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 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.’
Herbert Butterfield


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 perspective see BBC Future September 2012)

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