Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons
(This piece was originally posted on August 16th, 2017)
History is often watered down into a discipline that simply documents the past. However, not only is that a woefully simplified definition of history as a discipline, it does not touch upon the need to consolidate and corroborate multitudes of documents and accounts. Through studying documents, we also try to derive meaning and commentary from the accounts. We don’t just ask “What happened?” We ask questions such as “what does it mean?” and “what were the causes and effects?” Perhaps historians may agree on facts, but they may not agree on how to interpret the given information, and there are multiple schools of thought across different cultures that focus on different aspects of historical narrative.
Far too often, we take the idea of history and its narrative for granted. In school, we are often taught history as a narrative set in stone, and rarely do we study how this said narrative came about or where it even comes from. Perhaps you got to study the idea of bias or the difference between a primary and secondary source, but the study of historiography is rarely touched upon. Historiography is the study of historical writing. In other words, it is the study of historical narrative. According to Daniel Little of the Stanford School of Philosophy, “Historical data do not speak for themselves; archives are incomplete, ambiguous, contradictory, and confusing. The historian needs to interpret individual pieces of evidence; and he or she needs to be able to somehow fit the mass of evidence into a coherent and truthful story” (Little). The objective is the same, but multiple schools think differently on what the means to that goal is. The most commonly used school of historiography is diplomatic history or “Rankian History” (LibraryThing). This school of thought focuses on politics and political leaders and operates off of the belief that politics is the driving force of history. When talking about World War I, a diplomatic historiographer may focus on the interactions between Kaiser Wilhelm II, Woodrow Wilson, David Lloyd George, and Vladimir Lenin (Biography Online). While this is the most generally accepted form of historical narrative, it is by no means the only one. For instance, counterfactual history creates narratives based on hypothetical questions and alternative timelines (LibraryThing). In regard to World War I, a counterfactual historian would ask “What would have happened if Czar Nicholas II were never overthrown?” This allows history to be explored deeper than simply asking “What happened?” World historians focus on trends across history. They would perhaps compare the narrative of World War I to other wars and conflicts throughout history such as the American Civil War.
The general narrative strategy of historiography has evolved throughout cultures and time. For instance, according to An Introduction to Chinese History and Culture, the title of official historian in China has been around since the time of the Yellow Emperor, who ruled between 2698 and 2598 BC (Zhang 353). The position was divided into 2 historians, one who would record important events and another would record the speeches and commands of the emperor. As time went on, by 771 BC, there were many historians who were in charge of recording, including records of great events, small events, external events, and records of the Imperial Court (354). Confucius was the first person to detail events into historical narratives as we know them today. His narratives focused on judging historical events and figures on their value and moral merit. Confucius thought that society had advanced if the people had fulfilled their full potential and became more civilized. During the Warring States period, Confucius’ accounts were filled with vibrant language to make the reader feel as if they were there (especially in regard to war). Taoists such as Laozi and Zhuangzi took a different approach to history. According to them, history was the process of, “unifying the natural world with human society” (354). Their litmus of societal progress was if the society was increasingly becoming more harmonious. These narrative goals would undoubtedly shape the events that are accounted for, for the focuses of these historians would be different.
History is complicated. It is herculean task to take archives and events and condense them into the most truthful narrative possible for the reader or viewer. There are plenty of different ways that historians can shape events such as focusing on the political figures, hypotheticals, or even social progress. The debate on the most correct narrative spans across different cultures and time periods as well. Even in ancient China, there was debate over the correct way to account history. It is important to understand that history is storytelling, and narratives will inevitably leave out facts that another may deem important. For instance, a historian who prefers to focus on economics may not think that a diplomatic historian is telling the complete story about a period or event in history. Perhaps we ourselves can take that into account when viewing the news of today. In a world of biases, divisiveness, and twisted facts, we can look at the recent history presented to us with a more enlightened and critical lens.