The Definition of History

It has been suggested that despite changes over time, there are certain things which all human beings experience throughout history, which therefore link us together: birth, sex, and death.

– John H. Arnold (History: A Very Short Introduction)

When reading John H. Arnold’s book History: A Very Short Introduction, this one quote (among many others), but this one quote in particular, resonated with me. Overall Arnold’s book depicted the various viewpoints different time periods had on what is story is or was. History, while it is currently a profession, has taken on the form of the ideologies of the people doing the history during their existence. Arnold references certain events in history that I had not even heard of, but his usages of them made me rethink my own definition of what history is and means to me. History, prior to any of the readings, was the people, places, and events of the past. What did that truly mean? I no longer know. That is very broad and vague. As Arnold mentions, there are many people who seem to have existed in the past part are forgotten.

When learning of archives and the information they hold, I am not reminded of the importance they truly bestow. Aside from being evidence and a vessel to certain bias in history (simply because the documents or artifacts reflect the individual(s) that created or owned them), archives hold the hidden secrets that we must be able to make intellectual guesses. This notion of guess-work then brings into play both: the notion that history has, and continues to, evolve and scientific history.

Arnold reminds us that people during each era or time period did not name themselves, for in their mind, they were living in the “now”. We reference 5th Century to 15th Century AD to being the Medieval Period, but the people living during that time did not consider themselves to be living in the Medieval Period but in their version of the “right now,” same goes for the Ancient Greeks and Egyptians. I am certain, now, that they did not refer to themselves as being ancient people, but as being just people, the same way in which we see ourselves. Yet, we can say that their understanding of history differed from how we understand history today. From reading their literature, we can an emphasis on history for a while was that of wars and royalty. Yet, today we learn history as a collective. In grade school, history is the mother, but we learn of the various characteristics of her children: anthropology, archaeology, archivists, and the like. History, after reading Arnold, I realized is such a broad term. People who study history often also specialize in an area or discipline of history. These disciplines, some of them, are now notarized professions, yet they all dibble in the same realm as what history now is. History, to me at this current time, is the in-depth study of the biases of the people, places, and times throughout the past with no definite beginning and no definite ending, flowing together to make progress in the dynamics of structure and understanding with time.

As we know from science, time is infinite, which then means it essentially does not truly exist because infinity is not a number. However, there is more than time that history borrows from science and then we segue over to the concept of scientific history. In Bonnie G. Smith’s The Gender of History, chapter 4 “The Practices of Scientific History”, she enlightens me on the mode of comprehension when it comes to determining this notion of “historical fact”. I must also remember my new learnings from Arnold that history is not fact but simply our interpretation from the evidence we are given and with intellectual guesses of what is fact. With that being said, Arnold along with Smith and Joyce Appleby in her article on “The Power of History”, all reference this concept of scientific history, which I had never before heard about or even considered. As previously mentioned, Smith initiates her discussion with the concept of borrowed techniques. I reverently enjoyed Arnold’s analyses to history borrowing concepts and techniques from other disciplines, but Smith took my understanding to a different dimension. I had to stop in reading those few lines just ponder how history may have taken the scientific method approach to understanding the past?

I came to fruition when I had complete all the readings. Historians begin with a question, or maybe a couple questions, we then do background research. Whether knowingly or unknowingly, we co9nstruct a hypothesis on what we think we might uncover. Instead of doing a test, we search for evidence that either helps to confirm our thought process or, and probably most often, contradicts our thought process. Along the way, we are faced with the inevitable question of “is this working?” Are we looking in the right places? Are we following the right leads? Did we uncover all that we can uncover? In the end, answers are probably complex. There are gaps, like Arnold mentions and we must make those intellectual guesses. We must analyze our evidence and draw conclusions. We then reflect on our initial thought and we generally share our research. Science and history are not far from being similar as far a common process goes.

Yet, I cannot help but think about Arnold and his references to borrowing disciplines. I question history as a whole. Essentially, is almost everything we learn technically history? I was an English major for undergrad, but I learned the history of literature and I learned of various literary works over the centuries. When studying various scholarly – and perhaps even the non-scholarly but trade – professions, do we not first learn the history behind their origins? And even still, those professions each have a stake in an area of history. So history is more like an umbrella for every discipline? Or is it that these disciplines can help to analyze the past because of what was going on? At some point, reading and writing (English) was created to do and to be studies, but now English can help us to understand the cultural history of a group of people. This same concept can be said about other disciplines. Yet, in my now, all of these can constitute as history.

My thoughts continue to prove to me that history and the way in which history is viewed is constantly changing. Who is to say that history in a century from now won’t be how I perceive it today? Does my presentism, at times, impact my complete understanding or the past? Am I casting my presentism onto what I perceive the future to be? How can I remove my own bias presentism and give an authentic inside scope to a historic time, or can I? Arnold has opened my mind in a way that I am not completely done thinking. I have much to learn and I could go on and on, but then I may only further confuse myself.

What I do know is that history is more complex and can bestow multiple definitions depending on the individual. I also know that because history is constantly changing, I could be correct in my understanding of history because of complexity. For now, I am content with my definition of history, but I know it will change as I continue to learn more. History is the in-depth study of the biases of the people, places, and times throughout the past with no definite beginning and no definite ending, flowing together to make progress in the dynamics of structure and understanding with time.

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