What is History?

History is a dynamic concept that’s development has been parallel with human thought’s progression. As it as an abstract concept the idea that one can simply define history with a phrase is as absurd as a Romanticist attempting to define post-modernism. Neville Morley also shares this perspective and in his opening chapter of Writing Ancient History, he dedicates a portion of the writing to express to his views on the controversial debate of defining history.

Morley writes about the “common sense approach to definition” which relates to how we have, as a society, learned to understand the world in the way we do, and how this has resulted in the vast majority of our populous accepting a particular idea of history. Morley writes that while this “is obvious, natural and universally”, it is also unsubjected to any “analysis or criticism”. It discusses the generational process whereby history students attend school, learn the orthodox methodologies involved with history and strive to emulate their predecessors example. This results in unchanging cycle where the same historical processes are applied and re-educated to the latter generations. This would be an effective way of teaching if, we as a society, had confirmed that our definition of history, and all its ensuing processes, methodologies and content was the “highest and truest” form. However, as no one possesses the prodigious qualifications to make that declaration, this problem with regards to our accepting of this un-analysed and un-criticised idea of history, is that there is no way for history to evolve. There have been various official or unofficial reformations in history, which have led to the dynamic nature of history, which makes the absolute definition of history very controversial.

The development of history and the way history has been recorded, and what the history has recorded has also been dependent on the historical practices of the time. In the Palaeolithic period, history was primitively recorded visually as art, seen in cave paintings as seen in Lascaux; “The Prehistoric Sistine Chapel”. Then after Herodotus and Thucydides, history became formalised, with Morley stating “from the time of its invention in the late sixth century BC until the eighteenth-century AD, history was regarded as primarily a type of literature”. While modern historians discredit this historical format, this was merely the particular idea concerning history within that context, much like our own understanding in contemporary times. Thus, it is wrong to discredit this idea as being wrong, as Morley says “even a brief survey of the history of historiography shows clearly that our idea of history is not universally valid but is on the contrary no more and no less than our idea”. Just because we have continued the modern rationalistic approach to history seen by how “in the nineteenth-century, it became an academic discipline based in universities as a kind of science”, in no way gives our idea superiority over predeceasing ideas. Even in contemporary settings, there is ongoing controversy as to what content history should cover, transcribed by Morley in “different periods have had different ideas of the proper content of history (the idea that historians might study the lower classes, or women, is of fairly recent date)”, and as there is a near infinite amount of detail that could be transcribed surrounding historical events, so the very subject matter of history is the centre of intense scrutiny and debate. The methodology of history hasn’t yet been defined either, and judging how the debate has been going on since Herodotus and Thucydides, it is unlikely to be resolved soon. These components that comprise history each have their individual controversy, thus further complicating the definition of history.

The idea of ‘proper history’ also inadvertently works against the future development of history. The almost aristocratic approach to who makes the history has led to according to Morley, “this is a recipe for close-minded conservatism if there ever was one”. The central premise of ‘proper’ history is that it “is seen to be that which is accepted as such by ‘proper historians – basically, those with university appointments – and most investigations of the nature and methodology of history focus exclusively on the activities of professional historians. History is what the historians do. This in a way has led to an arrogance with regards to historians, halting the development and improvement of historical sources. It effectively has disengaged the creative free thought of future historians by making them follow what the modern scholars believe to be the ‘right way’ to investigating and recording history. This subliminal restriction of free thought has severely impeded the progression of historiographical research. History is now exclusively in the hands of the experts, and only those who possess the necessary qualifications can write on it. This creates a close-minded perspective towards our current model of history and limits the growth of historical analysis.

Too add my own thoughts to the debate, is that by creating this perpetual cycle, where we are taught a certain way and correspondingly develop in accustom to the way we are taught does not suit the historic discipline. As society re-emphasizes its thinking’s to technology, so to should it focus on the development of historiography, because as Morley writes, how we learn history now is only a relatively new model. It is unfair to say that our ideas of history are superior than to that of earlier periods, or that we have developed the “truest form of history”. Evidently as seen throughout history there are many forms history can take, each being just as relevant but no more superior or inferior to each other. It is simply that different periods have their different models of history. To say that our contemporary idea of history is the absolute truth with regards to history is simply wrong. It is this ambiguity and dynamic nature that makes the concept of history so controversial to define. History is a translucent concept, every culture and every time period has their own ideas with what it should be. Herodotus would have been laughed out of Oxford if he had presented his histories there, alas he wrote his in a time when that literary element in history was the accepted model and now he has been revered as the father of history. This exemplifies the potent nature of history and how its dynamic variety of models and ideas attempting to define it are under consistent controversy.

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