What is History?

About Karl Qualls

This blog was founded by Karl Qualls, Professor of History at Dickinson College. Karl has received the Constance and Rose Ganoe Memorial Award for Inspirational Teaching, Gamma Sigma Alpha National Honor Society Professor of the Year, and Student Senate Professor of the Year. He is the author of numerous articles and chapters, including a chapter in the textbook Russia and Western Civilization: Cultural and Historical Encounters (M.E. Sharpe, 2003) written in collaboration with his colleagues at Dickinson College. He is also author of the monograph From Ruins to Reconstruction: Urban Identity in Soviet Sevastopol after World War II (Cornell, 2009). Karl is currently writing a new book on refugee children from the Spanish Civil War who were raised in the Soviet Union. He teaches Russian, German, Italian, and eastern European histories, as well as courses on European dictators, urban history, historical methods, the Holocaust, and more.

Here is where I would like your comments about our authors who are probing the question, “What is History?”.

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9 thoughts on “What is History?

  1. Edward Carr depicts history as the interaction between a historian and their facts. He explains that because historians decide what historical events can be proven as fact based off of historical records, the facts available depend on historians that record them. Through this dependency, the facts funneled through the mouths of historians come laced with the perspectives of the initial recorder and the latter historian. In this way Carr sees history as the interaction between both past and present perspectives, where historians decide fact from fiction.

    Barbara W. Tuchman describes history as more of an art form rather than Carr’s more philosophical approach. In general, she emphasizes history as painting a grand portrait with every factual detail at hand integral to finishing the piece. The deeper reasons for events in history, in her view, arise from the investigation of facts rather than the imposition of theories. She expresses distrust for systemic analyses of historical events because they struggle to force events into a preconceived historical narrative. She also critiques Carr, saying that events still effect the course of history whether someone records them or not, and emphasizes distance from an event to understand the greater picture. Tuchman’s history becomes a form of art, crafted by authors but still dependent on the physical events rather than solely their interpretation.

    Under my interpretation of history, perspective and facts both interact and exist independently of one another. Events happen, whether someone records them or even perceives them. The perception of these events only gives meaning to the events, which give them worth in the eyes of historians like Carr. But the perception does not inherently change the event that happened, only how its recorded and used later. Indeed, these perceptions help us build a picture of history, like clipping from the memories of dozens of people throughout the world and putting them together. A diversity of perspectives on a subject helps see the fullest extent of an event’s existence and it’s effect on the world around it. How a French historian views the relationship between France and the Kingdom of Siam and how a modern Thai historian, or even how a contemporary noble in the Kingdom or a peasant views it, all combines to create a more complete picture of history. None are more important than the others, just that some are valued more by the “victors” of history who “wrote” it. The voice of the “losers of history” are equally as important to history, if not more due to their lack of focus from the victorious majority in the field.

  2. In The Historian and His Facts, Edward Carr discusses the nature of what he deems “historical facts” and “other facts about the past.” According to him, the difference between the two is that of the import the historian lends to the subject at hand—as he puts it, Caesar crossing the Rubicon is no more or less true than one’s entering a building, but it is considerably more important. Ergo, it’s a historical fact. Thus, in order for a fact to be remembered by history, it has to be considered important enough to be recorded. However, this means that history as handed down through the ages comes tinged with the views and biases of those who previously recorded history, which need to be sorted out by the current historian. This creates an interplay between solid fact and potential fiction that determines what current history is.

    Carl Becker, on the other hand, identifies his as “what we know it to be,” nor that it
    is exclusive to academia. He is of the opinion that “Mr. Everyman” is a historian through remembering “things said and done” and that through his memory of certain commonplace events in his past which influence his future, he too is a historian. Therefore, a historian is not necessarily the stereotypical stuffed shirt pondering weighty tomes but rather anyone who has some knowledge of the past, of things “said and done”, and somehow lets it influence their future. Thus, we are all historians.

