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The Need for Self-Criticism in History

The Need for Self-Criticism in History

by Stewart Anderson


Some time ago, I attended a history conference at Brigham Young University. The keynote speaker talked about the Cultural Revolution in China. He presented the harrowing details of the course of the movement's development. The movement claimed the lives of many innocent people, killed simply because they failed to adhere to strict communist practices. The speaker then suggested two methods of history. One was the method that he had employed in his speech, a strictly objective approach, replete with evidence and numerous sources. The alternative method, the non-objective approach, used opinion rather than fact and often furthered a political agenda. He described it as "selective" history, omitting some facts to achieve a political end. This second method, he explained, had been used in China, so that many young Chinese did not know of the terrors of the Cultural Revolution, having never learned the complete truth about the event, through a more objective account of it.

As he described it, I too deplored the kind of scholarship that kept the Chinese students from learning the truth about their past. But upon further reflection, I began to wonder if the objective method did not contain many of the same problems as the selective. The objective method he presented is not new; historians have long advocated minute attention to detail and sources. I do not think that there is a problem with such attention to detail. The problem lies not in historical rigor, but in historical dogma. Historians often fail to criticize the methods they have adopted. They do not realize that this attitude leads many young historians to accept the discipline as it exists, without thinking about the consequences of their acceptance.

Historians, like other scholars, operate within the confines of their discipline. The historical discipline constantly undergoes changes, induced by new considerations in the nature of historical inquiry and by the introduction of new theories about how history should be done. But history today seems to lack a key ingredient found in disciplines such as literature, mathematics, and even physics; it does not try to revolutionize itself. Theories about history exist, but the acceptance of these theories does not. The following observation seems to characterize history today: there is a general lack of self-criticism in the field. Most historians accept their methods as irrefutable. For example, G. R. Elton remarks that "a philosophical concern with such problems as the reality of historical knowledge or the nature of historical thought only hinders the practice of history." (Burns xi) This attitude is pervasive within the discipline, as Michael Kammer points out: "many historians show utter indifference to issues of epistemology or philosophy of history. ...[These historians engage in a] matter of fact, anti-theoretical, and anti-philosophical objective empiricism." (Burns 12) This paper will show that theory is warranted in history. It will also show that the non-philosophical position taken by many historians represents a theoretical position, notwithstanding their disregard of philosophy, and that this position has both merits and serious shortcomings.

Robert M. Burns, in his Philosophies of History, makes the following observation regarding the study of history: "And just as no producer of a Shakespearean play should be so absurd as to consider that he had produced the definitive version of it, which no one could ever improve upon, likewise it would be preposterous for anyone to assume he had written the definitive history of a past epoch." (Burns 15) History, like any other discipline, strives after knowledge, developing methods that work towards this end. From one point of view, this explanation correctly explains the role of history within the academic world. It occupies a niche and directs its studies towards the past. If any historical pursuit falls outside the study of the past, it has left the realm of history. But there are two objections to this definition. One is that classifying history as the "study of the past," works only from an external perspective. The study of the past itself is technically a metaphysical question, involving a study of time. Properly, history, as it exists as a discipline, studies particular questions about history. It classifies and organizes the past into a series of movements, terms, observations, and epochs. So, the study of the past does not really explain the role of the historian, it merely describes the field in which it operates. The second objection is that history's subject matter covers almost every conceivable area of inquiry. The only way that humans can study anything involves a use of the past, whether near or distant. Thus, history cannot be distinguished from other disciplines under this definition, as it encompasses all fields of knowledge. Either history ceases to exist, or it becomes the study of everything.

