and Sept 18, 1931 as start dates and these dates appear in modern reliable sources as well. They are all trying to present a particular view of the reasons behind the start of WWII. If you want to present the League of Nations as ineffectual clueless bumblers then you go for the Sept 18, 1931 date.

Even relatively well recorded history can be distorted for propaganda purposes. For example, Joseph Goebbels commissioned the movie Titanic (1943) with the goals of showing the superiority of German filmmaking and that the disaster being the result of British and American capitalism.[17] In the movie, the Scottish Ship's First Officer William McMaster Murdoch was replaced by a German named Peterson to bolster the idea of a German officer being braver and more selfless then the British officers.[18] The film's epilogue was "the deaths of 1,500 people remain un-atoned, forever a testament of Britain's endless quest for profit."

[edit] Popular History

Popular History differs from history as propaganda in that it is due to poor research rather than an intentional act. This fact doesn't change that it also makes statements that are not accurate.

For example, an episode of HBO's Brain Games asked which of the following Sarah Bernhardt (who died in 1923) could not have done: appeared in a silent film, made a film with sound, made a hit recording, or be heard on the radio. We are told that she could not have made a film with sound because "talking pictures did not come on the scene until 1927".

Problem is that is not true. Edison's Kinetophone which allowed you to have a record play in conjunction with film was invented in 1896 and a sound picture using this method was shown at the Paris Exposition in 1900. The name of that film was Le Duel d'Hamlet and starred Sarah Bernhardt! Sadly the cylinder recording that contained Sarah Bernhardt's voice has been lost (the picture itself has survived) but even without it there is the 1912 Edison's Kinetophone demonstration film to show that Brain Games didn't do its research.

[edit] Academic history

The study of history as an academic field dates to the 19th century, when historians begin to adopt a small measure of the scientific methods for studying source materials. They also adopted a new objectivist ideal of history that broke with earlier approaches. The new role of the historian was to show history "as it actually happened", and not to pass judgment or impose his own views on the sources. Key figures in this development were the German historians Leopold von Ranke and Theodor Mommsen. A different Anglo-Saxon historical tradition evolved independently, largely empirical but with wide variations. With the benefit of retrospect, one can look at the supposedly 'objective' 19th century histories of J.R. Seely (A propagandist of Empire) or W.E.H. Lecky (an Irish unionist and opponent of mass democracy) and see very clearly a rich variety of bias. British historiography was for almost a century dominated by The Whig Interpretation of History, which regards history as a chronicle of perpetual progress. Macauly was the greatest proponent of this school. It still has some adherents, though it has been a long time since it has had any meaningful influence on British historiography.

In the early 20th century, the French Annales School, which among others numbered the historians Lucien Febvre, Fernand Braudel and Marc Bloch, was notable by introducing social scientific methods and turning away from the traditional focus on political and diplomatic history.

In recent years, the traditional academic approach to history has come under attack from the post-modernist school, inspired by theories from literary and cultural studies. In most cases these attacks have been deflected, due to the resurgence of a traditionalist school led in Britain by G.R. Elton and in the USA by the colorful J.H. Hexter. Postmodernism's ultimate contribution to historiography was to instill a greater skepticism of historical certainty and force historians to confront the inherent weaknesses of the source material from which they based their analyses. In a broader sense, postmodernism proved unworkable as it implicitly condemns any value judgments. The obscuritan nature of this sophistry is wonderfully dissected by Richard J.Evans in his In Defence of History.

[edit] Academic history and the Bible

Christian apologetics frequently makes extraordinary claims including that history proves Jesus was God. Those who have not studied the New Testament and Old Testament at the degree level, however, are unlikely to know enough to assess these calims. In fact, those engaged in religious studies (and related fields) as a secular, academic discipline, do not concern themselves with whether Jesus was divine. Moreover, as leading bible scholar Bart Ehrman points out, in the three earliest gospels Jesus himself cannot be cited as claiming to be God:

During his lifetime, Jesus himself didn't call himself God and didn't consider himself God, and ... none of his disciples had any inkling at all that he was God....If Jesus had not been declared God by his [posthumous] followers, his followers would'™ve remained a sect within Judaism, a small Jewish sect...[19]

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  • Evans, Richard J.: In Defence of History (London, 1997)
  • Iggers, Georg I.: Historiography in the Twentieth Century. From Scientific Objectivity to the Postmodern Challenge (Hannover, 1997)
  • Jenkins, Keith: Re-Thinking History (London, 1991)

[edit] References

  1. The Devil's Dictionary. Castle Books, NY, 1967
  2. Landes, David S.; Charles Tilly (1971) History as Social S cience Prentice Hall
  3. Scott Gordon and James Gordon Irving, The History and Philosophy of Social Science. Routledge 1991. Page 1. ISBN 0-415-05682-9
  4. Garraghan, Gilbert J. (1946) A Guide to Historical Method, Fordham University Press: New York . ISBN 0-8371-7132-6)
  5. Olden-Jørgensen, Sebastian (2001). Til Kilderne: Introduktion til Historisk Kildekritik (in Danish). [To the sources: Introduction to historical source criticism]. København: Gads Forlag. ISBN 978-87-12-03778-1.
  6. Thurén, Torsten. (1997). Källkritik. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell.
  7. Howell, Martha & Prevenier, Walter (2001). From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0-8014-8560-6.
  8. Shafer, R. J. (1974) A Guide to Historical Method, The Dorsey Press: Illinois . ISBN 0-534-10825-3.)
  9. Garraghan, Gilbert J. (1946) A Guide to Historical Method, Fordham University Press: New York . ISBN 0-8371-7132-6)
  10. McCullagh, C. Behan (1984) Justifying Historical Descriptions, Cambridge University Press: New York . ISBN 0-521-31830-0.
  11. C. Behan McCullagh, Justifying Historical Descriptions, Cambridge University Press: New York (1984). ISBN 0-521-31830-0. pg 48
  12. C. Behan McCullagh, Justifying Historical Descriptions, Cambridge University Press: New York (1984). ISBN 0-521-31830-0. pg 85
  13. Spencer, Herbert. The Study of Sociology, Appleton, 1896, p. 34.
  14. Burke, James Connections (1978; 2007) ISBN-13: 978-0743299558
  15. Cosmos Episode 8: "Travels in space and time"
  16. Tagg, Larry The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln: The Story of America's Most Reviled President Savas Beatie
  17. Dunbar, John N. (2014) A Critical History of History in Motion Pictures. Author House. pp.389-91. ISBN 9781491868720
  18. Fiebing, Malte (2012) Titanic:: Nazi Germany's Version of the Disaster
  19. http://www.npr.org/2014/04/07/300246095/if-jesus-never-called-himself-god-how-did-he-become-one
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