Lesson 21  The Definition of History


    For centuries history was considered from a literary and apologetic angle.  History was viewed as the narration of the human past, monumental, dramatic or marvellous.  The monumental Mahabharâta by Vyâsa for instance is one story of ancient India, but it is also an epic similar to Homer’s Iliad and Odysseus.  However we scarcely find any dates in it!  The tale of the Mahabharâta is mainly concerned with the spiritual teaching of future generations.  Indian historians of the time could not have cared less about dates!

However more recently in the West history has wanted to go beyond literature, away from myths and legends.  It began to worry about chronology and the accuracy of related facts.  In the 19th century one even tried to forge the concept of “historic science”.

Is this necessary?  Do we today know more what history is than did the first historians?  Should we define history as a science or consider it an art subject?  What is history?

 A.      History as Narrative.

    Can one consider History as a genre belonging essentially to literature?  It is true that it presents itself to us in the form of a tale.  After all, the narrative is a literary category alongside that of the novel, poetry or the essay.  A historian is necessarily a writer.  Narration makes of history a fully-fledged literary form in a language and according to the rules which are those of a story.  In the book-shop we find history books on shelves beside literature, essays etc… The historic genre is defined by its object, the story of past events.  Alongside history we also find the legend, which is a story that relies more on the imagination.  A legend weaves a fantastic story from elements borrowed from history and fabricates a hero based on an historical character.  Legends strike the imagination and addresse the collective unconsciousness of a people.  Myths play a similar part by invoking the mystery of the origins, the forces of nature, and this in a pictorial and symbolic language.  What distinguishes myths and legends from history is the symbolic element in the former; history – such as we see it today- remains more factual.  The popular tale does not have the ambitions of the foundation myths of a society, but it too vehicles more than a mere historic narrative.  Popular imagination develops symbols in tales which, for instance, serve as metaphors for the figures of good and evil, destiny, magic powers etc…  Its vocation is to transmit an oral tradition from generation to generation, and this tradition is the cement of popular culture.

    Did the first historians have any sense of these distinctions?  No.  No more did it occur to them to fully dissociate the category “literature” from that of “knowledge”.  Tales, legends, myths have an educational role.  So too history.  What makes history special is that it insists on telling the course of human events, and in particular those considered memorable.  Herodotus, one of the first Greek historians, begins his narrative with this declaration: “Here is the exposé of the enquiry undertaken by Herodotus of Halicarnassus to prevent that time erase the actions accomplished by men”.   The Greek word istoria means inquiry into and not history.  Yet in the Ancient world one did speak of narratives.  The purpose of the narrative is to fill the gaps generated by time; the historian takes upon himself the duty of safe-guarding the memory of the past.  Since time is one factor of disappearance, because time implies forgetting, the dilapidation of the past, if man is anxious to salvage his past, he must restore its memory.  History has the task to build an inalterable memory.  Its primary vocation is to confer durability to the past.  The historical narrative endeavours to re-establish the thread of events as they occurred and to be a faithful memory. 

    Yet what does it mean to be faithful to the past?  Only the memorable past deserves to be told.  How are we to define what deserves to enter history?  First of all the historic genre was long devoted to the sole order of facts, facts that fell into the category of political history: wars, battles, treatises, highlights made by historical heroes, Alexander the Conqueror,  Napoleon, Bayard.  We deem memorable what is considered as exemplary and admirable, what could serve as a model.  In addition, given that the past is no more, one cannot show it as such.  Only traces remain: ruins, vestiges, monuments, written documents.  The historian who tells the history must put the testimonies in his possession in some sort of order and select what deserves to be told. 

    In order to do this we have to present it in a certain order, the order of a chronology.  Yet historians began to worry about chronology and think of it as important only late.  The first historians were not concerned with factual accuracy, but with composing a beautiful piece of writing.  They felt no compunction to put words of their own invention in the mouth of this or that historical character: “there and then Ceasar declared…”.  This did not shock the readers this discourse was written for because its vocation was above all apologetic and rhetorical.  Similarly it was more important to try to show the hero’s courage, ingenuity, and mastery of the battle – as if he had foreseen it all – than to tell what actually happened step by step.  The first historians did not worry about evidence.  They simply wanted to tell their story.  Herodotus is in this respect a marvellous story-teller, much more so than an historian in today’s sense of that term.

