From New World Encyclopedia
History, mosaic by Frederick Dielman

History is a word of multiple meanings, all related to the past. When used as the name of a field of study, history traditionally refers to the study and interpretation of the written record of past human activity, people, societies, and civilizations leading up to the present day. More broadly, as explained in the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, "history in the wider sense is all that has happened, not merely all the phenomena of human life, but those of the natural world as well. It is everything that undergoes change; and as modern science has shown that there is nothing absolutely static, therefore, the whole universe, and every part of it, has its history." The term history comes from the Greek historia (ἱστορία), "an account of one's inquiries," and shares that etymology with the English word story.

When considering history as an academic field of study, knowledge of history is often said to encompass both knowledge of past events and historical thinking skills. This includes analysis and interpretation of historical accounts (thinking about history), not just the learning of dates and names (knowing history). It involves asking whether alternative accounts might tell a different story, or whether the account contains any bias.

Traditionally, the study of history has been considered a part of the humanities, alongside a subject such as literature. However, in modern academia, history is increasingly classified as a social science, especially when chronology is the focus.

Events occurring before the introduction of the earliest known written and historical records, (which includes more than 99 percent of the time humans have existed) are described as prehistory, a period informed by the fields of paleontology and archaeology. In cultures where written records did not appear until more recent times, oral tradition is used, and even in cultures where written records are common, many historians supplement the written records with oral history. The history of, say, the Australian aborigines is almost all drawn from oral sources.

Thinkers differ as to whether the events of history are entirely arbitrary or whether history possesses an overall organizing theme, meaning, direction, or end. They also differ about the extent to which human beings individually or collectively can purposefully influence the direction of history. For people who sense their responsibility to history, the study of the past can disclose lessons for the present.


The term history entered the English language in 1390, with the meaning of "relation of incidents, story" via the Old French historie, from Latin historia, "narrative, account." This itself was derived from the Ancient Greek ἱστορία, historía, meaning "a learning or knowing by inquiry, history, record, narrative," from the verb ἱστορεῖν, historeîn, "to inquire."

This, in turn, was derived from ἵστωρ, hístōr ("wise man," "witness," or "judge"). Early attestations of ἵστωρ are from the Homeric Hymns, Heraclitus, the Athenian ephebes' oath, and from Boiotic inscriptions (in a legal sense, either "judge" or "witness," or similar). The spirant is problematic, and not present in cognate Greek eídomai ("to appear").

ἵστωρ is ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European language *wid-tor-, from the root *weid- ("to know, to see"), also present in the English word wit, the Latin words vision and video, the Sanskrit word veda the Welsh word gwynn, and the Slavic word videti, as well as others. 'ἱστορία, historía, is an Ionic derivation of the word, which with Ionic science and philosophy were spread first in Classical Greece and ultimately over all of Hellenism.

In Middle English, the meaning was "story" in general. The restriction to the meaning "record of past events" in the sense of Herodotus arises in the late fifteenth century (interestingly, in German, this distinction was never made, and the modern German word "Geschichte" means both history and story). A sense of "systematic account" without a reference to time in particular was current in the sixteenth century, but is now obsolete. The adjective historical is attested from 1561 and historic from 1669. Historian in the sense of a "researcher of history" in a higher sense than that of an annalist or chronicler, who merely record events as they occur, is attested from 1531.

Historical records

Historians obtain information about the past from different kinds of sources, including written or printed records, coins or other artifacts, buildings and monuments, and interviews (oral history). For modern history, photographs, audio recordings, and motion pictures may be primary sources. Different approaches may be more common in the study of some periods than in others, and perspectives of history (historiography) vary widely.

Historical records have been maintained for a variety of reasons, including administration (such as censuses and tax records), politics (glorification or criticism of leaders and notable figures), religion, art, records of sporting events (notably the Olympics), an interest in genealogy, personal letters, and entertainment.

