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What is History?

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Toni Pilbrow 23/10/03 What is History? The 'Concise Oxford English Dictionary' defines history thus: (1), 'The study of past events'. (2), 'The past considered as a whole; the whole series of past events connected with someone or something, an eventful past'. (3), 'A continuous, typically chronological, record of past events or trends'.1 As neat as the above definitions are, they do not go near a comprehensive definition of the discipline. Indeed, historians today and for many years in the past, appear to have been at loggerheads over this and many other questions, including whether or not history can be considered a science. Professor Jeremy Black, in his recent lecture on this subject stated that there is no individual (single) way of studying history; and that no particular part of history is superior to any other. He said that history has two meanings and that these meanings are, "what happened in the past" and, "what the meaning is of what happened in the past."2 Since the past cannot be repeated, unlike a scientific experiment, it is difficult to see how history can be regarded as a science; and while ...read more.


It was not until the 17th century that this way of thinking or "mindset" began to change due to the influence of the new sciences. From the mid 17th century, the idea of a linear chronology gained ground amongst historians and other thinkers of the age. The mass literacy that occurred during the 19th century confirmed the shift to a linear way of thinking history and the perception that life moves forward; for example, the year 1950 is not the same as 2000 and never could be; the past is dead and its influence on people is not as strong as if it was going to recur. Therefore the last 250 years, characterised as it is by an ever-increasing urbanisation and industrialisation, has led to the situation where we are all linear historicists.3 Assuming that the linear view of history is the correct one, what then is the difference between the past and history? It is that the past is dead and gone; it does not exist except in the memories of people that were alive in a particular time and are still alive, or in documents, artefacts and other surviving physical traces of an historical period. ...read more.


Nevertheless, it could be argued that although these programmes present history in a way that appeals to the "lowest common denominator" (i.e. plenty of breadth, but not much analysis of causes etc.) they are much better than no history at all and ultimately may increase academic influence by virtue of a likely increase in the numbers of people moved to take up formal advanced study of the discipline. In conclusion, E.H.Carr's assertion that historians and historical "facts" interact to create a dialogue is probably close to the mark in defining what history is. He also wrote: 'History begins when men begin to think of the passage of time in terms not of natural processes --- the cycle of the seasons, the human life-span --- but of a series of specific events in which men are consciously involved and which they can consciously influence."4 1 Concise Oxford Dictionary, 2002. 2 Prof. Jeremy Black, University of Exeter lecture, 10/10/2003. 3 Prof. Jeremy Black, University of Exeter lecture, 10/10/2003. 4 Carr, E.H., What Is History, p 129. Palgrave 2001. 1 ...read more.

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