Another possible definition is that history is the study of humans in the past. This definition encounters the same problem as the first: it spills over into other disciplines. Calling history "the study of humans in the past" does not seem to get any closer in distinguishing history from other subjects, because it describes the historian's domain rather than offer any insight into what historians actually do. An historian studying, say, the Italian Renaissance discusses various movements posited by other historians, analyzes primary sources, and recreates events. Other historians accept these activities, and any person willing to take a course in history must learn these practices. The average person studying the same movements and people of the past might take a different approach. They might come to the conclusion that the Italian Renaissance represents a dark, backwards period in time, simply because it seems so strange to the modern intellect. The error here would be that this person failed to look at the human pursuits in the Middle Ages and even elsewhere in Europe at the same time as the Italian Renaissance. There is a lack of rigor and system. But the latter analysis, under the definition of history as "the study of humans in the past," is just as much a study of humans in the past, though it produces different results and, most notably, different practices.

William Dray offers a different answer to the question, "what is history?". He proposes a distinction between speculative and critical history. Speculative history, for him, includes "a certain stratum of reality, which historians make it their business to study." (Dray 1) "The speculative seeks to discover in history, the course of events, a pattern or meaning which lies beyond the purview of the ordinary historian." (Dray 1) Jacob Burckhardt's studies about the Italian Renaissance provide an excellent example of this type of history in action. Burckhardt posits the existence of a significant movement in the Italian city-states in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. He calls this movement the Renaissance, or "rebirth" of classical learning. The thesis of these works is that the introduction of classical learning and thought created a new atmosphere, signaling the beginning of the end for the Middle Ages. Of course, he takes the opportunity to define the Middle Ages, mirroring his work on the Renaissance. This method of looking at history is called speculative by Dray because it involves piecing together the elements and sources of the past, in an attempt to arrive at the "reality" of the past. The historian's own views are inevitably projected onto the past to derive movements and ideologies, such as the Renaissance, the French Revolution, the Reformation, and a host of other terms.

The speculative approach represents a certain way of looking at history. Thus, Dray later refers to it as a philosophy of history. Here, Dray appears to be using philosophy in a broad sense, referring to both the theory behind history and the practice of history. The speculative side to history, by nature, wastes little or no time on examining the limits of historical inquiry, the nature of bias in history, or the light in which history should be viewed. Instead, these scholars examine the plausibility of their theories when compared to the primary sources they study. The speculative philosopher of history limits his or her critical studies to the sources themselves and to the ideas of other speculative historians. The assumption, then, is that history can be done without reference to the limits or nature of historical knowledge. As has already been noted, this kind of history says something about the nature of historical study, namely, that history, found in books, journals, newspapers, or any other primary source, represents a form of reality. One excellent example of someone doing this kind of history is Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. His Philosophy of History presents a version of history based on his own dialectic philosophy. He interprets the events of the past and tries to assign each event a place in his philosophy. Thus, this kind of history seeks to uncover the true nature of reality in the past. It is a philosophical position.

The critical side of history, on the other hand, overtly studies a variety of philosophical positions. Rather than striving to uncover past reality, the critical historian seeks to arrive at the nature and limits of historical understanding. "We mean by [the critical study of history] a certain kind of inquiry into a certain kind of subject matter." (Dray 1) History itself is the object of study in this kind of philosophy of history: "The critical endeavors to make clear the nature of the historian's own inquiry, in order to "locate" it, as it were, on the map of knowledge." (Dray 1) The critical side of history includes, for example, Dray's own study about the philosophy of history. He studies theories such as Hegel's, but the whole point is not to assess the correctness of Hegel's findings; rather, it is to analyze it as a mode of doing history. The critical method detaches itself from the text, focusing instead on what the historian can actually know about the world. What are his or her limits? Similarly, the critical side of the philosophy of history does not interpret the past; it analyzes the interpretations of the past. Thus, when a speculative philosopher of history, or merely a historian who claims disinterest in philosophy, critiques the findings of other authors, he or she engages in a form of critical history.