Historical methods

Historians of note who have advanced the historical methods of study include Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886), Lewis Bernstein Namier (1888-1960), Geoffrey Rudolph Elton (1921-1994), G.M. Trevelyan (1876-1962), and A.J.P. Taylor (1906-1990).

Von Ranke believed that the historian could “penetrate to a kind of intuitive feeling of the inner being of the past,” to what history “essentially was [like]” (wie es eigentlich gewesen). He also argued that the past has to be seen in its own terms; one must not judge “the past … by the standards of the present” (Evans 2000, 14-15).

Elton (an admirer of Churchill) was a fierce critic of postmodernism and disliked the multi-disciplinary approach to historical reconstruction that used sociology or anthropology as critical tools. He disliked the use of history for philosophical or political purposes, such as Marxism (Marxists misused history to prove their philosophy).

Taylor was sympathetic to Marxism, supported the Anti-Nuclear movement and did read meaning into history. He thought that accidents more often than not make history and leaders react to these rather than initiate. History is full of blunders. Taylor believed that capitalism was basically immoral and an obstacle to the creation of a just world order. He wanted government to be more open and allow greater access to documents and archives. In recent years, postmodernists have challenged the validity and need for the study of history on the basis that all history is based on the personal interpretation of sources.


Historiography is the study and analysis of history through a belief system or philosophy. Although there is arguably some intrinsic bias in historical studies (with national bias perhaps being the most significant), history can also be studied from ideological perspectives, such as Marxist historiography or as religions teach, from the perspective of a supervising providence that nonetheless also recognizes human freedom to act. The Indus Valley Civilization offers examples of what is called identity or cultural politics when alternative accounts of history are offered to counter the allegation of bias (Euro-centric in this case). The article on Cleopatra also discusses this issue.

A form of historical speculation known commonly as virtual history ("counterfactual history") has also been adopted by some historians as a means of assessing and exploring the possible outcomes if certain events had not occurred or had occurred in a different way. This is somewhat similar to the alternative history genre of fiction.


Some people have criticized historical study, saying that it tends to be too narrowly focused on political events, armed conflicts, and famous people. Deeper and more significant changes in terms of ideas, technology, family life, and culture have received too little attention. Recent developments in history have sought to redress this. Others point out that history is too often just that, "his" story rather than "her" story and that the stories, lives, and achievements of women have been left out. Some point out that history is rather like a form of fiction, except that fiction makes people up while history uses characters that really did live. Contemporary approaches to history that ask such questions as “who wrote this account, in whose interests, and whose voices are silent?” challenge the traditional view that history presents "objective facts" and encourage people to challenge the type of omniscient, third person voice that claims to relate exactly what happened.

Historians may or may not choose to ask moral questions about history, or to derive moral lessons from historical accounts. History is often regarded as a neutral, objective, factual discipline. However, the questions that historiography asks about the bias of sources raises the issue whether complete objectivity is possible. Historians who write from various ideological perspectives will derive from history whatever they need to prove or to confirm their theories about history. For example, a Marxist account will show how the dialectic process of competition between classes explains such an event as the French Revolution. Alternatively, accounts based on the premise that history is a theater within which the good and the bad struggle for victory and that the end of history is overseen by a divine reality will interpret historical events as examples of movement toward or away from the divine purpose. Those who advocate such a view of history will evaluate as inadequate those accounts of history that refrain from moral censure of immoral behavior or that regard every historical event as human action, ignoring the possibility of divine action.

In defense of history

In his book In Defense of History, Richard J. Evans, a professor of modern history at Cambridge University, defended the worth of history. Until recently, history was thought to be a quite straightforward affair of recording facts. Texts, written by University-based scholars, were regarded as reliable. Owning history, however, has become something of a battleground, especially for those with ideological agendas that arguably include most people who set out to record history. The issue of ownership of history is found in such names as Black history, feminist history, and Marxist history. In the Middle East (and in many other territorially contested areas in the world), the most contested arena concerns who has the right to interpret the history of the region. In this example, Jews and Arabs tell very different stories about the creation of the State of Israel and about the subsequent history of the Palestinian people (Bennett 2005, 209-218).

