History is an account of what happened in the past. It provides an explanation of what happed in the past, so we can learn from our ancestors, about their successes and mistakes. What type of knowledge do we gain from this? Is it the objective knowledge of a scientist or the subjective knowledge of an artist? Perhaps it is a mixture of both scientific and artistic, or, in extension objective and subjective knowledge? But, then to what extent can one accept a historian’s conclusions as the truth?
First of all to define the terms so that we can see the differences. Although most people around us know what knowledge is , it is a very hard thing to define. Knowledge is often defined as expertise, and skills acquired by a person through experience or education. It can be what is known in a certain field or in total; facts or information. Is this what knowledge really is? The best I can do is that knowledge is information gained from the sources of knowledge. The sources of knowledge are sense experience, testimony, reasoning, instincts, memory, introspect, intuition and emotion. There are also different types of knowledge; practical, theoretical and rational. It can be objective or subjective.
What is the truth ? When we seek to know, we claim that we seek to know the truth, but what is the truth? Truth is often defined as conformity to fact or actuality or a statement proven to be or accepted as true. Some philosophers have been sceptics, claiming that we know nothing. This view comes from the poem “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage by Lord Byron. ” All that we know is, nothing can be known.” Does this mean that we can never know anything for certain? Or is this view just self-refuting? If all we know is nothing, how can we know that we know nothing? I do not believe this view is correct and for the purpose of this essay it will not be so.
McMullin 2 Next, lets talk about the three types of knowledge this discussion is mainly concerning. There is the knowledge resulting from the scientific method, which strives to be objective and replicable. This knowledge is exposed to high demands of rigour, since to be regarded as knowledge it has to be acknowledged and accepted at least by a majority of the scientific society and adequate proofs have to be presented; otherwise it would be just a theory among many. On the other hand, artistic knowledge does not strive for universality or replicability, since I is based on the individual’s experiences.
Hence, it can be said to be subjective or a personal kind of knowledge. Finally, between these two types lies historical knowledge. Like a scientist they gather data and information, documents and accounts, and with the same rigour as a scientist he scrutinises his procedure and criticises his sources. But, history involves humans all of who interpret what they read differently. If you are learning about a certain aspect of history, where you live will effect what type of information you get.
If you are from France you will learn about the French revolution differently then someone who lives in France. Every country always wants to hide their mistakes or never to believe that they are wrong. Like art it can all depend on what the reader gets out of it. Scientific and Artistic are both strong forms of knowledge, in which the knower has a high degree of confidence about his conclusions, but wouldn’t some aspects weaken each other when they are cross-bred like in history?
Admittedly, all knowledge could be regarded as a combination of subjectivity and objectivity, since it needs to pass through our subjective minds to become knowledge. However, to let this limit the distinction would not be fruitful. The problem lies in the fact that history has to be the historian’s choice, based on his or her interpretations. Therefore, doubts can be risen as to whether the selection and interpretation process reflect the object of study and reality satisfactorily.
Emotions, environment and preconceived ideas do effect a historians results. Furthermore, some historians argue that history is created the moment it happens. Primary documents are often the best form of historical records, for the person was there when it happened. Things such as diaries, letters, treaties and court decisions can be very useful when studying history. Think of all of the things about the Holocaust that we have learned from Anne Frank’s diary. It is when the historian takes part by using the primary documents to create their own conclusions that doubts concerning the conclusions are formed. When using sources, one has to test not only the authenticity of the source, but also the veracity and reliability. Naturally, questionable and unreliable source material is discarded.
We also have to consider time as an aspect of a historians interpretation. Historian’s, like everyone else are affected by the time in which they live, with its specific society, ideas and attitudes. Whereas facts do not change over time, our interpretation of them do. We now have way better means of technology to discover and examine our finds, perhaps leading us to more specific results. People are a product of their environment and the environment in which the historian was raised could very much effect their claims. A historian is trapped in their time period. Does this mean that historical information is only valid for a certain amount of time? I believe not, but it does mean that we should never just accept things as fact by rather use many different sources and resources to come up with our own beliefs about what happened. History is very important as is being open-minded and trying not to form preconceived opinions without
We must also remember that unlike science, history is dealing with the actions of man. So, unlike natural science, the results are not predictable. We can not have fairly accurate hypothesis about what will happen like in a science lab or experiment, for humans are totally unpredictable and often pride themselves on being so. A historian, unlike a mathematician can not be completely certain of their results. A mathematician can say with certainty that the area of a circle is. Or a biologist after studying an animal and their habitat for some time can make generalisations about the animal. A historian can not have this kind of confidence about their conclusions. This does not mean that they can have no assurance at all, just that it can not be to the extent of a scientist or mathematician.
Language can also effect history, for some important documents where written in only one language and the historian may be relying on a translation, which is just not the same. Some things are just unable to be translated and the true meaning may be lost. A historian would have to be fluent ion many languages in order to be able to use all primary documents and come to the best possible conclusions.
In conclusion, the task facing a historian is a very difficult one. To say that a historian can never be confident about his or her results in reducing their work to little more that guesses. This is an exaggeration. We do need their work and we can learn a lot from it if we are open-minded and never accept the facts at face value. I completely agree with the statement ” A historian must combine the rigour of the scientist with the imagination of the artist.” ” A historian must combine the rigour of the scientist with the imagination of the artist.” To what extent, then, can a historian be confident about his or her conclusions?