   However, already in the first historical writings we find the idea that the historical narrative tells events of the past of mankind.  In this sense there is no “natural history”.  Nature and its phenomena pertain to physics, to biology and not to history.  They only intervene in human history as cataclysms that alter human life: the eruption of Etna for Pompei, a flood, earthquake, plague etc… The San Francisco earthquake belongs to history because it disrupted human life at the time.  Had it taken place in the Pacific with no incidence on human affairs, it would not be mentioned by history books.

    The narrative as story about the past also demands that one clearly define what is to count as an historical fact.   History is not about telling anything or everything.  The life of Louis XIV, from the point of view of the historian, is historical from morning till night because whatever he decided had an influence on the nation.  What the bishop did from morning till night does not matter much.  An accident on a bridge in Paris on 14th of July 1789 does not constitute an historical event, while the capture of the Bastille does.  Any event is not historical; to be an historical event its repercussions must be such that it is worthy of entering history.  It is the task of the historian to discern among the myriad events of the past those worthy of being told because of their specific importance and distinguish them from those of no consequence.

    Yet for a long time history only retained political actions and regarded politicians as the sole actors of history.  Only recently, with the Nouvelle Histoire of the school des Annales, have new forms of history emerged.  This gave rise to a history of mentalities, a history of the people, a history of art, a history of ideas, of sexuality etc…and took history beyond the strictly political sphere.

    Yet one could say that this will not change the definition of history because history remains a literary story about the human past.  To this historians would want to make one objection: we do differentiate between what pertains to the work of the historian on the one hand and the historical novel on the other hand.  Some works are regarded as competent, others not.  There exist a group of specialists with, at their disposal, methods proper to the writing of history.  We cannot continue thinking that history is just a story about the human past.  There is a clear difference between history and legends, history and myths.  In the historical narrative there is the will to look for the true past and not just a wish to write literature.  History is not first of all a literary work aiming at re-telling the past; this would be qualifying history on basis of its form and not on basis of its content.  The work of the historians yields a written narrative, but the narrative is a genre belonging to literature.  It does not suffice to characterise history as a quest for the truth about the past.  As readers of historical works we expect much more than mere stories: we want an account of what the past may have been.

B.      The Idea of a Science of History


    So we might just as well say that history is first of all a science of the past and define it as such!  The historical Positivists Langlois and Seignobos set out to do just that: they sought to raise history to as rigorous a level as that of physics.  This was the credo of Auguste Comte’s positivism.  Can one define history as the science of the human past?

    Any science, modelling itself on the Natural Sciences, defines itself as an objective approach to knowledge.  And who says objective approach says care to eliminate the influence of subjectivity or at least to control it.

   If we call p the present, P the past and h history, the then formula of positivist history would be:

       H = P + p

History is the past (P) plus a subjective intervention (p) coming from the present involving the historian.  If one could make p=0 then one would have a perfectly objective history.  Thus Michelet saw in history the “complete resurrection of the past”.  Leopold Ranke thought that history ought to “simply and purely show how things took place”.  The apparition of chronology in history effectively pulled historic research in that direction.  The methodological tradition in history has always pushed the ideal of rigour and objectivity further and further.  In the eyes of contemporary historians, the works of Thucydides appear as early scrap notes of what historical method should be.  The first historians did not forge a precise concept of the rationality behind events and they did not develop a method of evidence in history. 

    A logic of what constitutes a true discourse on the past had to be elaborated if one were to move on from a literary history to a scientific history.  Historical fact must be proven.  If it is to rest on evidence then this evidence is whatever documents you may have on the past.  Let us consider for instance the arrival of Napoleon to the gulf of Juan on Wednesday March the 1st 1815.  This event is an historical fact because we have traces of it: Napoleon’s diary, the testimony of people who saw him.  The historian must therefore formulate a hypothesis on the past and then he must corroborate this hypothesis using documents in support of this hypothesis.  In this way one can arrive step by step to a historical truth. 

   The positivist historians, Langlois and Seignobos, have had the merit of laying down the critical method of history; this obliges the historian to assess the documents both externally (their authenticity) and internally (their interprÉtation).  This method tends to get rid of subjectivity since it incites the historian to accept given facts.

   Furthermore the historian founds his study on what is called the auxiliary sciences: archaeology, heraldry, genealogy.  No one questions the scientificity and seriousness of these disciplines.  From there it is just one step to regard history as a scientific activity, and this is a step quickly taken by the positivists.