What scholars call revisionist history, or the re-writing of history, can uncover bias and assumptions of racial superiority, and it can as well make all European explorers and missionaries into imperialists and capitalists, whether they were or not. Freedom from bias of any type may be impossible to achieve in historical reconstruction. The attempt to write less biased history is often seen to depend on conducting historical research by reading as many different accounts as possible, ideally by a wide a range of writers, including women as well as men, by the conquered as well as the conquerors, by dissidents as well as those who occupy the seats of power, so that a holistic picture can emerge. This may be the overriding moral responsibility of the serious and fair-minded historian, but achieving a balanced multiplicity of such sources may itself not be possible as those in dominance positions historically have tended to dominate the written record as well. Nonetheless, many historians today recognize multi-vocality as one goal of any historical reconstruction and one standard being that of open declaration of any agenda that a scholar may have, such as to question traditional accounts or to retrieve hidden or silenced voices.

The critical paradigm in scholarship can properly be used to right wrongs but the critical scholar should also be aware that two wrongs do not make a right. For example, uncovering the fact that Africans also profited from the slave trade and engaged in slavery cannot be used to get the European slavers off the moral hook. The contention that we can never write other people's history, too, is overly pessimistic and even dangerous, since if we can only know and write about our own cultures or histories there is no chance of inter-cultural or inter-racial harmony. Evans (2000) suggests that while “it is right and proper that postmodern theorists and critics should force historians to rethink the categories and assumptions with which they work,” we “really can, if we are very scrupulous and careful and self-critical, find out 'about the past' and reach some tenable conclusions about what it meant” (220). The accuracy of an historian's account, he suggests, will in large measure depend upon that historian's honesty, and “desire to produce a true, fair and accurate account of the subject under consideration” fully recognizing the “limits…[that the] facts of history and the sources which reveal them … place on the historical imagination.”

Similarly, Oxford scholar Albert Hourani (1915-1993) defended Orientalist (Western) scholarship of the non-Western world. Edward Said (1935-2003) heavily criticized this view in his 1978 Orientalism as a dialectic of “knowledge and control” that belittled the non-Westerner as only worthy of domination by the West. Hourani argued that despite mistakes and bias, “a hundred years of study of these matters have produced a body of work which cannot be regarded as badly done” (1979: 29). Hourani accepted much of Said's criticism, but warned against a blanket condemnation of Western scholarship.

Specialized and universal histories

Because history is such a large subject, most historical studies have specialized on a particular subject. Treatments of historical information may be

  • Chronological (by date)
  • Geographical (by region)
  • National (by nation)
  • Ethnic (by ethnic group)
  • Topical (by subject or topic)

Several writers, such as H.G. Wells (his Short History of the World, 1922) and Will and Ariel Durant (Story of Civilization, 1993), have written universal histories. Most notable among them was Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975), who combined philosophy and history in his twelve volume A Study of History(1946; 1987), which traced out universal rhythms of the rise, flowering, and decline of civilizations. Toynbee focused on civilizations and on the challenges that they faced and on how they responded, suggesting that when they responded creatively they flourished, when they failed to respond, they fell. Civilizations usually kill themselves, he argued (1987: 262). He pioneered the "comparative study of civilization" (also called the "cultural-historical" school). He believed that world history could be studied by investigating 21 civilizations in 16 regions, and that a family relationship existed between civilizations in a given region (mother-daughter, or affiliated civilizations). Some civilizations were aborted, some were "arrested" in development, but he did not (unlike others) attribute this to racial characteristics (51). Toynbee thought that environmental factors caused certain civilizations to decline or stall while stimulation from outside and inter-cultural contact resulted in dynamic growth, as could imitation. The creative genius benefits from contact with other cultures. Civilizations emerge from primitive societies when transition occurs from “a static condition to a dynamic condition” (50), and this response to stimulus is a universal norm:

The genesis of all civilizations—the unrelated and the related class alike—could be described in the phrase of General Smuts, "Mankind is once more on the move."

