Historians Have Constructed About The Past - Sample Essay
History is supposedly the process of reporting the past in the most accurate way possible, however, this inevitably is not always the case. Our study of history is rarely, if ever, based on first hand experiences but rather the accounts of such experiences by other historians. In this way the basic and obvious facet of the question is answered as indeed in the act of studying it is necessary to have material to study which inevitably is written by a historian, as Jenkins comments “all history is historiography”.1 Pg11 This though does not mean that opinions become uniform and although the same set of key facts are largely used they can be interpreted in endless different ways in pursuit of a ‘past’ closer to the truth.
The clearest counter argument to Jenkins statement is the use of primary sources which could be said to be unbiased as they are predominantly objective such as facts and figures. They are the first report of fact which has not been lost in the translation of interpretation by various different historians. However, even these are vulnerable to inaccuracy, whether it is incomplete archives “perished by accident or design”, being “Tainted by the less than pure intentions of their author”2, human errors or inaccuracies, or simply ambiguity such as that represented by a photograph. Considering this it would be reasonable to say that there is no historical source that we can be certain is completely accurate.
However, once again this may be to underestimate historiography as an expertise “when properly applied, the critical method enables the historian to make allowance for both deliberate distortion and the unthinking reflexes of the writer”3. Part of historiography is the evaluation of sources through scrutiny of possible influencing factors such as context, subsequently if we accept that this process is a given in the study of history then it becomes permissible that even though we may be studying a construct of another historian we are also looking to extract what we consider reliable and so constructing our own view on the past. Pg 169 Tosh
Rationalists believe that anyone is justified to write history whether or not they have experienced it first hand. In this light all historians are rationalists and so whist they would indeed be studying a construction of the past they would be completely vindicated in doing so as a genuine attempt to seek a more accurate account of historical events. Empiricists, in contrast to rationalists, would argue that historical accounts should only be considered valid if they are written from the first hand perspective and should be structured around reaching a conclusion from analysis of the facts.
This method does seem to remove a degree of subjectivity and gets more towards the factual basis of history and so could be said not to be as ‘constructed’ as the rationalist ideal. Nevertheless the fact that empiricism still requires a conclusion to be made shows that opinion inevitably intrudes making it still not a completely objective approach and so the study of it would still be considered historiography of sorts.
People will always have differing opinions. “pg 26” therefore different views, none of them can be declared completely correct or this would be to declare that particular mastered and then the historical debate would end. History in its nature is always a retrospective account of by an individual, rather than the first hand experience of it, and thus leaves it to become subject to the bias or discrepancy of that author. It is argued by post modernists that it is impossible to completely separate ones self from the argument and so facts become subject to spin and interpretation therefore becoming a tool in a subjective argument.
“The belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the interpretation of the historian is a preposterous fallacy.”4 Pg 12 Carr expresses the view that there cannot be a completely unbiased argument and that during the process of writing history even the facts, in being used in a way that supports an argument, become part of a subjective argument. It could be considered that everything from the selection process to the structure of the essay becomes biased as the mere justification of using one group of sources over another and to pick only the most important facts over others to sustain your argument means that it becomes partial to the preference of the author and the structure of the essay can be used to present a fact in a more significant was so as to inflate its importance to the argument or its significance to the topic. This argument is based on something that is unavoidable in history, writing style, and it implies that even the writings with the best intention towards accuracy will never truly be impartial as preference and selection are intrinsic to the creation of a historical argument.
History is not a science; its interpretation of the past can never be perfected or proved. Jenkins affirms, “History can never be fully present or fully known, its discursive practice always falls short of the desired ‘ideal’.”5 Pg 27 Jenkins. this therefore serves to prove that in the study of history through the use of documentation and historical writings can never be truly be considered a study of the ‘past’ as it can never be truly accurate. Professor Barraclough thought similarly that; “the history we read, though based on facts, is strictly speaking, not factual at all, but a series of accepted judgements.”6 Ergo to study history we must in essence take a leap of faith in the assumption that the judgements and arguments of the works we study are in fact written of honest intention and predominantly impartial if we are to try and get closer to the unattainable ideal that is historical accuracy.
History is largely the reporting of the most interesting or momentous incidents and so through the selection and therefore discarding of some less relevant fact history does not show a completely accurate ‘past’. “The most effective way to influence opinion is by the selection and arrangement of the appropriate fact. It used to be said that facts speak for themselves. This is, of course, untrue.
The facts speak only when historian calls on them: it is he who decides which facts to give to the floor, and in what order or context.”7 Pg 11 Carr The impression that Carr gives of this practice is a seemingly cynical one and suggests that historians work the facts they have to best illustrate their point whether or not they are of the most significant to the truth of the event. He later reiterates this; “By and large, the historian will get the kind of facts he wants”8 pg 23 If this argument is to be accepted it is crucial to answering the question as it means that the process of historiography, that being the writing of history, has a purpose to entertain and so loses credibility as a source that is even attempting to be completely factual. This then has the implication that the history which is studied is not only constructed but manipulated.
Although the study of history is largely based around the work of previous historical authors this does not necessarily imply any negativity unlike what is suggested in Jenkins statement. The process of writing history is not simply the acceptance and then reconstruction of information that you are given. It is also the evaluation of a source’s integrity based on the conditions of its production and the extraction of any worthy information that may be with in even though it is undeniable that over time the selection and ensuing discard of information in history that it becomes impossible to recover a full account.
So in some ways historians are undeniably bound by the choices of their predecessors but it cannot be considered that the historians as a race are to naive too have already accepted this argument at and sought to not simply take sources of history at face value but to analyse them and use them, albeit, just to restructure an argument in a way for the next person to similarly decode.