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How have perspectives on the meaning of history changed over time?

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Introduction

Sarah Whiteway 14/11/02 How have perspectives on the meaning of history changed over time? Perspectives on the meaning of history have varied greatly overtime. As Keith Jenkins explains in his work, 'Re-thinking History', there are two clear distinctions of history: firstly there is history as a reference to the past events and secondly, history as the records and writings of the past. In recognising that history, 'is a discourse about, but categorically different from, the past', a clearer understanding of what history is may be reached. Additionally, in acknowledging this, one may hope to appreciate the changing perspectives of history over time. These changing perspectives can be attributed to common factors such as changing ideologies, changing experiences and changes in the means of recording history. The Greek historians, among them Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius and Tacitus, display distinct perspectives of history than that of contemporary historians. That is not to say that their historiography is not useful, for it reflects the understanding of the importance oh history at that time and identifies the evolution and development of historical perspectives over time. This is especially evident in the writings of Herodotus, the 'Father of History' as he acknowledges history as a means of 'presenting the renown of actual deeds', as John Warren explains in History and the Historians. ...read more.

Middle

This reflected the Enlightenment belief that history was not simply an account of previous events and their consequences, but rather an investigation into motives, ideas and concepts surrounding these events. Although he denounced Edward Gibbon's historiography, seeing him not as a true respecter of history, but rather a distorter of history in order to fit his own theories, Ranke exemplified that the Enlightenment was not a unified movement but rather a development from previous historical styles. In recognising that the history at the time would not 'instruct men for the profit of future years', but 'merely...show(ed) how, essentially, things happened', it can be seen how Ranke's perspective on history envisaged a more effective approach that had not been fulfilled previously. This recognition marks the beginning of the evolution of modern history, as outlined by the Catholic intellectual Lord Acton in the late 19th Century, claiming that Ranke 'is the representative of the age which instituted the modern study of History. He taught it to be critical, to be colourless, and to be new'. During the 19th Century Karl Marx emerged, determined to change the ideals of his homeland Germany, and much of the world. He was opposed to nationalism, the power of the state and the politics of the elites, and looked upon society in horror at the dominating and growing prospects of industrialisation and capitalism. ...read more.

Conclusion

This perspective recognises the complexity of history and the history of perceiving 'history'. Postmodernism, as the name suggests, surfaced from the end of modernist theory and all that is stood for. This view is not only reflected in postmodernist history but also in art, music and literature. Postmodernism rejected the modernist views, and questioned that history was fundamentally structured by the distortion of history. In recognising that history has been written through the study of other distortions, postmodernist historians not only questioned history but also refused to accept the accuracy and truthfulness of history. This clear opposition is evident in Hayden White's Metahistory, where he writes of his belief that the composition of a historian's work is as much fabrication as it is actuality. This perspective can be seen in George Iggers explanation of White, where he suggests White argues that 'an historical text is in essence nothing more than a literary text, a poetical creation as deeply involved in the imagination as the novel'. Many different perspectives have evolved over time, which reflect the changing attitudes of society and culture. In comparing the contemporary postmodernist view to that of the Greek historians Herodotus and Thucydides, or Christian historians Eusebius and Bede, the transformation of perspectives is most significant. In recognising that interpretations of history have varied greatly in over two thousand years, it is interesting to try to comprehend what history will mean and what it will be perceived as in the following centuries. ...read more.

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