    For me, history is indeed the record of solid facts, but those facts as presented to us are influenced by the perspective of those who recorded them. Not just the old adage that “history is written by the victors”, but also that history is written by those of higher station. While as of late ‘popular history’ like the works of Stephen Ambrose (questionable writing practices aside) has relayed the accounts of the working stiffs who make history possible, that was hardly the case for most of history. Caesar wrote about his crossing of the Rubicon and how glorious it was, Lt. Col. Mike Hoare recorded a gripping tale of his command of the mercenary 5 Commando in the Congo; but we’ve no accounts by the Legionaries under Caesar and how their tribulations on campaignl, none by the 5 Commando mercenaries who journeyed to the Congo for adventure and excitement. The words of the losers are important—but so too are those of the people who made the victory possible.

  3. Edward Carr asks the question: what makes a fact a historical fact and not just a basic fact? His answer highlights the subjectivity of the discipline known as history. Carr writes that if a historian deems a fact important enough and some other historians back him up, than that fact becomes a historical fact. In this sense, Carr argues that historians are more important to history than the documents and texts they study. Carr also goes on to state that asking the question “what is history” is vital because it helps to narrow down the large amount of facts present in day-to-day life. Carr ends with his definition of history, a “continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past.” The historian Carl Becker, agrees with Carr on many main points discussed in Carr’s article. Both men agree that the historians of the last century thought facts spoke for themselves, when both Becker and Carr believe that not to be true. The men’s stance on history is slightly different however, because Becker believes history is for everyone, and that everyone in their own way is a historian. Becker has taken Carr’s theory and simplified it, making it accessible to the general public. His final definition of history is “the memory of things said and done.”

    My definition of history is not as broad as Becker’s, but not as specific as Carr’s. I believe that history is anything of social significance to the culture in which it happened or to the world as a whole from the beginning of time. I also agree with Carr’s point that we must take each solid historical fact with a grain of salt and with knowledge of the historian who wrote it or the context in which it was written in. These two key factors contribute greatly to the credibility with which we can read the facts. Historians only job is not to study the past but to incorporate the lessons learned in the past to the present time period.

  4. In his article Carl Becker argues that history is a “memory of things said and done” and that there are two types of history. The first type of history consists of the events, which happened in the past and is unchanged by present opinions. The second type of history is the interpretation of facts and events, which is influenced by the current events or ways of thinking. Becker explains the concept of a “Mr. Everyman”, meaning that we all have memories and analyses of the past and therefore are all historians at the basic level despite a lack of a degree. Finally he argues history is an “imaginative creation” that is subject to the personal biases of the individual, and is adapted to the needs of the individual at the time.
    Edward Carr claims history is shaped by the individuals “position in time”, which affects their perspective of history in relation to their society. Therefore an 18th century English historian and a 21st century American historian would have different views on the relations of England and the American colonies. Carr writes that historians give facts their importance and relevance, and must decide if certain facts are relevant or irrelevant. He writes “our picture has been preselected and predetermined for us”, due to factors such as illiteracy inhibiting all segments of a population from recording their experiences. He argues the relation between a historian and the facts is one of “give and take” as the historian is constantly “molding his facts to his interpretation and his interpretation to his facts”.
    In my opinion history is a blend of both perspective and facts created to make sense of past events and illustrate their relation to the present and future. Each historian brings their own personal bias and perspective to the interpretation and recording of facts. Therefore while studying history or utilizing historical accounts it is important to understand who the author is and possible biases they may have which could influence their interpretation of the facts. Along with potential biases, historians may also omit or miss including certain facts which are important to the history and it is therefore important to consult more than one historical source on a subject as there is no one complete historical account.

  5. Carl Becker (1931) concludes that, at its simplest, history is “the memory of things said and done.” As such, history is not just the stuff of great academics but is used by every person every day. History, he asserts, “is essential to the performance of the simplest acts of daily life.” However, while “Mr. Everyman” is narrowly concerned with those things that affect him, historians are charged with the “artificial extension of the social memory.” They preserve the past so that it may be used to inform the future, just as Mr. Everyman remembers last summer’s coal delivery to pay his bill today. It is their job to bring closer together what Becker calls the “actual” and the “ideal” versions of history – that is, what actually happened and what we remember as having happened. They must constantly be in search of the true version of events. Yet at the same time he warns the reader that history is by no means static, and, instead, that it is dynamic and changes as the significance of historical events to society changes. I suppose in this sense history is not so much something to be attained as something that we go on searching for and refining and redefining.

