Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The History of History

One often learns what happened in the past in History class. But what about learning about what happened in the past about learning about what happened in the past? This post will examine the ancient study of history.
The earliest recorded pieces of writing are receipts for cattle, wheat, etc. These record history: ergo, they could be considered historical. However, what happens when paste events are recorded to be actively studied? To do this, we have to go back to the Greeks. There were other historical authors before the Greeks, but they really brought the medium into its own, and the first recorded historians were all Greeks. An important figure in this movement was Herodotus. Herodotus approached history methodically, and made the first attempt to separate more and less accurate sources. By doing this, Herodotus began the idea of using reputable sources to back up one's writing, which continues to this very day. Thus, Herodotus kickstarted our study of history by crediting sources and writing analytically about past events.

The Development of History as a Separate Field of Study

      In the modern day, History is a topic with stringent qualifications. Today’s historical accounts are expected to be based purely upon physical facts and to make an attempt to remove any kind of bias from the work. History writing is also generally supposed to be structured into an analytical essay or a textbook-type entry. However, recounting of history was not always so separate from religion, oral or literal stories, or any type of bias. The writers Herodotus and Thucydides of Ancient Greece are generally touted as the earliest historians, but even Herodotus’s work blurs the line between history and religion as he repeatedly references religious events and the Trojan war in his histories. Greeks and Romans would continue to refine their historical practices.
            Much later, during the Middle ages, people’s understanding of history was very focused on the bible, and this was a practice that would continue mainly up to scientific research began disproving the bible. Anyhow, history has not really developed into its own form separate from religion, stories, and bias until the modern era. Nowadays, it is taboo to include these things in a historical account. All this is very reflective of enlightenment thinking, histories basis, and sole basis should be upon real evidence, and history has developed in to topic and field of study all its own

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Objective History: Does It Exist?

When we examine our past we tend to try to do so 'objectively.'

What does that mean? Logic, by it's very nature, requires assumptions upon which conclusions can be made. History, while fortunately not (at least supposedly) concerned with ethics, is concerned with epistemology. We need to know how we learn about our past before we can know anything about it. Historians, therefore, tend to assume the correctness of uniformitarianism and determinism; that the forces of the universe do not change, and that the current state of the universe was created by those forces acting on previous states. This is not to say that those are bad assumptions. I would agree with them. It is to say, however, that they are assumptions, in that they are baseless. There is no evidence to prove either because each is necessary to determine what is evidence.

To return to the original question, what, therefore, is 'objective?' Even if we assume perfect logic given assumptions, said assumptions still have to be taken to be true without evidence. That therefore means true objectivity in history is impossible; something always must be assumed, and said assumption has no basis, and is therefore subjective.

Why is this so important? Objectivity is an idea that students of history tend to gravitate towards. In its pure state, however, objectivity is unobtainable. We must accept that assumptions must always be made. The best we can do, therefore, is clarify our assumptions when we present anything as absolute truth. Nothing can exist as such in a vacuum; something can only be proven to be true if the criteria for such a proof have been established, an intrinsically subjective act.

Clarifying assumptions is key to effective communication of ideas. If two students of history disagree upon a point, if both don't accept the same assumptions, no argument, however logical, will convince either of them. Both will see the other's argument, perfectly logical under the other's assumptions, as illogical, for they are judging it using their own assumptions. This is how many historical arguments are created. A key prior step to overcoming this is to first determine what one's own assumptions towards history actually are, a question that is not always so easy to answer.

Once such a question is answered, however, either both can accept the same assumptions and logic can prevail to decide upon the verdict, or both can understand that neither can ever be 'objectively' correct, for there is no way to determine the better assumption.

This is a problem particularly prevalent in the study of history because in the study of history people tend to assume that they are operating 'objectively,' when clearly they are not. Instead, we must remember not to abandon logical argument, for that is the key to understanding history given assumptions, but we must also remember to clarify our assumptions, for otherwise no such logical argument is possible in the first place.