These two kinds of history, or philosophy of history, appear to refer to two different sides of the same coin. It seems the existence of one without the other does not equal an historical study. For example, in preparing to write my senior thesis in history, I consulted an historian about a possible topic on the philosophy of history. After careful consideration, she informed me that my study would not fall under the category of "history." She accordingly directed my research interests towards a new end. This paper does not study a particular event or time in history. This places it outside the conventions of history, and rather closer to a philosophical inquiry. Similarly, my historical methods class taught that no good history thesis could fully address its topic without reference to secondary sources. It would be almost impossible to communicate history without placing one's ideas within the framework of other historians' ideas. Of course, this avenue might still be pursued rigorously, so one can rightly object that speculative history might be done without critical history, and still be called history. But there are two problems with this objection. One is that history within a vacuum, without any references to other historians' findings, requires an enormous amount of time and energy, and it would actually eliminate the ability to study certain events because the extant material comes only from secondary sources. History ceases to be meaningful unless it conveys a perceivable thought to the reader or listener. A history done without reference to ideas formulated by other historians might have a difficult time trying to communicate this. It must be conceded, however, that this method of history is practiced, and many historians really do try to break free from the tyranny of the influence of other historians. The second problem with this objection, however, seems more damning: the historian's craft has for centuries been practiced in reference to other historians. One might try to free his or her thought from this sphere, but the influence of other histories pervades history, as a discipline. Other historians are read and interpreted by the good historian, in a convention similar to the one requiring historical inquiry to center on a study of the actual events of the past, not the ideas about how they should be pursued, as my senior thesis purported to be.

History uses both sides in its studies. But the critical side of history seems to refer more to the ideas the historian has about his or her craft than to the past itself. Because of this, critical philosophy of history, though important to the study of history, is not really a part of history itself. The interpretive element, the speculative, seems to stand alone as the defining aspect of history. The earlier definition, "the study of the past," should not be disregarded, as this is the essence of history. Accordingly, history should center on the past, not necessarily on how to get to the past. But I think that the critical side of history is essential in good historical research. I have already mentioned the need for historians to consult other historical interpretations. But there are other reasons why the critical side is important. History, as many practice it today, rejects theory and instead focuses on its own studies. There are serious problems regarding the truth that historians thus try to determine. The speculative version of history takes its theoretical roots for granted, and I do not think that the theories these historians stand on can escape criticism unscathed. Even though the critical philosophy of history does not define history itself, its application is necessary for the historian to combat these challenges. I think that the only place for the historian to stand is somewhere between the two sides, in a critically-informed practice of history.

Historians often view the past as a collection of facts and primary sources, awaiting discovery and interpretation. The word "interpretation" implies the existence of bias. Interpretation involves looking at a piece of evidence and offering a substantiated view of the nature of that object. Historians often produce contrasting opinions about a certain event, even when they have the same sources in front of them. For example, many modern scholars have expressed disdain over the crusade movement. They think that it is the beginning of modern imperialism. There are even groups who have offered apologies to the Muslims for the injustice of the crusades. On the other hand, many crusade historians have combated this trend by pointing out the complex nature of the crusade movement. These men, especially in the first and second crusades, seem to have acted on the assumption that they would receive grace from heaven for their actions. Furthermore, they ostensibly fought for the rights of Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land. Though this claim has been blasted by some, newly found documents reveal that some of the atrocities committed against the pilgrims may have actually happened. Whether or not the crusades were just is not the point here; this disagreement ought to be a sign that bias exists as an inherent part of history itself. No historian can call his own position unbiased, based even on a thorough examination of the evidence at hand. Critical history can help overcome these problems, by outlining the nature of bias and by pointing out instances of bias in the field of historical scholarship.

One objection to the need for critical history to combat bias must be presented, however: the careful historian escapes bias by a strict and unerring reference to the sources. With exact and careful study, the bias of the historian disappears beneath the accuracy of the historical work. It is true that the careful and rigorous use of the sources seems to be necessary in history, and that this method can help to subvert bias. However, this objection only establishes the need for rigor and accuracy; it does not reject the need for critical history. The historian might be able to achieve an extremely high level of scholarship and objectivity in a work by sticking to the sources. But the real interest in history lies in the interpretation of sources. The reproduction of sources may be historical in nature, as it refers to the past, but it does not fall within the discipline of history. History requires a reflection upon the sources, as the sources themselves are already available for all to see. Reciting historical evidence is nothing but scribe-work. It is not a part of history because it does not tell us about the past. It only tells us what we already know. And because history must include interpretation of some sort, it must also include bias.

