International School History - TOK - The epistemological weakness of history

     The 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. 

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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.

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Epistemological problem 3 -The historianís product - writing the text.

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.

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