While most of us will have come into contact with some form of ‘history’ at one point or another, we often don’t consider what exactly History is, and what this means for our interactions with it. Two standard definitions of History as – 1) The study of past events, or 2) The whole series of past events connected with a particular person or thing – are perhaps the most likely to come to mind, but the reality is that History is a remarkably diverse concept, one that is often hard to pin down. Indeed, the question of what History is is a well-worn topic of academic discourse, notably explored in historian E.H. Carr’s 1961 book What is History?, a work that now ‘occupies a central place in British thinking about the relationship between the historian and the past’. So, what really is History, and how does this inform our relationship with it?
History and ‘the past’
Perhaps the most important distinction that can and should be made when considering this question is that between what constitutes ‘history’ and what constitutes ‘the past’. It can be easy to confuse the concepts, given how closely associated they are, but the difference between them is an essential one. Professor Arthur Marwick, recognising the need to avoid misconceptions, makes this ‘firm distinction’ between the two:
History is ‘the bodies of knowledge about the past produced by historians’
The Past is ‘everything which actually happened, whether known, or written, about by historians or not’.
Therefore, History in this regard is defined as an interpretation of the Past. This raises several issues for our consideration of History – most importantly, how do people interpret the past?
Subjectivity is key to considering how historians have, and will continue to interpret the past to produce what we can consider ‘History’ (as per Prof. Marwick’s definition). E.H. Carr argues that all history is subjective to some extent, and Marwick provides some insightful thoughts on the topic. While acknowledging that there will always be differing interpretations between historians in some areas, given the ‘fragmentary, intractable, and imperfect’ nature of historical evidence and the inevitable interpretive difficulties of a discipline that deals with human values, he asserts that ‘steadily agreed knowledge’ will ultimately emerge through the ‘co-operative enterprise’ of the field. Despite dismissing the ‘nonsense’ talked about historians inevitably being subjective, he remarks with criticism upon those historians who would self-indulgently use history to express political sentiments, or ‘glory in their own subjectivity’ when considering themselves as great literary or media figures. Even if Marwick defends the majority of historians from accusations of ‘subjectivity’, he nonetheless highlights the inevitable diversity of interpretation that will necessarily occur due to the nature of the past, while also noting the greater subjectivity of certain types of ‘historian’. These ideas are certainly illuminating for considering the nature of History – while interpretation is necessary to present the past in a form that we can more easily access, the many ways in which this interpretation can vary certainly complicates our understanding.
What does this mean for us?
The various interpretive possibilities of History present great opportunities, both good and bad. It is fascinating to consider the various ways in which the same past events have been viewed differently, opening up new avenues for discussion and revealing the many different forces which shape our understanding and interactions. However, as Francesca Morphakis suggests, History can be a ‘powerful tool’; it can shape identities, and allows those in control of historical narratives to ‘legitimise or discredit actions, events and individuals’. Above all else, it is important to remember the great power of History, and it is certainly worth approaching it with an understanding of what it is, and the many factors that contribute to it.
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