three epistemological weaknesses of history
There are three distinct
epistemological problems that relate to each of three stages
inherent in the study of history: the weaknesses of the raw
material (sources), the process of historical research (method)
and the textual presentation (product).
Epistemological problem 1 - The
historianís sources - the raw material.
The first thing that makes
historical knowledge difficult to acquire is the inadequacy of
the raw materials that the historian is forced to work with.
Unlike a social scientist who can directly observe participants
in a controlled experimental context, our inability to travel
through time means that the historian relies on indirect and
uncontrollable evidence that
the past has left behind.
Epistemological problem 2 -The
historianís method - interpreting the evidence
All history can do is
interpret; it constructs plausible meanings from the evidence
that the past has left behind. What this means in reality is
two levels of interpretation. In the first level of
interpretation, historians depend entirely on the people who
have interpreted the events they have lived through and
who have left us a record to consider.
The second level of
interpretation is of course the interpretation of the past
evidence by the historians themselves.
Epistemological problem 3 -The historianís product - writing the
final epistemological weakness of history stems from the
simple inability to be able to compare like with like.
History cannot be compared with the past and cannot be
verified against the past, because the past and history
are different things. The historical text, the narrative
account can never correspond to the past as it was,
because unlike history the past was not a text, it was a
series of events, experiences, situations etc.