    Barbara Tuchman (1967) also puts forth two conceptions of history. She defies Edward Carr, declaring that anything that has made a mark on the world and influenced the course of future events is in fact history, whether or not it was recorded or remembered. Our inability to perceive it does not change the fact that an event, however small, happened and that it affected events coming after it. However, as a discipline, history is a quest to rebuild the sequence of events past using those recorded and remembered facts that we do have at our disposal. By first selecting and arranging those facts we deem relevant, we may then go on to understand why they happened and what this means for us. Tuchman is skeptical of those who attempt to make out the meaning of history while it is still being made and believes distance gives us perspective. She also rejects that history can be easily explained by a system or paradigm. Rather, history is the confluence of many accidents. Much of the piece is a discussion of her methods and style, such as her affinity for primary sources and letting these speak for themselves. Both Becker and Tuchman express that the bases of history are facts and evidence.

    Often what we deem history worth knowing, history worth teaching, are those “historical events” that changed our course, the great turning points of time. But what are those events if not the confluence, the culmination of many smaller histories? History is our source of identity and thus historians must strive to discover and represent the many histories that exist. I agree with Tuchman that history exists irrespective of whether the historian uncovers it. However, history is also much more than just one story or one truth. In reality it is many stories and many truths, and it is the historian’s duty to pursue these stories so that they may be incorporated into the larger conversation.

  6. Carr’s argument revolves around the concept that facts are coupled with and distorted by opinions and biases. Together, this “corpus of ascertained facts” and lens by which historians study them, create history. Historians have and will use facts which they choose specifically to produce a certain result. Carr defines this process (interpretation) as “the life-blood of history” and it is more important than the facts themselves. The lens with which historians look at history must supersede what they are looking at because it will have more of an effect on the results. The interpretation of past facts varies from nation to nation, from person to person, and from time to time. The quote that most aptly displays Carr’s argument is this: “History consists essentially in seeing the past through the eyes of the present and in the light of its problems”. Carr also argues that the facts themselves are often misguiding because many, if not most, are lost through any number of factors. He uses the example of the Greeks defining our ancient history, as opposed to the Persians due to their victories in the Persian Wars. As history gets closer to modern times, it is more difficult to keep track of because more facts are known for a certainty and less can be assumed.

    History is, in its simplest form, defined as “the memory of things said and done” by Carl Becker. This definition implies the distinction that, as Becker argues, there is a vast difference between the history that actually occurred, and the history as we believe it have occurred. History in actuality encompasses every event in the past, from what Mr. Everyman had for breakfast, to the collapse of the Roman Empire. As time passes, present events continue to elude us, instead turning into history. Because of this, the past and history are never concrete; they fluctuate as wildly as the present. Becker denies the difference between formal historians and more uneducated people, saying that history in its purest form is practiced by the masses. Historians, as artists using the tools of narration, comparisons, and comments, are limited by time and space.

    History is, ideally, what has happened in the past. Interactions between people, nations, societies, and nature all make up history. As time passes, however, a myriad of uncertainties arise which distort and muddy our view of the past. These factors are inevitable. In this distinction lies the difference between actual history, and history as we study today. The events which we study are history through the human lens, and it is warped by personal/national biases, forgotten details, and ever-changing political and social contexts. The context, for example, with which modern Americans looks at slavery in the United States is far different than the context with which Americans looked at slavery 150 years ago. Similarly, the way my generation looks at Germany’s Nazi party is far different from the way my grandfather’s generation looks at the Nazis. The quantity and quality of first-hand accounts or depth of details is irrelevant: as time passes and the world changes, history will change along with it.