Philosophers have regarded this alternating rhythm of static and dynamic, of movement and pause in many different ages, as something fundamental in the nature of the Universe (51).

The lessons of history

In addition to being an interesting topic of study in its own right, historians often claim that the study of history teaches valuable lessons with regard to past successes and failures of leaders, economic systems, forms of government, and other recurring themes in the human story. One may learn from history factors that result in the rise and fall of nation-states or civilizations, motivations for political actions, the effects of social philosophies, and perspectives on culture and technology.

Many historiographies regard the study of history as having a moral purpose. They reject the idea that history or life is just "one damn thing after another," as Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) famously put it. They aim to prevent the second part of Millay's phrase, "it is one damn thing over and over," by learning lessons. The Roman scholar and Senator, Marcus Tullius Cicero (c. 50 B.C.E.), is cited as having said, "To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?" One of the most famous quotations about history and the value of studying history by Spanish philosopher George Santayana, reads: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Others express skepticism about the ability to learn lessons from history. German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel remarked in his Philosophy of History that: "What history and experience teach us is this: That people and government never have learned anything from history or acted on principles deduced from it." This was famously paraphrased by British Prime Minister, statesman, and Nobel Prize-winning author of A History of the English Speaking Peoples, Winston Churchill into: "The one thing we have learned from history is that we don't learn from history." Churchill himself wrote his historical works in the main from the perspective of having helped to make the history, about which he wrote: "As far as [he was] able, the method of Defoe's Memoirs of a Cavalier, in which the author hangs the chronicle and discussion of great military and political events upon the thread of the personal experiences of an individual" (1986: xiii). History, for Churchill, was a branch of moral philosophy, and his motto was, "In War, Resolution; In Defeat, Defiance; In Victory, Magnamity; in Peace, Goodwill" (x).

The directionality of history

Many thinkers maintain that the totality of human history, in spite of the apparent arbitrariness of various historical events, possesses a large organizing theme, meaning, or direction. Of course, efforts to find meaning or direction in history have been criticized by thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Michel Foucault, and Gilles Deleuze, who claim that it is a grave mistake to look for meaning where none can exist, because history is best characterized by discontinuities, ruptures, and various time-scales. But, many, in spite of the diversity of their religious, philosophical, and ideological backgrounds, have been much interested in finding the directionality of history. They can be put under three distinguishable categories: Theological, "metahistorical," and progressivist interpretations.

On the other hand, skepticism about being able to learn lessons from history is sometime related to the view that history does not repeat itself because of the uniqueness of any given historical event. In this view, the specific combination of factors at any moment in time can never be repeated, and so knowledge about events in the past cannot be directly and beneficially applied to the present. This approach is challenged in less metahistorical terms with the notion that historical lessons can and should be drawn from events, and that careful generalizations of unique events is useful. For example, emergency response to natural disasters can be improved, even though each individual disaster is, in itself, absolutely unique.

Theological interpretation

This approach falls in the area of theodicy or eschatology. It finds the end of history in divine will and relates to all historical events in terms of that end. It explains the problem of evil seen in the tragedies of history as compatible with the will of a God of benevolence that is to be realized at the end of history. The monotheistic traditions usually take this approach, having a linear theory of history. A classic example of this is St. Augustine's view that the City of God (Civitas Dei) will be realized in heaven after many struggles between good and evil in history. Leibniz's Théodicée (1710) was meant to directly address the problem of evil in history in light of divinely ordained plan. A little more philosophical and secular version of this approach would be Hegel's philosophy of history which regards history as the dialectical process whereby the Absolute Spirit continues to unfold itself until the end, at which its complete unfolding is realized, and according to Hegel, its concrete realization was the Prussian state.