At this point, it seems likely that the historian would dispense with reservations about proceeding under the auspices of bias. Prejudiced history yields merit, and the impossibility of ultimate objectivity does not destroy the usefulness of history. The claim that objectivity is a necessary ideal in history seems to run as follows: history originates in the real world. The real world yields facts about its own nature. Facts form the only acceptable basis for a substantiated position about the world. Hence, history cannot abandon trying to be objective, or else it will have less to do with the real world and it will represent an unsubstantiated position. But this argument makes several assumptions. One is the plausibility of obtaining objective facts from the world around us. This proposition implies the ability of the historian to analyze historical events and arrive at an unbiased conclusion. This seems unfounded. The other is that ultimate objectivity would even be worth finding. It seems that an "objective" work might be classified as such, even while an opposite point of view might also be called "objective." Ultimate objectivity is not the same thing as an objective paper, thesis, or article. Only the latter seems possible, and the difference of opinion seems more interesting.

The way in which the historian gathers information, as well as his or her human perceptions and prejudices about these findings, is problematic. How does the historian know anything? In fact, the historian encounters a number of problems along the way.

The historian engages history through the mediums of language, art, and experience. Language, however, changes over time. The English of Shakespeare varies from the English of the twenty-first century, and even though one might understand many of the words, this does not permit one to access the Elizabethan language. Their language might be compared to a game in which participants agree upon rules and conventions. A linguist could, of course, obtain many of the rules by reading about their culture, and by participating in this game, so far as he or she is able to enter into this world through books and documents. But knowledge of this language would remain elusive, because the historian simply cannot know that he or she has found out all the rules. Particularly in literature, the symbolism, metaphor, and opaque references to religion might cloud the truth of a statement from the historian's vantage point. Furthermore, the language of the Elizabethans consisted of a national and cultural base of native speakers. The same conception of "game" applies to individual speakers. A mother might address her son in a particular way, different from all other English parameters for language. In fact, language might be a private institution or, at least, a game designed for only two people to play at a time.

The historian, too, runs into the problem of language. Not only is it impossible to be sure if the interpretation of a language game has occurred correctly, it may also prove elusive for the historian to express the correct opinions about a given past culture using his or her own language. Language games also exist in the modern world, and what one person says about a particular event or movement in the past might be unintelligible to a person living two hundred years from now. History operates through language and explication, dangerous mediums through which to claim objective truth. Thus, critical history is especially important, because no two historians will have the same conception of a given event. Hegel and Michel Foucault, for instance, both held many radical views about history, but since they lived over a century apart, as well as within different languages altogether, their views cannot easily be compared. It would be like comparing apples to oranges. Certainly, the two views can be compared, and judgments can be made about them. But because their languages are different, they perceived the same historical events differently.

The problem with language extends into a problem with worldview. Two modern historians, like Hayden White and Roger Chartier, exist more or less under the same cultural worldview. But Hegel and Foucault, besides possessing different languages, also came from entirely different worldviews. Hegel's philosophy of history was the first of its kind in Germany. The kind of history he proposed doing was thoroughly subjective and uncritical, but it was nonetheless critical in that it studied the nature of history itself, as a means for arriving at a dialectic conception of history. Foucault, on the other hand, existed within an already rich tradition of French critical history, and he was well aware of his predecessors. Worldview presents a problem for the historian: if ultimately objective history is possible, then why do some historians' results seem to vary because of the cultures in which they live? It is difficult to think of an answer to this problem, unless it is that the differences between cultures are not that great. Notice that this answer relies on uniting cultures, something that rarely happens in historical studies.

