History Basics

History can be considered the complete collection of events that have occurred. It can also be considered the study of those events. Innumerable events have occurred since time immemorial. As time has marched onwards, so has the ingenuity of humanity. Due to this ingenuity, a number of methods have been developed to study history and write about history, but also a number of methods have been developed to distort and obscure history. Being familiar with both of the collections of these methods is the best place to begin studying history, in my opinion. I have an article here on how to start studying history.

Within the discipline of history, there are many subdisciplines. Some of those subdisciplines are political history, economic history, intellectual history, military history, diplomatic history, family history, social history, psychohistory, the history of technology, the history of science, the history of medicine, religious history, cultural history, the history of minorities, gender history, men’s history, women’s history,[1] forest history, and fire history.[2]

For about 450 years now there has been a saying that chronology and geography are the two eyes of history. This is a result of the history’s fundamental dependence on those two subjects. The events of the past are given order through chronology and location through geography. Without these two legs to stand upon, history would be a chaotic mess. Click here to read more about the eyes of history. Also, I have articles available that cover who all have been called The Father of History, The Father of Chronology, and The Father of Geography.

“It is with no little justice, then, that chronology has been styled the eye, and even the soul, of history; or that without it the subjects of this art could be considered no other than a dark chaos, a wreck of fragments void of order and every other indication of design.”
– James Cecil MacDonald (1897)[4, p.3]

The main method that historians use is commonly known as the historical method. To me, historical method varies from person to person and so I define it as “the collection of methods a person uses to write about history”. While one person might make use of as many methods as possible, another might only make use of one or two. Click here to learn more about the historical method.

The word historiography was coined in the 16th century to mean “the art of writing history”, but it has more recently come to mean “the study of how people have studied/written history”. Click here to learn more about historiography.

“The fundamental question is what actually happened and how we know it.”
– Laurence Lee Howe (Historical Method and Legal Education, 1950)[3, p.353]

Howe’s fundamental question is really two questions crammed into one:

1 – “What actually happened?”

2 – “How do we know that?”

I agree that these are the fundamental questions. Question 1 is ontological in nature. It’s asking about what really happened. What events truly occurred? Question 2 is epistemological in nature. It’s asking about how we know what really happened. How can we determine what truly occurred?

I think everyone in the world has been wrong about something at one point or another but thought they were correct. This unfortunate trend is one of many issues that makes the study of history more complex. This is why I think that philosophy, specifically the columns of ontology and epistemology, are important for the study of history.

“Indeed, it requires that all “facts” shall be subject to question, and the progress of historiography demands that the whole body of fact and interpretation shall be continually retested and re-evaluated.”
– Laurence Lee Howe (Historical Method and Legal Education, 1950)[3, p.349]

Another topic that has been discussed is whether history is objective or is limited to subjective interpretation. I think there is an objective history, an real set of events which have transpired, that are then filtered through our subjective experiences. We are experiencing reality but we each experience it subjectively. The same goes for history. Events happened, and among those events are the ones which determined what you’ll accept as legitimate, deny as unreliable, or reserve judgement for.

Click this image for more info about historical methods and studies:

“History exists as a corpus of ascertained facts. The facts are available to the historian in documents, inscriptions and so on, like fish on the fish-mongers slab. The historian collects them, takes them home, and cooks and serves them in whatever style appeals to him.”
– E. H. Carr (1961)[5, p.9]

“It is still far too little appreciated that the history we read, though based on facts, is, strictly speaking, not factual at all, but a series of accepted judgements; and it is these generalized judgements, precisely because they are so plausible and so easily assimilated, that form the minds and colour the outlook of those who cannot know the fragility of the framework upon which they rest.”
– Geoffrey Barraclough (1955)[6, p.14]

“The nineteenth-century fetishism of facts was completed and justified by a fetishism of documents. The documents were the Ark of the Covenant in the temple of facts. The reverent historian approached them with bowed head and spoke of them in awed tones. If you find it in the documents, it is so. But what, when we get down to it, do these documents – the decrees, the treatises, the rent-rolls, the blue books, the official correspondence, the private letters and diaries – tell us? No document can tell us more than what the author of the document thought – what he thought had happened, what he thought ought to happen or would happen, or perhaps only what he wanted others to think he thought.”
– E. H. Carr (1961)[5, p.16]

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[1] – https://www.tru.ca/arts/php/history/A_Handbook_for_TRU_History_Students/Varieties_of_History.html. Accessed 9 Dec. 2020.

[2] – http://shortleafpine.net/media/videos-and-webinars/videos/3rd-bienniel-shortleaf-pine-conference/dendrochronology-and-forest-history. Accessed 9 Dec. 2020.

[3] – Howe, Laurence Lee. “Historical Method and Legal Education.” Bulletin of the American Association of University Professors (1915-1955), vol. 36, no. 2, 1950, pp. 346–356. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40220732. Accessed 9 Dec. 2020.

[4] – James Cecil Macdonald. “Chronologies and Calendars” (London, 1897). Accessed 15 Jan. 2021.

[5] – E. H. Carr. “What Is History?” (1961). http://seas3.elte.hu/coursematerial/LojkoMiklos/E.H._Carr,_What_is_History,_1961.pdf. Accessed 23 Feb. 2021.

[6] – Geoffrey Barraclough. “History In A Changing World” (1955). https://archive.org/details/historyinchangin00barr/page/14/mode/1up. Accessed 23 Feb. 2021.

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