Metahistorical interpretation

The metahistorical interpretation consists in efforts to find historical patterns and generalities beyond history. Metahistorians such as Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee saw history in terms of these general patterns according to which civilizations rise and fall. In his famous The Decline of the West (1918-1922), Spengler maintained that all cultures coming from religions go through a life cycle like that of an organic evolution, from birth to maturation, and to inevitable decline, and that Western culture has already entered its last stage of decline. More optimistic than Spengler's cyclical view is Toynbee's insightful assertion that each cycle in history might make creative developments centering on a goal. In his A Study of History (1914-1961), Toynbee studied twenty-one or so civilizations in terms of genesis, growth, breakdown, and disintegration in the same manner as Spengler, but Toynbee added that if civilizations creatively respond to challenges, they can survive disintegration; that only four are seen to have survived disintegration so far: Christianity, Mahayana Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam; and that a syncretistic faith composed of these higher religions replaces the civilization in the world.

Progressivist interpretation

Enlightenment thinkers rejected any religious and theological interpretation of history centering on divine will but brought in their own humanistic version of teleology, saying that human nature will progress to the point of perfectibility. In his The Education of Humankind (1780), Lessing proposed three stages of human progress: Old Testament Age (the age of infancy), New Testament Age (the age of childhood), and the eighteenth century (the age of mature adulthood). This progressivist approach can be seen also in Condorect's Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind (1795) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Emile (1762). Adam Smith applied some of this optimism of human nature to his account of the unfolding of modern European economic system in his An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). Loosely connected to the Enlightenment tradition because of its humanistic, non-theological, and materialist stance was Karl Marx's historical materialism, which predicted the coming of a classless utopia in history, although Marx's approach came largely from the Hegelian dialectic after turning Hegel's absolute idealism upside down. Marx's thesis that the dialectical struggle is the reason for historical progress is notable, because for many Enlightenment thinkers the reason for progress was not very clear. An interesting outcome of the Hegelian-Marxist tradition is Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man (1992), although its conclusion is entirely opposite to that of Marx because it argues that when the Cold War ended, the progression of history reached its end where the world settled on liberal democracy.

Historical determinism vs. humans as history-makers

When the directionality of history is discussed, a question naturally arises: Does such an analysis imply that history is deterministic, giving no room for human responsibility to contribute to the future course of history? Spengler's metahistorical interpretation seems basically deterministic and fatalistic, while Toynbee's has some room for human responsibility when it says that civilizations can creatively respond to challenges in order to survive disintegration. The Enlightenment theory of progress also looks largely deterministic when it talks about the irreversible necessity of progress, but that can hardly be reconciled with the Enlightenment's other important tenet that human beings are autonomous. It may be that after humans reach the point of autonomous maturity, determinism no longer obtains. Marx's historical materialism is deterministic because of its dialectical necessity, although Marx modified it by saying: "Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past." Some call it "parametric determinism."

When it comes to theological interpretations of the directionality of history, one can find a variety of positions: From Calvinist predestinarianism to Christian indeterminism. But one point common to all religious interpretations is that any free will humans have is given from God, who with his will is behind history. Based on this notion, most positions tend to believe that while history witnesses divine intervention, humans are supposed to respond to it, so that divine purpose may be realized through divine-human encounter. Augustine's treatment of God's cooperative grace (gratia cooperans) as cooperative with the human will in the more mature stage of human growth constituted the basic Catholic understanding of the unity of God's will and the human will. For Methodists, who are Arminians to a considerable degree, the cooperation between God and humans is possible because of "synergism." Muslim thinkers such as Muhammad Iqbal also secured room for human responsibility in front of God. During the Great Awakening in America from around 1730 to 1760, its main revivalist Jonathan Edwards with Puritan heritage gave his postmillenarian message, encouraging people to take active responsibility morally and socially, that Christ might return.

