International School History - TOK - What is History?


The most important justification for this section of the website is the belief that TOK is very much at the heart of the IB programme. The principles of TOK: of self reflection and critical analysis, the questioning of how we can know anything – what philosophy calls epistemology  – are valuable in and for themselves.  
Philosopher (loud and clear): Men cannot really know the past.
Historian (stupidly): What did you say?
Philosopher (irritably): I said, ‘Men cannot really know the past’, and you know damn well that’s what I said...

J.H. Hexter – History Primer, pp. 338-9

Quoted in David Lowenthal – The Past is a Foreign Country (1985) Cambridge p.216

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In this section of the website we consider three, generally philosophical questions about the nature of history. Firstly, I attempt to explain what history is and what it means to study history. In this it also helps to know what history isn't and that, for example, history is not the same thing as as the past. The second question concerns the epistemological problem of how we can claim to know anything about the past. Doing history involves working through a series of stages, each of which presents difficulties for the historian. Finally, we consider why history plays an important role in the world today, helping us become discerning users of the past.

What history is and is not – how it is made and who makes it. The three epistemological weaknesses of history – the  problems of doing history. The value of history – how and why good history is  important in our post-modern world.   This section of the website is based on my contribution to IB Skills and Practice book (2012)

Why bother?

As a busy history student you are probably also interested in more quantifiable outcomes of how TOK can make you a better history student who gets better grades.

Obviously an interest in history TOK issues will help you with your TOK presentation and essay. History is a privileged ‘area of knowledge’ in that unlike most IB subjects, history has its own section in the TOK syllabus. Why history has its own section, whereas Geography or Biology, for example, do not, is part of what I want to address in this section of the website. In brief, history is special with its own very unique set of epistemological problems.

Epistemology - the study or a theory of the nature and grounds of knowledge especially with reference to what can and cannot be known
To your TOK teacher you are a history specialist.  You have been studying history for a number of years and can therefore expect special attention when the TOK class comes around to study history as an ‘area of knowledge’. You can anticipate being quizzed on the big epistemological questions of our subject: so, what exactly is history? Or how can we know what happened in the past? Or what is the point of studying history?

You can also expect smug grins from your geographical friends if you give the impression of never having considered these questions before. But be reassured this is not your fault. It is a product of what the great English social historian Raphael Samuel once described as history’s ‘naive realism’. As is illustrated by J.H. Hexter’s imaginary dialogue at the head of this page, historians like to do history; they don’t tend to think much about how they do it.

But other than your academic street cred, what else can a serious approach to TOK history provide? Put simply, it will make you a more thoughtful and original history student.  For example, the close (micro) document analysis of Paper 1 will benefit from a broader philosophical (macro) approach to what makes sources useful or reliable.

 The essay writing process of Papers 2 and 3 is enhanced with an understanding of how history is written, where interpretations come from and why historians might disagree. And most obviously, the major research assignments of Internal Assessment and Extended Essay will score much more highly if there is evidence of an original, self-reflective voice that is in control of both the narrative and the
methodology behind the assignment.  The books I have listed at the end of this chapter will help you do this.

Methodology - Systematic study of methods that are, can be, or have been applied within a discipline,  in this case history.

This section of the website therefore is not so concerned to provide you with a guide to the history section of your TOK course, but rather to rather bring the TOK knowledge issues into your study of history. It urges you not just to do history but to think about it.


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