Tuesday, August 23, 2005

What is History?

Is history an art or a science? Consider where history appears in various college catalogs -- as a social science or a humanities discipline. What are the implications of grouping history with the social sciences? the humanities? What are the differences in methodolgy between these areas? Do they have other differences in terms of disciplinary assumptions about the world?

If history is a science, what would this imply about the world and about "historic fact"? If an art, how would this change our understanding of fact?

E.H. Carr's text What is History? raises a number of important points about the historian and interpretation. In your comments, please find at least two issues that stand out for you in the text and explain what implications these issues have for the study of history. Did reading this text change your view of the nature of history and of the historian's task?


At 9:54 PM, Blogger Kathleen said...

I enjoyed your class Tuesday evening. It was quite informative. I found it as bit confusing that we are supposed to be both objective and subjective in our practice. I enjoyed the debate on history as a science or an art. Thank you for bringing in the ancient coins. They were quite impressive. I told my class about them the next day. Kathleen

At 10:05 PM, Blogger Dr. Deborah Vess said...

Hi. Yes, the historian is to be as objective as possible, but often there is a great deal of subjectivity involved when one begins to interpret the sources. I would not say that historians are supposed to be subjetive, however, but rather that often we are more subjective than we wish to be. When we are crafting interpretations, we bring with us a lotof cultural and other baggage that often gets translated into our work as professionals. So, no matter how objective we try to be, one of E.H. Carrr's points is that we never become completely objective. I'd encourage you to find passages in the Carr text where he discusses this issue and perhaps to comment on them again in a post. Glad you liked the coins and the class session.

At 10:01 AM, Blogger Joey said...

I think Carr raises a valid point in his text that historians often strive to objective in the reporting of the past but are subjective to the world around them. History, as many of us say, does not happen in a vacuum. Niether, however, do historians write in a vacuum (nor are their works read in static by the public). History follows trends like ever other fad in life. In the 1990s, I believe the history of science and technology increased significantly because of the advances of technology that were occurring in the world. Today, if you check out the history section at a local book store, you will find a growing array of military related titles. This growth, I feel, is a response to the military engagements that we have increasingly become involved in during the last five years. People tend to draw from history in an attempt to understand the past. So, the job of the historian is to reflect that past as objectively as possible. That requires us to step away from today's environment and present an objective narrative. I enjoyed our first session and look forward to more engaging and insightful dialogue.

At 5:17 PM, Blogger Dr. Deborah Vess said...

Hello, all: this is from Donnie -- he had trouble logging on so I am posting this for him.

Donnie says: Carr attempts to evaluate the impact of society on an individual. He tries to delineate between the actions and views held by an individual that are his alone and those that have been shaped by his environment. Carr states that "human nature" is formed by the time in which one lives. Carr would argue that great men, although notorious and unique, are still biproducts of their environment, and with out the society in which they lived they may have been unknown. Believing in this concept completely tarnishes the possiblility of objective history. If it is impossible to break away from society's impact then it is impossible to write history without one's biases and beliefs being apparent. Through this way of thinking, Carr believes one can learn just as much about the time period in which the author lives as one can learn about the time period in which the author is writing about. Carr makes very valid points although I don't believe he gives the individual enough credit. Carr states that "the individual apart from society would be both speechless and mindless." True, the individual would not speak English or any other known language, but he would attempt to communicate vervbally and through body language. I definately wouldn't go as far as to say that the uninfluenced human would be mindless. Although I disagree with some of his assertions, I believe he raises very debateable questions. From Donnie Clanton

At 8:52 PM, Blogger donna said...

As I read Carr's text, I became rather depressed thinking that I could never again be sure of anything I had learned about history...His comments about 'studying the historian before studying the facts,' and always 'listening out for the buzzing of the historian's issues when reading a work of history,'
were particularly interesting to me. These comments support the need for graduate students to begin their programs with courses like Hist 6001.

After reading more of Carr's book, I came to realize that there is something very positive in examining your discipline and in making sure that you know how to critique research. Carr ended his first chapter with the following ideas-- "The relation between the historian and his facts is one of equality, of give-and-take..." and that history is "...a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past." These ideas gave me a feeling of hope that we can know truth through historical facts--as long as we, and our colleagues, approach historical research in an ethical manner--continually monitoring and adjusting our ideas as new facts and interpretations emerge.

At 10:47 PM, Blogger Lindsay said...

I enjoyed class on Tuesday also. The discussion about history and whether it was an art or a science really made me think.I arrived at the conclusion that in my opinion through the methodology or science of history you arrive at the point of interpretation. This is where the art is found, in the interpretation of the facts themselves. So maybe history isn't one or the other but rather the best of both worlds.

At 12:01 PM, Blogger Joey said...

Donna I think you raise an interesting point in saying that we need professionalization of our discipline. I feel that history is to "catch-all" in today's society. I use to become frustrated when, after telling people that I was a history major, and hearing their prophetic relpy that I "must be planning on teaching." The statement was degrading in my viewpoint because I didn't want to teach, I wanted to be a historian. Naturally I knew that my job would include teaching but I felt my first duty was to my subject rather than my profession. I think we need to continue working to professionalize our profession, critiquing how we've been doing things, and working on how we can make ourselves more recognizable in today's society. This is where I think Dr. Vess is ahead of the curve. Historians should jump on the "technology track" and be on the cutting edge of communicating in the 21st century.

At 10:28 PM, Blogger Kathleen said...

Tuesday night's discussion made me analyze my own methods of research and interpretation. I plan on revisiting the Carr text as I begin researching & writing my thesis.


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