The social sciences include a number of disciplines, connected by a common approach: they all focus on the study of human beings and their actions, behaviors, and characteristics. Many scholars have included history as part of the social sciences. This association makes sense, as historians attempt to understand human events, behaviors, and tendencies. But the term "social science" denotes an empirical method of gathering inquiry. In fact, the social sciences have adopted many of the same kinds of techniques as the hard sciences have. For example, sociologists gather evidence about the general tendencies of human populations in the same way that chemists gather data about the makeup of a certain substance. Their search is based on hypotheses. Results are checked again, to see if the same result can be duplicated. After these steps, both the sociologist and the chemist submit their research to other scientists for further investigation. The methodologies have much in common, both being premised upon scientific investigation.

There are many reasons why the classification of history as a social science makes sense. One is that history's main objective is to analyze human beings. The study of the world before human communication belongs to archeology and natural science. Inquiry focuses on the evidence seen in the materials found in the earth itself, on the fossils of living organisms, and on the current movements of the earth's crust. History centers on the evidence left by human beings. It studies human concerns using human mediums such as oral traditions, myths, writings, books, literature, magazines, cave writings, and a host of other artifacts. The focus of the historian on the human past is a strong reason why history should be part of the social sciences. All disciplines use the knowledge generated by history, but the other social sciences are particularly indebted to the historian.

Another piece of evidence that history is a social science can be seen in its methodology. Historians interpret the language of the past, trying to understand movements, cultures, events, and revolutions. To do this, they use primary source evidence to their advantage. It seems that primary source evidence functions as a sort of observation. Data can be collected and tested using the "observation" of the past. This way of looking at the historian's brand of interpretation places history in the same category as science.

If history can be accepted as a social science, then Thomas S. Kuhn's argument is relevant. Kuhn proposed a new way of understanding physical sciences: as the result of a cultural paradigm. In his 1988 article, "The Natural and the Human Sciences," Kuhn discusses Charles Taylor's ideas about the human sciences in an appreciative manner. He remarks, "For Taylor, human actions constitute text written in behavioral characters. To understand the actions, recover the meaning of the behavior, requires a hermeneutic interpretation...[differing] systematically from culture to culture." (18-19) But Kuhn's admiration for this idea stops there: "They are [natural phenomena], as he more recently put it, independent of interpretation by human subjects." (19) Taylor adopts a non-interpretive method for the natural sciences, because they seem to be fundamentally different from the human sciences.

Kuhn thinks that the physical sciences should admit their important relationship with the hermeneutical approach advocated by Taylor. Instead of Taylor's claim that, for example, the heavens do not differ as an object of study between the Europeans and the Japanese, Kuhn thinks that the basis for understanding the heavens, even when considered from an empirical perspective, rests on the concepts and interpretations within that culture. "I would counter that one can point only to individual concepts-and that the difficulties involved in doing so are of the same nature in the natural and social worlds." (20) Thus, Kuhn maintains that the hard and human sciences rest on similar grounds. Paradigms control the way that scientists see the world, so much so that the physical sciences rely on hermeneutics. He explains, "That set of concepts [those scientific concepts that are passed down from one generation to the next] is a historical product, embedded in the culture to which current practitioners are initiated by training, and it is accessible to non-members only through the hermeneutic techniques by which historians and anthropologists are to understand other modes of thought."(22)

Kuhn's conception of scientific revolutions and paradigms raises a difficult problem for scientists who attempt to arrive at irrefutable conclusions. Those who think that science has progressed in an upwards-sloping line until this time, on its way to understanding the actual underpinnings of reality, must answer to Kuhn's challenge. Science has been transmitted to new practitioners through culturally diluted mediums; indeed, it is difficult to imagine this process occurring in any other way. Moreover, Kuhn has asserted that science aims at perfecting conceptions of events, whether they involve physical or human affairs. And conceptions are only possible according to a cultural pattern. In this way, science and history rely on the same hermeneutic basis.