   However can the historical fact really be regarded as a scientific fact?  The object of science is permanent.  Plato says that science aspires to the eternal essences, of which mathematics are the model.  As for history, Plato says that it is more a doxa, an opinion, since its object is a changing, ever different one.  The historical fact is characterised by temporality, evanescence and uniqueness.  It cannot be reproduced, it only takes place once.  While the historian jubilates when he has managed to establish a single event, the physicist is only interested in what is repeatable.  It is a little as if the historian only took an interest in miracles, while the physicist looks for regularity in nature.  In physics, what only takes place once and cannot be repeated is simply not science.  Yet this is precisely the case with historic facts: they only happen once.  The same goes for generality which is the fundamental characteristic of scientific representation.  Aristotle says that there can only be a science of general things, and only particular things can exist.  This means that there can be no science of the singular or the concrete if the concrete is absolutely particular.  It would be contradictory.  The very status of the historical fact rules out a science of history.

    A science must define laws and regularities, and effect measurements.  Where can we find this in history?  Where are the historical laws?  Where are the measurements?  In fact, were there regularities, and historical laws, we would move from one field to a totally different one when quitting history for sociology.  Finding laws and social regularities that can be analysed using statistics is the purpose of sociology and not of history.  History remains history when its object is the human past in its particularity and uniqueness.

    We must therefore conclude that the expression “the science of history” can only have a metaphorical meaning.  It is a way to oppose lay and non-expert knowledge of the past to elaborate and methodical knowledge.   In this sense objectivity in History is only a matter of method.  History is more of a technical knowledge than a science in the strict sense of the term.  If one disregards the ideological ambition exhibited by the positivists, the most common mistake one makes with regard to history is to mix it up with its methods.  What is scientific about history is neither history itself nor the object of history, but its methods.  There is quite a step from the rigour of archaeology and genealogy to history in general.  It is not because the historian’s argument rests on documents he has treated scientifically that the resulting narrative is also scientific.   A “scientific narrative” is rather meaningless an expression.  A narrative is by essence interprÉtation, reconstruction.  Does this imply that the historian ought to quit writing?  Should he instead publish the photocopies of historical documents and leave it to the reader to write the history?  That would be ridiculous.  Even a series of photos must be given an order.  Positivism went astray when it tried to model history on the natural sciences.   Its definition of history resulted in sterilising the work of historians.  Just see how Seignobos, at then end of his life, only dared to present the reader with documents, leaving it to him to make his own interprÉtation.  This conscientious short-sightedness does not do justice to historical ambition and to its quest for historical truth.


C.        Historic Knowledge.

    Let us therefore be more humble and agree with H.I. Marrou that history is merely the knowledge of the human past.  The word “knowledge” does not have the objective rigour of the word “science”, but neither is it as vague as the word “narrative”.  Historical knowledge is different from a mere narrative of the human past.  It is not just a “study” or an “enquiry” into the past, what matters is the conclusion it reaches.  “History is defined by the truth it is able to elaborate”.  True, valid knowledge is the opposite of an erroneous and falsified representation of the past.  History is not utopia, nor is it a legend, a historical novel, a myth, a popular tradition, an image of Epinal with a pedagogical vocation: it is knowledge about the past.

    However, history cannot pretend to the status of science strictly speaking and this by virtue of its object.  In other words:  history aims at historical truth with scientific means.  The past is gone, and therefore it is never known as such.  The historian is confronted with an extraordinary complexity of events which he must try to sort.  He won’t find the “explanation” of historical facts in police reports, under cobblestones or among ruins. 

    Going back to the elements of the above-mentioned formula, for the new history, history would rather mean:


         H   =             __________


“History is the relation, the conjunction the historian’s initiative establishes between two levels of human existence, that of the past experienced by men in days gone by, and that of the present, a time of growing effort to recover this past and this to the benefit of man and to men yet to come.”  This comparison is approximate, yet it illustrates the idea that the present of the historian is constitutive of the manner in which he questions the past.  The relationship between the knower, the historian and the known, history, is constituted by knowledge and cannot be thought outside its sphere.  One cannot isolate the object of knowledge, the past, from its subject, the historian.  The present, the time in which the historian works with all the technical means that come with it, helps shaping his perspective on the past.  This means that history is above all an interprÉtation.  It sheds a light on men’s actions, yet it would not be able to explain them, in the scientific and objective sense of that word.  It allows the elaboration of a knowledge about man, an anthropology, but not of a science of man in the sense of the natural sciences.

   This of course does not exclude the fact that more than once does history come very close to the natural sciences.  Let us consider as an example the status of prehistory.  Is it history or is it biology?  It all depends on how one defines humanity.  Human means behaviour with a goal and a meaning.  Human behaviour can be understood from within in actions, thoughts, feelings.  Any human work is full of thoughts which we can make our own and interpret.  Whatever man makes and builds can be interpreted.   On the contrary, measuring the volume of a skull, dating bones, examining the erect position, the state of the mind, all this is the business of paleontology and it is not historical work.  It deals with our biological past, that of humanity in the making.  Biological evolution is the business of human paleontology, which is a branch, not of history, but of biology.  What interests the historian is above all man-made objects:  arrows, spears, flintstones, cave-wall drawings because these objects witness to an intention by the man who made them.     The making of a spear demands a technique which must have been transmitted.  Paintings on cave walls imply a magical approach to the world, some sort of primitive religion.  When the pre-historian gets to the ideas and feelings of the first men, then he moves on to archaeology, which is a branch not of biology but of history.  In this domain it is understanding that matters, and understanding is something that is done from within.  It is not like the physicist who considers his object from outside, with no attention given to consciousness.  

   The historian must use his own consciousness in order to sympathise with the men of the past.  His subjectivity is essential because it is through this that one level of humanity can access another level of humanity.  The scientistic ideology of positivism results in a presupposition which consists in believing that on can make of history a perfectly objective discipline and this presupposition is wrong.  The merit of history is precisely to be sufficiently subjective a discipline to be human in the same way as any history of man is human.  One cannot ask of history what is could not possibly give, nor exact things of it which would stand in contradiction to its nature.

   The past, when it turns into history, is not known as one knows a scientific fact.  Being known, the past does not confine itself to flatly reproducing what it once was.  History is not the objective photocopy of the past.  When the past was actual, it was not past but present, and as pulverulent and as complicated as our current present: a present made of tensions, passions, forces, individual acts.  We tend to forget that the men who lived before us did so in the same present as our own.  Like us they lived in a reality that was hazy, complex, unintelligible.  This entanglement of causes and effects in which the events of the world today manifest was also there yesterday.  The historian must endeavour to give this confusion a little intelligibility.  He tries to rise beyond the dust of trivial events and replace it with an orderly vision.  Historical knowledge sets itself the difficult task of weaving relations, of finding in the mess of events occurring hurly burly some meaning, intentions, and values in order to construe an orderly narrative. 

    Once upon a time the past too was on the move and in the making.  The present, once it has fallen into the past, enters the realm of the irrevocable, the order of what has been.  Is it possible to catch this making in the process?  The historian can never become the contemporary of his object, unlike the physicist.   Against the background of the deep unfathomable past, the historian gives it a perspective.  It knows it as past.  In the interval from yesterday to today many events have taken place.  The interval is not empty.  Everything that has happened has carried its fruits, unfolded consequences, potential.  This confers to one’s judgement a certain distance to the past.  Hence one does not judge the past in the same way according to whether the events took place two years ago, ten years ago or twenty years ago.  Just consider how the fever of May 68 in France has been analysed by historians.  As time goes by historians increasingly feel the need to rewrite recent history in order to shed a new light on it.  While the journalist is happy writing a chronicle of events day by day, as they happen and are experienced, the historian situates these events and gives them a perspective.  This perspective changes as time goes by.  The human past is not a “thing” of which everything could be said once and for all.  Each historian reads a new meaning into the past.  These different readings cannot be opposed to one another, the one eliminating the other.  Perhaps then objective history would be the sum of all the different perspectives on the past.

                                                                     *      *


    Let us then conclude that history is not just the story of past events.  This would be looking at it from the point of view of form and not of content.  Nor is it a science of the human past.  This would imply subjecting history to a model that does not fit its object.  History is the knowledge of the human past inasmuch as we can know it through whatever traces it has left in documents.  It is the historian of the present’s effort to repossess the past and situate it with respect to a reality that he can apprehend.  It ranks alongside anthropology and the human sciences rather than with the exact sciences or the natural sciences.  It helps us understand past events.  It does not limit itself to writing everything down as in a journalist’s chronicle.  Journalism reports what has happened in the present.  The historian tries to discern the work of time in history, rather than focussing on the disorder of the present.




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