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
historian’s 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 – the ‘heap of broken fragments’- that
the past has left behind. Even more significantly, most of the
past has left no evidence at all of what happened, it is simply
unknowable – this is the ‘darkness’ that Butterfield refers to.
Most people who have ever lived and most events that have ever
happened left no record, no fragments from which historians
might reconstruct a version of the past.
‘The Memory of the world is
not a bright, shining crystal, but a heap of broken fragments, a
few fine flashes of light that break through the darkness.’
Those records that do exist
are often atypical or accidental. We may have sources
deliberately left to posterity but their atypicality makes them
unrepresentative. The same is true of sources that have
survived centuries of fires, wars and revolutions. The historian
has to use sources never intended for future interpretation,
accidental by-products of past events, unintended communiqués
with the future. The evidence only speaks to us indirectly, with
no guarantee that they will answer the questions historian’s
pose. As a consequence, historians must resign themselves to a
patient trawl through the records most of which have no
relevance to their needs.
Prescribed Essay Title
“The knowledge that we value
the most is the knowledge for which we can
provide the strongest justifications.” To
what extent would you agree with this claim?
November 2008 - May 2009
Student activity –
Future implications of
information technology on history?
In a book of source skills for students produced in the early 1990s the
historian Brian Brivati drew attention to the fact that the invention of the
telephone had reduced the tendency for people to write letters. Therefore, he
feared that future historians of the 20th century would be denied the
rich resource that letter writing provided historians of previous generations.
He concluded by hoping the recent invention of the fax machine might do
much to reverse the situation.
Will the Internet revolution of the past 20
years make easier or more difficult the job of
22nd century historians of the early
21st century? (For one
BBC Future September 2012)