AOK History:

History: Is it a science or an art?

History is different from the other Human Sciences, or indeed other sciences in general, in that the knowers or researchers cannot directly observe the past in the same way that the object of research can be observed and studied in the Natural Sciences. “Historiology” is the study of history in general, the search for what its essence is, what its purpose is. “Historiography”, that is, a study of the writings of history, is not a study of all of the past, but rather a study of those traces or artifacts that have been deemed relevant and meaningful by historians; and this choosing of artifacts and evidence is the most important aspect of the study of history as it attempts to aspire to “scientific research”. This is where the importance of “shared knowledge” comes into play; what we call our “shared knowledge” is “history” and what we choose to select is determined beforehand by our culture.

We must distinguish between “shared knowledge” or culture, what is commonly called history, and “personal knowledge” as independently acquired knowledge. By shared knowledge we mean the scientific or philosophic knowledge that a human being takes over from former generations or from others, what we would call “history”; personal knowledge is that knowledge, whether it be scientific or philosophical in nature, that a mature scholar acquires in his unbiased discourse which is as fully enlightened as possible regarding its limits and horizons with an awareness of its presuppositions within any area of knowledge i.e. what you are attempting to learn to do here in TOK .

In the modern, this distinction between personal and shared knowledge tends to lose its crucial significance due to our belief in progress. In TOK, it appears that we tacitly assign the same cognitive status to both shared and personal knowledge and this impacts how we understand history and what we feel its importance is to our futures. What we deem to be “historical” first appears and coincides with ratio, calculation, and thought understood as ratio and calculation. What is chosen to be called “history” arises with a pre-determined understanding and definition of what human being is (the animale rationale) and this, in turn, determines what “will be held to account” in the selection of what is deemed to be important in relation to that understanding of human being.

The question of whether history is an art or a science is as old as “historiography” itself. Aristotle in his Poetics distinguishes between the poet and the historian and the philosopher and the historian. The historian presents what has happened while the poet is concerned with the kind of things that might, or could, happen: “therefore poetry is more philosophic and more serious than history, for poetry states rather the universals, history however states the particulars”. (Poetics 1451a36-b11) History might be called pre-philosophic in that it concerns itself with particular human beings, particular cities, individual kingdoms, or empires, etc. The historian must choose between the important and the unimportant things when writing her report, and in her choices illuminate the universal in the individual event so that the purpose of her recording is meant to be a possession for all times. You have done much the same in your Exhibition (if you have done it correctly). The presentation is analogical.

The availability of those relevant traces of the past and their relevance and meaning may be influenced in many ways by factors such as ideology, perspective or purpose, but this is a “modern” version of how we examine things. As knowers we seek to clarify the past and to determine whether or not what is claimed is true. In doing so, we will face problems of reliability and attitudes, and may consider the purpose of historical analysis and the issue of the nature of historical truth. “Historical truth” is bound together with our understanding of truth as “correctness” and “correspondence” arising as it does from ratio and calculation.

The spirit of historicism (the understanding of time as history) permeates every aspect of every text and every approach to the study of and knowledge of the things of our world, and it is particularly present in the IB program. Plato viewed time as “the moving image of eternity”, an infinite accretion of “nows”; we tend to view time as the “progress” of the species towards ever greater perfection, much like how we view the latest models of our technological devices and gadgets as being more “fitted” towards accomplishing our ends and purposes. Our “evolution” and “adaptation”, we believe, are signs of our progress and growth as a species as we move towards ever greater “perfection”, both moral and physical. It is sometimes called “the ascent of man”, but such a concept of human being, as an “ascending” creature, is only possible within the technological world-view.

When we speak of History as an area of knowledge, we are speaking of “human history” not the history of rocks or plants or other objects that are also part of our world. These are covered in the Group 4 subjects as part of the Natural Sciences. History as an area of knowledge deals with human actions in time whether by individuals or communities so it is considered a “human science” for the most part, and the approach to the study of it is a “scientific” one. This attempted approach to the study of history is the same as that carried out in the Natural Sciences wherein history is looked at “objectively” and demands are made of it to give us its reasons. We seek for the “causes” of events. This approach has given rise to one of the complaints against history and how it is studied nowadays: we can only learn about the past; we cannot learn from it. Nor do we today feel that we need to. This dearth of knowledge of history is most in evidence in America, and this is not surprising as America is the heartland of technological dynamism.