Useful terms and definitions

  • Historian: A person who studies history
  • Pseudohistory: Term for information about the past that falls outside the domain of mainstream history (sometimes it is an equivalent of pseudoscience)

Methods and tools

  • Contemporaneous corroboration: A method historians use to establish facts beyond their limited lifespan
  • Prosopography: A methodological tool for the collection of all known information about individuals within a given period
  • Periodization: The attempt to categorize or divide historical time into discrete named blocks
  • Historical revisionism: Traditionally has been used in a completely neutral sense to describe the work or ideas of a historian who has revised a previously accepted view of a particular topic. Sometimes this can be ideologically driven, for example, to perpetuate racist attitudes or anti-Semitism by denying that the Holocaust happened or by depicting a history of religious and racial harmony as one of division and conflict. It can also be an attempt to tell an alternative story, for example, from the point of view of women, the conquered, or dissidents. A history of the Ottoman Empire, for example, might stress that religious minorities fared comparatively well (compared with how minorities were treated in Europe) or it might stress the disadvantages and restrictions that non-Muslims experienced.

Particular studies and fields

  • Historical Anthropology: Traditionally, anthropologists researched societies that did not possess written records and were disinterested in history, attempting to record a snap-shot of a particular society at a specific point in time. However, increasingly anthropologists have used textual material to supplement fieldwork, for example, to study how culture changes over time. This has resulted in an approach called Historical Anthropology, of which Charles Lindholme's work is an example. His The Islamic Middle East: An Anthropological History (1996) uses anthropological theory to investigate what was going on behind official accounts. This type of research is less interested in the grand narratives of history, more in how local people lived their lives, often pursuing interests out-of-sympathy with what was officially approved.
  • Archaeology: Study of prehistoric and historic human cultures through the recovery, documentation and analysis of material remains and environmental data
  • Archontology: Study of historical offices and important positions in state, international, political, religious and other organizations and societies
  • Futurology: Study of the future: researches the medium to long-term future of societies and of the physical world. Some religious or providential understandings of, and writing about, history engage in futurology in that they foretell what is going to happen or predict what might happen in certain circumstances.
  • History painter: Painters of historical motifs and particularly the great events
  • Paleography: Study of ancient texts. Much of what we know about Ancient Egypt, for example, is due to paleography
  • Psychohistory: Study of the psychological motivations of historical events. This methodology asks questions about why people did what they did. It explains historical events in terms of the personality types of those who can be said to make history.
  • Human evolution: Process of change and development, or evolution, by which human beings emerged as distinct species. Some believe that evolution remains the key to understanding human progress. That is, our survival instinct drives us to scientific and technological discovery and to try to control the environment, which causes historical events to occur. Some think that war and planetary collapse will eventually be avoided because of this instinct to survive.
  • Social change: Changes in the nature, the social institutions, the social behavior, or the social relations of a society or community of people

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bennett, Clinton. 2005. Muslims and Modernity: An Introduction to the Issues and Debates. London: Continuum. ISBN 082645481X.
  • Churchill, Winston S. 1948. The Gathering Storm: History of the Second World War. New York: Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin, 1986. ISBN 039541055 X.
  • Evans, Richard J. 2000. In Defense of History. New York: W. W. Norton and Co. ISBN 0393319598.
  • Hourani, Albert. “On the Road to Morocco.” New York Review of Books March 1979: 27-30.
  • Lindholme, Charles. 1996. The Islamic Middle East: An Anthropological History. Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 1557864217.
  • Mernissi, Fatima. 1994. Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World (trans. by Mary Jo Lakeland). Cambridge: Perseous Books. ISBN 0738207454.
  • Said, Edward. 1978. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books. ISBN 039474067X.
  • Toynbee, Arnold. 1987. A Study of History. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195050800.

External links

All links retrieved December 26, 2020.


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