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 2 -The historian’s method - interpreting the evidence

One of the key features of the scientific method depends on an ability to test theories by predictive experimentation.  We can examine the importance of light as a cause of plant growth by examining parallel plants, one in the light and one in the dark. But history lacks this ability to control the variables so essential to the scientific method.  We cannot stop the car from making a wrong turning on the 28th June 1914 to see if the First World War would have happened without the assassination of Franz Ferdinand.

‘I am beginning to believe that nothing can ever be proved... slow, lazy, sulky, the facts adapt themselves at a pinch to the order I wish to give them’. Antoine Roquetin the historian in Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea


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 process of making sense of the world, of committing thoughts to paper or a photograph to posterity is itself an interpretation.

Prescribed Essay Title
When mathematicians, historians and scientists say that they have explained something, are they using the word 'explain' in the same way?
November 2007 - May 2007


One of the best illustrations of this first level of interpretation is made by E.H. Carr in the classic introduction to the philosophy of history: What is History? Carr describes the archive of ‘primary documents’ left by the Weimar Germany’s Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann and the hundreds of diplomatic conversations he conducted.  What do the documents tell us, asks Carr?

‘They depict Stresemann as having the lion’s share of the conversations and reveal his arguments as invariably well put and cogent, while those of his partner are for the most part scanty, confused and unconvincing. This is a familiar characteristic of all diplomatic conversations. The documents do not tell us what happened, but only what Stresemann thought had happened, or what he wanted others to think, or perhaps what he wanted himself  to think, had happened.’ More


Cognitive Dissonance Theory

Social psychologists have explained through cognitive dissonance theory that individuals are prone to provide explanations for events that are at odds with their thinking at the time of the event.  

How can we know what people in the past thought if we cannot be certain that people in the past knew themselves?

How can we trust the eyes and ears of those who lack the detachment and objectivity that can only come with the passage of time and cool reflective hindsight?

A classical example of this idea (and the origin of the expression "sour grapes") is expressed in the fable The Fox and the Grapes by Aesop (ca. 620–564 BCE). In the story, a fox sees some high-hanging grapes and wishes to eat them. When the fox is unable to think of a way to reach them, he surmises that the grapes are probably not worth eating, as they must not be ripe or that they are sour.


The second level of interpretation is of course the interpretation of the past evidence by the historians themselves. The historian gives the past meaning that the past itself cannot have had for those who lived through it. As Sir Herbert Butterfield once put it, the role of the historian is to understand the people of the past ‘better than they understood themselves’.
 Historians look back on the past seeing connections between events, the significance, and the patterns of cause and effect that were impossible for those living through the events to see for themselves. As Margaret MacMillan has recently argued ‘The idea that those who actually took part in great events or lived through particular times have a superior understanding to those who came later is a deeply held yet wrong-headed one.’ Nobody in 1917 could know how significant the Bolshevik Revolution was. Few expected Lenin’s party to hold on to power for long and had the Bolsheviks lost the Civil War then the relative significance of the Revolution would have been different to what it became at the height of the Cold War in the 1950s. And now 20 years after the end of the Cold War, the study of 1917 no longer seems to have the same urgency it once did, with the study of the history of China and the Middle East now seeming much more pertinent This is one of those odd features of history that people often struggle to understand, that history continues to change and evolve even though it’s the same old past that is being described.

Each generation writes its own history of the French Revolution or of the First World War, why is this? Part of the explanation for the continual need to produce new histories of old subjects is to be found in the uncovering of new evidence in the archives.  For example, the periodic declassification of once secret government documents provides a regular supply of new materials that inevitably changes our earlier perspectives.  But a much more profound explanation for our need for new histories is to be found in the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce’s famous observation that ‘All history is contemporary history’. History is made by historians and what they write will therefore reflect both their personality and more importantly the times they are living in. Take this extract from the Oxford historian A L Rowse’s introductory text The Use of History published in 1927 where he considers the role of history in the school curriculum:

AL Rowse on the purpose of school history

'I think the royal road to appealing to the interest of the the biographical: lives of great men, especially men of action, like the great English seamen or soldiers and adventurers and their exciting stories...Schoolboys respond immediately to the appeal of patriotism, to the spirit of self-devotion in such lives as Wolfe, Sir John Moore, Nelson, Livingstone, General Gordon, Scott of the Antarctic, Lawrence of Arabia. They feel the thrill of achievement in such careers as Clive’s or Drake’s or Rhodes...'  

Prescribed Essay Title
“We see and understand things not as they are but as we are.” Discuss this claim in relation to at least two ways of knowing.
November 2009 - May 2010


School history as patriotic storytelling of the lives of great white English, empire building men seems strangely archaic today. But it is his appeal to the schoolboy and not girl that does most to date Rowse to the early 20th century. Is he deliberately excluding girls in his choice of the word schoolboy? On the role of science in school he is unambiguous: ‘...I deeply doubt whether physics and chemistry have any educational value in girls’ schools at all. I should have thought that in these their place might be more profitably taken, for obvious reasons, by biology, hygiene and natural history – sciences of life rather than of matter.’

What is ‘obvious’ - that which needs no explanation - are the unconscious, hidden assumptions that makes Rowse a man of his age, nationality and social class. History changed in the 20th century because historians stopped being exclusively men like Rouse. The success of socialism, feminism and decolonisation in the 20th century, broadened social and educational opportunities, so that history today reflects the wider agenda of those the 20th century emancipated and empowered. During the 20th century history became concerned with the working classes, women and ethnic minorities; groups that had literally been hidden from history and neglected to exist only in the past.  

Women’s’ History Month has taken place in March every year since its foundation in the 1970s, timed to correspond with International Women’s Day on the 8th of March.  It is an event that highlights contributions of women to events in history and contemporary society.
Prescribed Essay Title
“History is always on the move, slowly eroding today’s orthodoxy and making space for yesterday’s heresy.” Discuss the extent to which this claim applies to history and at least one other area of knowledge.
Nov 2007 - May 2008

In conclusion, the epistemological problem is profound. Knowledge of the past is never fixed and always mediated though two levels of interpretation. History is never complete; it is always a work in progress

Student activity – Writing your own ‘histories’.

For homework each member of your class should produce their own individual history of today. Other than a word limit, of say 500 words, no other requirements should be specified. When completed you should compare and contrast your ‘history’ with the work of other students. In your analysis consider both the form and content of the ‘histories’ produced.

Form - How many of the ‘histories’ were written accounts? How many used approximately 500 words? How many were chronological? How were sentences and paragraphs structured? Was there an introduction and conclusion?

Content - How many were just descriptive? How many students included how they felt? How many included opinions and judgements? How many included supporting factual evidence? How many included a description of today’s history lesson? How many included events outside their personal experience e.g. international events?

• Why were there so many accounts similar in both form and content?
• How and why did the accounts differ?
• Why did the history lesson feature in so many of the ‘histories’?
• What problems would you face if you tried to write a history of the same day a year earlier?
• Were any of the ‘histories’ more truthful than others?
• Were any of the ‘histories’ better than the others?


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