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 3 -The historian’s 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. You may have come across this in your TOK lessons as correspondence theory. The correspondence theory of truth states that the truth or falsity of a statement is determined only by how it relates to the world, and whether it accurately describes (i.e., corresponds with) the world. 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.


 ‘We won’t understand a thing about human life if we persist in avoiding the most obvious fact: that a reality no longer is what it was; it cannot be reconstructed.’ Milan Kundera

The correspondence theory of truth states that the truth or falsity of a statement is determined only by how it relates to the world, and whether it accurately describes (i.e., corresponds with) the world.  

If I drew a picture of you and then took a photograph from exactly the same position I can guarantee that the photograph would provide the more reliable indication of what you look like ‘in reality’. But when a historian writes an account of the past, all there is to compare it to are other written accounts whether contemporary or historical. History has no absolute or ‘objective reality' (Lévi-Strauss) to compare itself to, only other texts.


So in the absence of an ‘objective reality’ to judge against, what does our society consider to be good history? Factual accuracy is assumed and does not in itself constitute good history.

Read the reviews of the latest historical best seller and they do not commend the author for ‘getting her dates right’ or for ‘putting events in chronological order’. Much more likely is praise for the historian’s ‘depth of research’ or his or her ability to ‘bring the past alive’.

Prescribed Essay Title
As an IB student, how has your learning of literature and science contributed to your understanding of individuals and societies?
Nov 2011- May 2012



If archival research constitutes the social-scientific craft of the historian, then bringing the past alive relies on the historian’s art; a creative, artistic ability that is rarely acknowledged. If history is just a text, its artistic effectiveness must rely upon the same skills that make all literature ‘good’ whether factual or fictional. Consider the following set of extracts from one of the most celebrated recent historians of the Russian Revolution, Orlando Figes, as he describes the events of Bloody Sunday in Russia in 1905:


Orlando Figes - A People's Tragedy

Snow had fallen in the night and St Petersburg awoke to an eerie silence on that Sunday morning, 9 January 1905. Soon after dawn the workers and their families congregated in churches to pray for a peaceful end to the day…Singing hymns and carrying icons and crosses, they formed something more like a religious procession than a workers' demonstration. Bystanders took off their hats and crossed themselves as they passed. And yet there was no doubt that the marchers' lives were in danger…Church bells rang and their golden domes sparkled in the sun on that Sunday morning as the long columns marched across the ice towards the centre of the city. In the front ranks were the women and children, dressed in their Sunday best, who had been placed there to deter the soldiers from shooting. At the head of the largest column was the bearded figure of Father Gapon in a long white cassock carrying a crucifix. Behind him was a portrait of the Tsar and a large white banner with the words: 'Soldiers do not shoot at the people!' Red flags had been banned… Suddenly, a bugle sounded and the soldiers fired into the crowd. A young girl, who had climbed up on to an iron fence to get a better view, was crucified to it by the hail of bullets. A small boy, who had mounted the equestrian statue of Prince Przewalski, was hurled into the air by a volley of artillery. Other children were hit and fell from the trees where they had been perching… When the firing finally stopped and the survivors looked around at the dead and wounded bodies on the ground there was one vital moment, the turning-point of the whole revolution, when their mood suddenly changed from disbelief to anger…


Strip back this account to its factual essentials – a list of events in chronological order – and what are we left with? Other than the chronologically determined facts that make up the raw material of history, everything else – selective emphasis, anecdote, poetic scene setting, dramatic structure of the story, figurative language, moral judgement and significance ‘the turning point of the whole revolution’– all come from the imagination of the historian.

Prescribed Essay Title
Can literature "tell the truth" better than other Arts or Areas of Knowledge?

November 2006 - May 2007


This third epistemological weakness is therefore perhaps the most profound of all. History is a largely imaginative text that cannot be verified against absolute reality, but only against other imaginative texts. Chronology and factual accuracy do not in themselves constitute history.

These raw materials must be shaped and given meaning by the historian. As Hayden White, the most influential commentator on the problem has argued: ‘The events must be not only registered within the chronological framework of their original occurrence but narrated as well, that is to say, revealed as possessing a structure, an order of meaning, that they do not possess as mere sequence’.
Prescribed Essay Title
Compare the roles played by reason and imagination in at least two Areas of Knowledge.

November 2006 - May 2007



Student activity – Post-modernism and the challenge to history

‘In battling against people who would subject historical studies to the dictates of literary critics we historians are, in a way fighting for our lives. Certainly, we are fighting for the lives of innocent young people beset by devilish tempters who claim to offer higher forms of thought and deeper truths and insights – the intellectual equivalent of crack’. 

English historian Sir Geoffrey Elton. quoted in Richard J Evans – In Defence of History Granta Books (1997) p.7

In my section on the three epistemological weaknesses of history above, I have relied heavily on the ‘post-modern’ critique of history that has emerged over the last thirty years or so.  In that sense I have played the role of what Elton described as a ‘devilish tempter’. Post-modernism is a general intellectual movement that has influenced most academic disciplines, but of particular relevance to history is the view that language is not simply an objective reflection of reality (the ‘linguistic turn’).  For some historians, like Elton quoted above, the post-modern contention that historian’s create meaning as much as discover it, is a dangerous threat to a subject that aspires to Ranke’s ideal of finding out ‘what really happened’ from the sources of the past themselves.

One of criticisms levelled at post-modernism is that of ‘relativism’; that in the absence of absolute certainty, ‘anything goes’.  How would you reassure Sir Geoffrey Elton that despite history’s epistemological weaknesses, history can be done and should be done by historians still using more-or-less the same methods as they have always used?


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