The spiritual crisis of our “civilization”, our “culture”, and thus our history, is that the historical moment of technological mastery of the earth comes forth from the same science which gives us the historical sense or historicism. In the past reason, virtue and happiness were united as giving to human beings purpose and meaning for their actions. The “age of progress” realized its goal of freedom in the democratic equality of all human beings. But what evidence is there for the equality of all human beings when the evidence from the biological sciences would clearly suggest that human beings are not equal when it comes to what are considered the most important matters and traits? Not all human beings are “fit” for the ends which our culture aspires to. The question of this “fittedness” is the dark question of “justice” in our time. Josef Stalin’s cynical statement that “Only the winners get to write the history” equates “winning” with the ever-evolving process of “truth” and its realization of the “empowerment” of those who can claim to be “victorious”.

Modern science has shown us that the “values” of rationalism are not finally sustained in the whole of the things that are; that is, Nature is finally not rational and it is only human beings that give to nature its “rationality” and, thus, its Being. Reason is only an instrument and it is used to provide meaning and purpose to our willing, to our desiring and creating, our knowing and making. The “happiness” sought for for all human beings is only achievable through the “lowering” of the understanding of what that “happiness” is; and its foundations are not to be found in “reason” and “virtue” (which only the few are capable of) but in the instincts and their “liberation” (which is a real possibility for the many). “Happiness” as it is understood in its modern form is only possible where “nobility” and “greatness” are forgotten or are not important as ends and have been replaced by “recognition” or “15 minutes of fame”. Human beings know that they create their own “values”, and this is upheld by both the nihilists of the political right and the democratic libertarians of the political left.

History: The Absolutist and Relativist Approaches:

Knowledge Questions: What methods do historians use to gain knowledge? What is unique about the methodology of history compared to other areas of knowledge?
On what criteria can a historian evaluate the reliability of their sources? If our senses are sometimes unreliable, does this mean that eyewitness testimony is an unreliable source of evidence? Have technological developments enabled us to observe the past more directly? What challenges does archive-based history emphasize about how knowledge is shared and preserved? Is there less emphasis on collaborative research in history than there is between researchers in other areas of knowledge? How do the methods and conventions of historians themselves change over time?

History deals with memory and time or temporality, the past, present and future. The knowledge questions and issues that arise in the study of history rest in two mutually exclusive positions with regard to the writing of history (historiography) and the “re-searching” or study of history (historiology). The two positions are commonly referred to as the absolutist position and the relativist position. The discussion below attempts to illustrate both positions.

According to relativism, all human thought is historical and hence unable to grasp anything eternal or “unhistorical”; there is no permanence to things or to thoughts. Plato views time as “the moving image of eternity”. According to Plato (an absolutist), philosophizing means to leave the cave where things may be viewed in their “absolute” truth beyond opinion. To we moderns, all philosophizing and thinking essentially belongs to the “historical world” or the cave, what we call our “culture”, “civilization”, and involves opinions based on these contexts. This belief is what is called historicism and it is a recent arrival on the historical scene (early 19th century) but it continues to gain preeminence in our thinking and viewing of the world as it erodes what we have come to believe during the age of progress. The two most prominent thinkers of historicism are the German philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger; and while these thinkers are reviled in the English-speaking West, their thought permeates many aspects of the shared knowledge in the West through its interpretations and applications by lesser thinkers.

History always concerns “individuals” whether those individuals be individual groups, individual human beings, individual achievements, individual “civilizations” or the one “individual process” of human civilization from its beginnings to the present, and so on. In the IB, Group 3 subjects are called “Individuals and Societies” and History is listed as a Group 3 subject although it is given a special distinction as an Area of Knowledge in TOK. History can be our “personal history” or our “shared history”, and both provide knowledge of some type. The historical sense shows us that we create history, whether by “just doing it” as far as our own actions are concerned or by living in a society along with others and sharing their beliefs, customs, etc. The outcomes of our personal and social/political actions are matters of chance so we study history so as to control the outcomes making chance as ineffective as possible. History is determined by the technological and its rendering is “a giving an account of” or “giving an account for”.

History and the approach to it is most closely related to inductive argumentation similar to experimentation in the natural sciences. Things are explored through what is called research, and an attempt is made to arrive at the “timeless” philosophic questions regarding the incident, individual or event chosen in order to get at its “what”, “why”, and “how”. This method is possible because of the positivism that lies at the ground of how we view the world: we no longer discern any difference between historical and philosophical questions. The concepts which we use are viewed as entirely historical in that they are seen as products of our own individual societies and their historical backgrounds. Technology and The Human Sciences Pt 2: Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Marx

Is the study of history relevant? What is the purpose of its study? Many people today hold the relativist view that the standards that we use to make judgements in history are nothing more than the ideals adopted by our society or our “civilization” that are embodied in its way of life or its institutions. But, according to this view, all societies have their ideals, cannibal societies (indigenous societies, if you like) no less than “civilized” ones, fascist societies as well as democratic ones. If the principles of historical choice are sufficiently justified by the fact that they are accepted by a society such as is understood by the pragmatists, are the principles of fascism or fanaticism or cannibalism as defensible or sound as those of democracy or “civilized” life?

If there is no standard higher than the ideal(s) of our society,  are we unable to take a critical distance from that ideal? But the mere fact that we can raise the question of the worth of the ideals of our own society shows that there is something in human beings that is not in slavery to society, call it “freedom” if you will, and that we are able (and obligated) to look for a standard with reference to which we can judge the ideals of our own as well as any other society (c.f. Plato and the Cave). All societies are caves. This standard that we are driven and obligated to search for, according to Plato, is the Good, the “best society” or regime, “the good life”, the “good human being”, etc. One of the purposes of the study of history is its aid in helping us to discover what these are through the “shared knowledge” that has been handed down and over to us.

Our modern study of History teaches us that we can become wise in all matters of secondary importance, but that we must remain ignorant in the most important matters: the historian cannot have any knowledge regarding the ultimate principles of his/her choices i.e. regarding their soundness or unsoundness other than blind preferences. Our inability to gain any genuine knowledge (of the absolutist type) of what is good or right or to recognize all preferences as equally respectable leads to the position that only unlimited tolerance is in accordance with reason; but this leads to an “absolutist” position from a position that rejects all “absolutist” positions.

Absolutist positions, so it is said, are based upon the false premise that human beings can know the good. The Chinese, for example, wish to tell the Japanese what needs to be included in their textbooks regarding Japanese behaviour and atrocities during WW 2. With the relativist position, the Japanese are correct in rejecting this intrusion. Japanese citizens cannot know what behaviours occur when societies become imperial, including their own. What, then, is the purpose for studying history? What “truth” can we learn from it? What standards need to be applied to it? Parallel studies can be made with regard to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or to the history of African-Americans. Clearly, Americans are being given different views of their imperial wars and their domestic oppression of their people than the views of those who are suffering from those imperial wars and that oppression. The current Covid-19 pandemic and the protests over police killings of African-Americans illustrate that the “truth” and the “facts” of science and history are now being put to the test as they clash with the desires and views of the political populists.

The relativist position has a respect for individuality and a respect for diversity. Tolerance is one ideal or “value” among many and is not intrinsically superior to its opposite: intolerance. But it is practically (in practice) impossible to leave this at the equality of all choices or preferences. If this equality of choices is the case, then genuine choice is nothing but resolute or deadly serious decision. Such decision is more akin to intolerance than to tolerance. One sees these outcomes of these decisions in the world’s daily news events or in the discussions that you may be having in your TOK classes.

The relativist position is a late product from the “age of progress” and it is also a consequence of the thinking contained in “logical positivism”. The “belief in progress” was the belief that the current age is superior to all previous ages in that the evolution of the “historical process” showed a “progression” to the current historical situation which was far superior to previous civilizations, much like the human species in its evolution is “superior” to the apes from which it evolved; this superiority rests in reason. The past was only a preparation for the present. The positivists’ approach began as an overturning of the idealism of Hegel in favour of a realism that looked at “facts” and “reality”, and that life itself delivers evidence of this progress so that the “winners of history” are somehow in touch with an  “evolving truth of history” and therefore get to write the history. That which is new is superior to that which is old.

We are in need of historical studies to familiarize ourselves with the complexity of these issues.


Author: theoryofknowledgeanalternativeapproach


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