  7. Both Charles Beard and Barbra Tuchman agree that the historian is biased based on their perspective. It does not matter whether it is from limited sources, bias in primary sources, the historian’s current environment, or even the historian’s bias towards the subject, history is built on the historian’s interpretation of the facts to create a narrative that tells a concept, idea or reason for one purpose or another; a biased historian can manipulate history to his or her advantage to tell the story that they wish to hear, not “true” history. Beard spends time discussing this issue and points out that deductive reasoning is not the answer to this historian-bias-conundrum. In fact, he argues that unlike science, history has no laws or theories but rather is an attempt at a pseudo-science. Beard does not actually propose a solution to this issue, rather he admits defeat and claims that historians shall always have bias based on their current frame of reference. Tuchman creates a solution by bypassing the scientific method altogether; rather, she proposes that historians should write like authors, using literary techniques -such as imagery- to enthrall the readers and keep them “entertained”, distilling important information into a canvas that creates a picture for the reader as both a painter and narrator for the historical “story”.
    To me, history is a balance between Tuchman and Beard’s perspectives. It is not an attempt at using the scientific method to prove one of Beard’s three perspectives nor is it a story created by the historian’s use of literary techniques and the facts; rather, it is an attempt to tell the past in such a way as to create a version of the depicted events and use the version to prove the author’s thesis. History has no final version of its various “stories” because of the infinite possibilities using different documents, perspectives and reason. It is the historian’s job to create a version of the story as accurately as he or she can and do it in such a way that the masses can understand the facts that the writer has chosen. Thus history is like art- there are a thousand ways one can paint the Madonna, but is the artist’s responsibility to present her in a way intriguing to the masses with the additional responsibility of remaining faithful to the facts.

  8. In Becker’s address, ‘Everyman His Own Historian,’ in order to discover the definition of the term ‘history’ he believes one must break the definition down into its simplest form. Becker argued that the definition to the term using this theory is ‘the memory of things said and done.’ Becker goes on to explain how history is not just used in the profession, but instead used in everyday by ‘Mr. Everyman’. Mr. Everyman must use history to recall things said and done that concern his future. One of the steps used by Mr. Everyman is historical research, which is commonly used by relating back to memories.

    In ‘The History and His Facts’, Carr discusses how historical facts are key to defining the term ‘history.’ Historians must be careful in differentiating historical facts and non-historical facts. Carr writes how historical facts are basic facts that remain the same for all historians. Even though all historical facts are the same, historians are able to create different theories based on the order they believe the facts should be placed. Similar to Becker’s idea of history, Carr views history as the telling of a story. The facts will remain the same, but the order can be different, creating different stories.

    I believe that, like Becker, history is knowledge of things said and done. We are unknowingly surrounded by history whether it is academically or involved in our everyday lives. History is a cluster of facts expressed in a story. There could be numerous versions of stories although the facts will always remain the same.

  9. “Time, Work Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism” shows in-depth how the Industrial Revolution decimated pre-industrial Europe’s sense of time. E.P. Thompson shows through numerous primary sources the shift from time existing as culturally-dependent, either in region or in occupation, to being dependent far more on the workings of economics. Thompson explains with this the level of “disciplining” involved with the creation and implementation of time into the lives of the working class, and the level of acceptance it reached with the upper echelons for their own increased wealth.

    Yet this forced creation of a time exists primarily as a form of exploitation; it exists to use workers past their fullest and healthiest capacity, to force as much labor out of them as possible. Some parts that Thompson also brushes over actually show the darker nature of this current reality. For women, the creation of time only furthers the cause of their push into the private sphere. Interestingly, Thompson seems ignorant to the number of woman involved in industrial work in the periods he talks about, but maybe this is just due to his sources being biased toward the male. Nonetheless, the discipline of work hours undoubtedly pushed women to their human limits, and encouraged the eventual trends of women into the domestic sphere.

    Thompson also trails past the issue of post-colonial “development”, in which the forcing of foreign time schedules on labor has to this day attempted to universalize not just the exploitative hours of European industrial capitalism, but also the calendar those colonizing forces used. He is right to point out that this is really where a new battleground of culture exists, where the masculine energies of “industrialized” nations struggling to force their conceptions of reality on the “open” and “willing” countries of the constructed “Third World” are being met with the resistance or accommodation of those who have their entire world’s to lose. The continual extinction of languages, and the knowledge and societies they sustained, might one day be conceived as one of the greatest losses of knowledge in history. But for the world of industrial capitalism, the only thing that matters is the propagation of their order, even if they have to adapt to force consent out of their labor.

    On a different note, this article brings up themes similar to parts of an Ellen Degeneres stand-up special, “Here and Now”. Playing much with the concepts of technological progress (“I blame the microwave for all our problems, anything that gets that hot must be made by the Devil.”) and procrastination, Degeneres explores through comedy the subtle inconsistencies in modern life that people have been conditioned into. She points out at one point how technology, like the cell phone, has conditioned us to avoid wasting our time with direct conversations, and the ire towards procrastination comes directly from our obsession with “making good use of our time”.

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