Language and Translation

The Rosetta Stone
     Languages have developed throughout human history as away to communicate between one another. After the dispersion of the humans from Africa, different cultures started to develop around the world. Along with these cultures, came new languages. As humans became more evolved, these languages became more and more complicated.
      As some cultures died away, so did their languages, but some civilizations had written records. However, deciphering ancient languages is a challenge. There are a few hints found here and there, and that is about the only information given about the language. Something that really helped this process was the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799. It had a text inscribed both in ancient Greek and Hieroglyphics, allowing historians at the time to use their knowledge of the Greek language to decipher the Egyptian Hieroglyphics.
     If someone wants a primary source but is not able to speak the original language, they will be forced to rely on a translation. One problem with translation is that the original flow of a text can not always be carried over between languages. For example, in Homer's The Odyssey, even the best English translations do not have the full, identical rhythm and rhyme that the original does, and is not always able to preserve the beauty of the famous literary work. Translators might sometimes also find difficulty translating the nuances of a piece of literature. It obviously is not easy translating documents, but preserving meaning is of main concern. Perhaps there is a certain word or concept that the original language has but the new one does not. How does one go about translating this? There are certainly translators that are great at what they do, but no translation is perfect.
     For my term paper, I considered using a translated document, but did not end up using it because it did not fit. However, it would have been interesting to learn what the original text was like (if I could read 16th century Spanish) and compare it to its translation. What would the similarities be? Was anything left out? What would the original author think of this translation?

Staying Objective

The process of discovering my term paper's focal point was difficult to begin with because I went into the research with a pre-conceived idea of what I was looking for. I was extremely interested in the Scientific Revolution and its connection to religion, and I really wanted to make an argument about how religion helped progress scientific research in astronomy. Only after I had read one or two articles did I decide that I was searching for evidence to support that idea. Instead of letting the evidence and research guide me, I came in with a very specific (and non-objective) 'thesis,' which I attempted to fulfill. I tried to make connections when there was no real evidence to support it, and in doing so manipulated the real research to conform to my pre-conceptions.
What I really needed was to take a step back, say to myself "this is just not working," and become more objective about what I was looking for.  After I realized this, broadening my research question helped immensely with the process of finding a supportable thesis statement. So from there I pretty much started over with reading general books on the Scientific Revolution; I absorbed the information with an objective mind and found a better idea to follow.

vesalius.jpg from

Patterns in History

               In the writing of my term paper rough draft, I have noticed that, as historians, we are constantly comparing the issues of the past to issues of the present day. Perhaps characteristics of a certain historical dictator remind us of a modern leader. Maybe the causes and effects of a war fought long ago might be similar to a war we are engaged in today. In the conclusion of my term paper, I linked 16th century New World slave labor to the sweatshop labor of today. These comparisons beg the question: Is the repetition of history a bad thing? Are we repeating the same errors?
              Or perhaps the repetition of history is beneficial because it allows us to prevent future errors. If we see a certain conflict occur multiple times, it is a clue that something is wrong with the general situation which brought about that conflict. In fact, one of the most important parts of studying history is using history to predict the future.
              But maybe, no matter what we do, history will always repeat itself. There will always be horrible dictators and bloody wars. There is no way of stopping them. Human struggle is inevitable. Although we might believe that we are capable of changing the course of history, human beings simply do not have that power.
             This observation links to the "Great Man" theory of history. I say that great, historical events will eventually happen and it doesn't matter who makes them possible. Certain things are inevitable.

History: The Study of...Now?

      When I chose my term paper topic (which is fear as a weapon in World War I, especially focused on chemical warfare), I wanted to look at it from an angle that could still be relevant and appreciated today. I wanted to focus on the psychology of the issue, the humanity, and the effect on the world. In essence, I wanted the paper to be on how humans battle each other, just using WWI as an example. I wanted to have the arguments I made be applicable in WWII, the Vietnam War, the Iraq War, wars of the future... Here, in fear during war, was a theme that could be applied throughout history and would continue to be applied. In studying history, we attempt to take elements of the past to today and look at elements we have today then. History is a way to improve and understand our world now. We can learn from the mistakes and triumphs of others, see how the world was shaped, and follow patterns to the future. History is not about the past, but about the present and the future. It is important to recognize this in our studies to feel a purpose and understanding of why we must occupy our days with events of the past. With the perspectives given to us by past events, we can analyze and recognize current events. We can predict what will happen next and urge it on or try to prevent it. How we study history is the creation of this bridge between past and present and future. 
Soldiers of World War I (Source: