What is History? . . .

Illustration from Europe at the Crossroads(1935)

. . .And What Can We Learn From It?

Consider the following definitions of history:

"History, in its general meaning, signifies an account of some remarkablefacts which have happened within the knowledge of man, arranged in chronologicalorder, together with the causes which preceded them, and the various effectswhich they have produced, as far as can be discovered. . ."

"By the study of history we do not merely furnish our memories with a nakedcatalogue of events, but we gain, also, a knowledge of the mechanism ofsociety, of the reciprocal influence of national character, laws, and government;and of those causes and circumstances that have acted in producing and advancing, or destroying and retarding, civil and religious liberty, and the various branches of science and literature. . ."

"A still higher use of history is to improve the understanding and strengthenthe judgment. By searching into the causes and consequences of events,the faculty of penetration is sharpened, the attention of the mind is fixed, and the comprehension enlarged. . ."

A History of All Nations (1856) by S. G. Goodrich

"Our day, with its conceptions, beliefs, hopes, and endeavours, is but a tinyportion of the past; for thousands of years peoples have existed who have lived in other intellectual spheresthan ours, who have pursued other ideals. . ."

". . . history does not consist in an examination of the past projected, as it were, into the present;it is the study of the past considered as part of the constant coming and going of men. . ."

"We must learn to escape from the present, to withdraw ourselves from. . . the tyranny of our own time. . ."

The History of the World(1902) edited by H. F. Helmholt

Why should anyone care what happened in the past? . . . The crucial answer is simple and compelling:All reliable knowledge of human affairs rests on events that are already history. . . . anyone who wantsto understand warmaking, capital accumulation, population growth, international migration, military rule,and any number of other critical phenomena of the contemporary world had better take history seriously.

"How (and What) Are Historians Doing?" (1991) by Charles Tilly

When people think of history, they often assume that it is the compilation of facts and dates that have happened in the past, which therefore play no relevant role in our contemporary lives. This is a common misapprehension fueled by sterile presentations in textbooks and [mind] numbing multiple-choice tests in school. Actually the word "history" is derived from a Greek root meaning "inquiry." The task of the historian is not to compile "facts," but rather to inquire into the records of past societies in hopes of establishing what actually happened and, more importantly, why it happened. . . . It is a profession that is immediately relevant. For in the discussion of past societies, historians deal primarily with human beings, their hopes and fears, their ideas, their hostilities, their successes and failures. Always at issue is the question "Why?" History, therefore, is about interpretation. What constitutes a "fact"?

Aspects of Western Civilization (1997)

Is History Simple? . . .

History is real simple. You know what history is? It's what happened. . . . The problem you get into is when guys like this try to skew history by [saying], "Well, let's interpret what happened because maybe we can't find the truth in the facts, or at least we don't like the truth as it's presented. So let's change the interpretation a little bit so that it will be the way we wished it were." Well, that's not what history is. History is what happened, and history ought to be nothing more than the quest to find out what happened.

Rush Limbaugh

. . .Or Simply Opinion?

[History is] reporting on what they [historians] believe happened in the past interpreted in the light of their own prejudices and opinions.

Claire Rayner

The debate has been running since antiquity, and is essentially between those who see it [history] as an absolute, fixed once and for all and independent of any observer, and those for whom it is relative, with its meaning, like that of everything else, dependent upon perceptions of individuals at different times and places. For historians claiming to seek and even find the truth about the past, this theoretical debate has obvious importance. . . .

Some sort of compromise is needed: a compromise between those who continue to maintain a naively empirical view of history as a record of the past 'as it was', and those who carry sceptical postmodern arguments to their ultimate and conclude that the history of the past can be, or even must be, constructed simply as we want it.

History: What and Why? (1996)