Sep 29, 2008

What can historians study?

As a long-term student of history, I am fascinated with the many ways one can approach the subject. By "history" here I mean the total of all human events of the past. We can know those events through the historical record: blood-stained flint arrowheads; paintings on cave walls; relief sculpture on marble monuments; "holy scripture" on vellum; the weave of clothing on bodies buried in peat bogs; handwritten philosophical journals; and governmental records stored on sun-baked clay tablets, sheets of papyrus, or computer hard drives. History, as a field of productive work, is an inquiry (historia, in ancient Greek) into events of the past.

WHOLES. First of all, historians can draw inferences from these items to describe whole periods of history: the Roman Empire (27 BCE-c. 400 AD), the Gupta Empire of northern India (c. 320-550), the explosive expansion of Islam (c. 600-800), the Ming Dynasty in eastern China (1368-1644), the Renaissance (c. 1400-1550), and the spread of communism in the 20th Century.

INDIVIDUAL DIMENSIONS. Each type of evidence used by some historians to describe broad periods of the past can itself become an object of long-term study by other historians. For example, one can study the history of stone tools, as a section of the history of technology, itself a division of the history of culture, that is, all the products created by some individuals and passed to other individuals in their own society or in later generations.

Other elements of culture suitable for historical study include languages, customs, institutions, and ideas. In the latter domain, one may study individual ideas--such as the idea of progress, the idea of reform, or the idea of a particular metaphysical hierarchy; or one may study ideas as systems, as in the study of the history of a particular worldview (religion or philosophy). In one way, studying the history of a particular religion, such as Christianity, is narrow because it excludes many other religions; but in another way, in the number of objects subsumed, studying the history of a particular religion is an enormous task: from the past flows a river of ideas, customs, institutions, and the lives of millions of individuals, each with his own particular understanding of the religion.

Time is another dimension that partly defines a historian's object of study. One historian might study a particular subject either at one point in time (the culture of the Americas in 1491) or through a great length of time (the Church in the Middle Ages). Another historian might specialize in generalizations, so to speak. For instance, a historian who is fascinated with societies considered as wholes might compare cultures such as the Indus River Valley culture of c. 2000 BCE and the culture of the Mayans c. 500 CE.

Still other historians can work in the area that underlies history as a field of inquiry: the philosophy of history. These historians would address questions such as: What is history? What are the proper objects of study? What special cognitive problems arise in studying aspects of reality that no longer exist and can be known only by fragments from the past? What ethical problems, if any, arise for historians, knowing that their conclusions may influence views of the past and therefore affect not only contemporary politics but also the inferences of philosophers?

At the other end of the scale of abstractions, some historians, those fascinated with the manner in which particular individuals acted in the circumstances of their time, might turn to writing biographies. Or historians who are fascinated with examining history under a microscope might turn to a particular event (the Islamofascist attack on the USA on September 11, 2001), a particular institution (socialized medicine in Britain), or a particular movement (the movement to abolish slavery in the 19th Century). At this scale of work, the historian can observe particular individuals taking particular actions which had particular observable effects. Carrying this approach further, some historians might study an event while it is happening--as in the seemingly endless NATO "war" in Afghanistan against "terrorists."

In summary, a particular historian may choose for study any element of human action or culture at any particular time or place. His object of study may be ancient or contemporary, small- or large-scale, concrete or abstract, and particular or general in scope. The historian is limited only by his own purpose, the length of his productive life--and the facts of what individuals have actually done, as shown in the historical record.

EXAMPLES. Following are examples of historical studies from my library. (I am not making recommendations, only citing examples.) Together they illustrate the vast range of objects which historians can study.
- The Story of Maps, Lloyd A. Brown: a history of maps from the ancient world to c. 1950.
- The Great Chain of Being, Arthur O. Lovejoy: a history of an invalid but enormously influential idea, a metaphysical hierarchy ranging from God down to the lowest worm.
- The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change, 950-1350, Robert Bartlett: a detailed examination of the extraordinary wellspring of Viking-French "nobles" spreading from their homeland in Normandy to the periphery of Europe, from England (in 1066) to Constantinople.
- Holy Entrepreneurs: Cistercians, Knights, and Economic Exchange in Twelfth-Century Burgundy, Constance Brittain Bouchard: a report about the dynamic this-worldly economic activities of Cistercian monasteries (which were officially devoted to poverty and separation from this world), based on the author's detailed study of monastic records surviving for 800 years.
-Clocks and Culture: 1300-1700, Carlo M. Cipolla: a study that is both narrow (looking at one mechanical invention, the clock) and broad (what the radical differences in design and use of clocks in Ming Dynasty China and Renaissance Europe reveal about the two cultures during the "period of the great divergence" of Eastern and Western culture).
-That Noble Dream: The 'Objectivity Question' and the American Historical Profession, Peter Novick: a study of the struggles over the issue of objectivity--myth or norm?--in the profession of history in the USA from c. 1880-1980.
-Lying About Hitler: History, Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial, Richard J. Evans: a close look--written as an intellectual detective story--at Evans's own research into the Holocaust and at his objective testimony in a British civil trial, a trial in which Nazi-sympathizer David Irving sued an American writer for libel because she said Irving's historical writings were fraudulent (which they were).

To a beginning student of history who is wondering what to study, my suggestion is to follow your passionate interests, held within the context of your highest values, including your central purpose in life. Are you fascinated with the history of Pittsburgh, the evolution of stone tools, or the development of logic? Follow your love.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith