Sunday, June 2, 2013

What is history?

© Veterans Today
What is history?
June 2, 2013 | Veterans Today | Jonas E. Alexis

If you are going to write history you must sacrifice to truth alone, ignoring everything else… “Well, my historian should be like that: fearless, incorruptible, frank, a friend of free speech and the truth, determined, as the comic poet puts it, to call figs figs and a tub a tub, indulging neither hatred nor friendship, sparing nobody, not showing pity or shame or diffidence, an unbiased judge, kindly to everyone up to the point of not allowing one side more than it deserves, a stranger without a stake in his writings, independent, serving no king, not taking into account what any man will think, but simply saying what happened.”—Lucian (125-180 AD)[1]

History, in principle, requires that historians not only ask important questions about the past, but search existing documents to try to give accurate accounts and descriptions about what happened in the past.[2] If the documents are weighed against others and found false, then they must be discarded; if they are corroborated and provide a balanced account of what happened, then they must be preserved.[3]

As a corollary, serious historians are always on a quest for the truth, ask probing questions and weigh alternative evidence in order to give an accurate explanation of the past. Once all rival alternatives are weighed, then inference to the best explanations should be drawn.[4]

The meticulous and honest historians have no other choice but to dig into documents to search what happened—if the documents actually exist.

Furthermore, historians, like scientists or academic professionals, are to be skeptical about their documents, and examine them in light of various sources to corroborate or even challenge accepted views. If the documents show various contradictions, or if they challenge our preconceived vision, then we need to slow down and reconsider our worldviews to see whether they were based on evidence or popular opinion or political correctness.

The first principle in examining any historical account is that truth exists—even if historians do not know what it is at the moment of investigation.[5] If truth doesn’t exist, then ultimately the historian is wasting his time looking for clues and digging into archives to look for and ancient documents which may or may not lead to hypotheses, theories, and ultimately historical documentation. 

Moreover, if the historian believes that truth doesn’t exist, why should anyone read the historian’s assessment? This is not a problem for serious Christians precisely because they believe that the founder of Christianity claims to be the truth incarnate (John 18:37). In addition, Christianity declares that the burden of finding out the truth was given by God to His creatures.

History is an enterprise that demands its followers believe that the truth is out there. As critical historian Keith Windschuttle rightly points out, “the essence of history has continued to be that it should try to tell the truth, to describe as best as possible what really happened.”[6]

 The historian may not be able to give a full account of what happen due to lack of research, but definitely he has to start with the assumption that truth is, to use Windschuttle’s words, “within grasp,”[7] believing that truth matters, and that the historian’s job is to use all his skills and the available data to find out what the historical account declares.

As sociologist-historian Rodney Stark rightly put it,

“The historian’s task is to try to discover as accurately as possible what took place. Of course, we can never possess absolute truth, but that still must be the ideal goal that directs historical scholarship. The search for truth and the advance of human knowledge are inserapable: comprehension and civilization are one.”[8]  

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