However, Kuhn himself admits that there are fundamental differences between the physical and the social sciences. Social sciences cannot reproduce experiments, as hard sciences like physics can. Furthermore, human nature is of such a varied nature, varying greatly among individuals, that the formulation of laws and theories becomes nearly impossible. Social science is not science.

Even if the social sciences do resemble the hard sciences in many ways, history is not necessarily a social science. Social sciences try to achieve scientific results while operating within the context of human studies. For history, the nature of the human is only part of the story. Equally important are those inquiries that have little to do with this topic. Diplomatic history, the history of war, and even intellectual history do not produce results in line with the social sciences. These studies examine the structures and paradigms created by humans, not the nature of the human being, whether individually or culturally.

Another indication that history needs a critical foundation can be found in the history of history. Historians refer to this field as historiography, and many think of it only as a precursor to learning the "correct" method of doing history. There are many philosophies of history. They vary in range from the positivist, objectivist position to Schopenhauer's position that "History is not a science." (Burns and Rayment-Pickard 141) But each of these positions indicates a rich heritage of thought regarding the proper study of history. Critical theory has been applied to history many times, and it should be used more frequently in the study of history. The view that history should not include theory, expressed by historians such as Brand, ignores the fact that the development of modern speculative history has occurred alongside critical history. Many of the same figures that introduced history as an independent field of study also talked about its proper practice.

Johann Gottfried Herder, for instance, helped introduce history as a rigorous discipline in the late eighteenth century. Herder's work deals primarily with philosophy, but he also concerned himself with studying German cultural history and nationalism. His work in this field was thorough and historical. But he was also one of the founders of a theory now known as classical historicism. Historicism tries to "shift Western thought away from its preoccupation with universal and timeless truth." (Burns and Rayment-Pickard 57) Meinecke writes of the thought of Herder and Wilhelm von Humboldt, "The essence of historicism is the substitution of a process of individualizing observation for a generalizing view of human history [without excluding]... altogether any attempt to find general laws and types in human life." (57) Herder and many of the historicists after him demanded a focus on culture, both locally and nationally, as a factor in human history. Cultural studies, as opposed to studying individuals in isolation from one another, seek to explain historical phenomena in terms of culture and "Volkgeist." This position differs radically from other Enlightenment thinkers who held that the nationality and upbringing played but small roles compared to individual accomplishments in human history.

The importance of this kind of criticism can be seen in modern historical studies. Cultural studies often represent a separate department in universities. Historians such as Hayden White and Stephen Greenblatt have focused on the study of culture, sparking a revolution among historians. Cultural influences now occupy a prominent role in a historian's examination of a particular epoch or even individual. Notice that philosophers like Herder and Von Humboldt initiated this trend, not those historians engaged merely in speculative history during the Enlightenment. The critical side of history contributed greatly to a neglected element of society. Without theory, this change would never have occurred.

I have only touched on a few of the many ways in which man can view history. Many of these theorists were not even really conscious of their position within the critical side of history. They developed out of the search for a new and more accurate method of speculative history. But their conception reveals the difficult theoretical questions surrounding the practice of history: How should we practice history? What is the method behind it? Can we treat history as a science, like chemistry or physics? As has been shown, these questions are complicated. I am not trying to suggest that one approach is better than the other. Positivism requires consideration as a driving theory behind historical inquiry. But so do other critical philosophies of history, and the current rejection of theory in history prevents historians from freely discussing the theoretical basis of their own craft.


Works Cited

Burns, Robert M., and Hugh Rayment-Pickard. Philosophies of History. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.

Dray, William. Philosophy of History. Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice Hall, 1964.

Kuhn, Thomas S. "The Natural and the Human Sciences". The Interpretive Turn. Ed.

David R. Hiley, James F. Bohman, and Richard Shusterman. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991.

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Howell, Martha and Watler Prevenier. From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 2001.

Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996.

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