As I wrapped up my undergrad studies and first looked into graduate school, the first major that caught my eye was an MA in Ancient and Classical History. After two classes, however (one in historiography and the other in the Ancient Greeks), I quickly discovered that while the historical fascinated me, my interests were entirely too broad to be limited to the study of what once was.
History, however, remains an essential part of the humanities, and any approach to liberal learning must maintain an essentially historical approach. History helps us answer questions like, Where did we come from? What does it mean to be human? What was the “state of nature”? What brought about the rise of civilization? How does this affect our understanding of social and political community today? And on what basis can we determine right and wrong?
History is therefore the foundation of anthropology, sociology, civics, economics, and ethics. As Solomon once mused, “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new’? It has been already in the ages before us” (Ecc 1:9-10 ESV). Understanding where we have come from is thus fundamental to understanding who we are, and where we are heading as a society.
By studying history, then, we develop skills of historical, literary, and philosophical reasoning that provide us an opportunity to better understand and orient our own lives today. In other words, perhaps the best way to understand history is not as what once was, but as what could be again.
But thinking historically is sometimes easier said than done. As David Hackett Fischer points out, historians must recognize and work within the inherent “logic of historical thought.” This does not imply that humans always make sense (far from it!), nor does it mean that historians are always consistent in their approach to understanding the past. What it does mean is that history, like any academic discipline, requires a clear and consistent understanding of its own internal workings. The very meaning of “history” implies that such must be the case.
Our word history is transliterated from the Greek word historiai, which means “investigations” (NIV 1283). This explains Fischer’s assertion that, “History is, in short, a problem-solving discipline,” which requires (1) “open-ended question[s] about past events,” (2) “a true descriptive statement about past events,” and (3) “an interactive structure of workable questions and factual statements” making sense of these past events (Fischer xv). Just as a scientist or detective gathers as much evidence as possible and allows that evidence to lead to her conclusions, the historian is primarily an investigator, meaning that conclusions must follow the evidence instead of preceding it.
Perhaps the greatest roadblock to understanding history, however, is the preconceptions, assumptions, and biases we bring to our study. Many frame the discussion by stating that we shouldn’t bring our worldview to bear on history, but it would be impossible for us not to. Instead, we must also work tirelessly to recognize and understand the strengths and weaknesses of the historian himself, both as a student of history examining the evidence and as a teacher who is presenting his case. This does not make history subjective; it merely recognizes what it takes to maintain objectivity in light of evidence.
Another way to state this goal is that the historian seeks fairness or (stated negatively) avoids bias. As McCullagh states, bias can be mitigated if properly defined and understood by recognizing our own limitations and desires. “To be fair, a description must describe all the predominant features of the chosen aspect of the subject, so that the description is not at all misleading” (McCullagh 42). Bias, on the other hand, occurs when “failures in historical inference, in historical description and interpretation, and in historical explanation” occur “because the historian wants the outcome she has produced” (McCullagh 40, emphasis added).
Such biases are manifest in virtually every stage of historical study. As Hackett discusses in his own work, historians make three basic types of fallacies: in inquiry (question-framing, factual verification, factual significance), explanation (generalization, narration, causation, motivation, composition, false analogy), and argument (semantical distortion and substantive distraction).
McCullagh focuses on four of these: “First, historians sometimes misinterpret evidence, so that they are not justified in asserting that the inferences about what happened in the past are true” (40). Similarly, in their explanations of historical events, historians occasionally “omit important features of their subject” and therefore lead the reader to believe he is reading a more complete account than what is actually presented (McCullagh 45). Others mislead readers by making implications that do not stand up in light of known evidence, thereby denying the reader a justifiable interpretation that reconciles the preponderance of known facts (McCullagh 48). Causal explanations can also fall short of “fair” by removing from consideration possible causes that are no less significant than those favored by the historian’s own interests.
The key to avoiding each of these biases is to ensure the breadth of an account is commensurate with the depth of detail provided on the subject, all of which must closely follow the evidence. “If the evidence is extensive and varied, and one explanation of what happened is far superior to any other, then historians quite rationally judge it likely to be true” (McCullagh 60). It is because of this that, “Historians prefer those [interpretations] which give meaning to a large number of facts about [a particular] subject, and which make their occurrence intelligible” (McCullagh 48). This does not mean, however, that sources should be trusted implicitly. Instead, “historians interpret documents by constructing the best available explanation for whole groups of reports and evidence about the events they study,” thereby maintaining a stronger sense of perspective in their conclusions (McCullagh 61, emphasis added).
Any approach to history, then, must be clear, consistent, and evidentiary in focus. Though at times our own biases remain undetected due to our own personal and cultural perspectives, this does not mean they are inevitable or insurmountable hurdles to a reasonable historiography. Instead, our biases may be raised to a level of awareness that allows the historian to recognize and critically assess the flaws in his own methodology in order to more consistently operate within the “logic of historical thought.” For history to be fair then, an historian must maintain “a commitment to standards of rational inquiry which is stronger than one’s commitment to a certain outcome” (McCullagh 55). Quite simply, to think historically begins by simply following the evidence.