History is not about knowing simple facts, names, and dates. Knowing in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue is all well and good, but it’s useless unless applied. Beyond the rudimentary facts of history lies a much more important question. Why does history matter?
The reader might point out that the idea of applying history sounds a lot like science. I might be amazed by the laws of gravity. These laws revolutionized the world after all, but why? In the same way, there must be a point to history.
History is divided into two forms; history as lived in everyday life and history as a discipline. The history that we live in is how we put ourselves into context. It is our family history, national history. It is the story of us.
On the other hand, history as a discipline seeks to systematize and understand history. It is concerned not only with the nuts and bolts of history but how those nuts and bolts operate - the who, what, when, where, why, and how of an event. It does not merely report the events but seeks to analyze them and put them into a cohesive narrative.
An essential part of the study of history is its historiography. Historiography is the study of how history is written. It pulls together the research of other historians and researchers to establish what has already been said on the subject. It looks at all the available material and evidence for a subject in order to craft a workable narrative. It is all well and good to look at one Icelandic saga, but we are not going to be able to establish its veracity or get the whole picture with that one source alone. Are there other sources that back this up? Are there discrepancies?
Historiography helps prevent the cherry-picking of data to suit one’s agenda. Read anything by David Irving and you will see this as he defends the Third Reich. There will always be biases in history. Each historian has their interpretation of events. Thus historiography is vital to keep this in check as it unpackages how historians craft their narratives.
Understanding historiography helps us understand the purpose of history. This purpose can be broken down into two categories; scientific/philosophical and civic. Johann Neem explains that “The philosophical or scientific perspective considers the pursuit of historical truth to be of highest value.” If the scientific and philosophical application of history seeks out the truth, what exactly does this entail? Both science and philosophy seek out the truth by establishing how the world works. The same goes for history, wherein it tries to establish and demonstrate how history moves and who its movers are.
The civic purpose of history is also well-defined by Neem, “The civic purpose of history, on the other hand, is to help a community… understand the present in ways that orient that group to the future.” History in the category of civics helps us form our identity. To know who we are as a community. However, imagine you woke up one day and didn’t know who you were. That you didn’t know your gender, ethnicity, race, etc.… You have no sense of your own history.
In this scenario, where you have no sense of yourself, you simply cannot reason. People learn how to reason, learn who and what they are from their communities. Your ability to reason only exists within your community because your community teaches you; they form you. This is why we need history.
People can study history to learn how they fit into the world around them. All this history is baked into us. It tells us what we are allowed to be. For example, in a society like pre-Meiji Japan, you would be considered to be at the bottom of the social hierarchy for being a merchant. India, to this day, has a social caste system that often dictates your direction in life. History creates culture, and the culture creates you.
When trying to apply history, historians must look at all relevant information to come to any sort of hypothesis. Theories about events develop as historians debate amongst themselves. Eventually, a sort of dominant theory will form that acts as a defensible narrative of the data. However, there will still be a debate.
An example of this is the debate over the efficacy of the English longbow. Historical records make it clear that the longbow was critical to the English victories in the 100-Years War. However, very few weapons have had more myths surrounding them, with us being told erroneously about its great range, high velocity, and ability to pierce through armor.
The English longbow neither has great range nor velocity, but its ability to punch through armor is hotly debated. One side says it could not have punched through armor and has conducted experiments to conclude as such. The other argues it could and point out that we cannot replicate the conditions of the day to make such a claim.
The way a historian crafts their narrative depends entirely on their theory of history, which is the historian’s philosophical view of history. For example, a historian could believe that history occurs in cycles. They would likely view events as a set pattern. There is nothing new under the sun. This is analogous to the cycle of war and peace. We go to war and then realize war sucks and then we try to not go to war again. Then we forget war sucks and go to war again.
Another theory is a progressive view of history. History advances onwards and upwards with humanity achieving ever greater heights. Because of this, history is in a sense, inevitable. This is analogous to the story of civil rights in America. The 13 colonies rebelled against British rule, but they still held slaves, and women were not represented. Over the next several hundred years, rights and freedoms are extended to these groups. Onwards and upwards.
Finally, there is the linear theory of history. History just happens, with there not being much repetition or pattern. There will never be another Roman Empire, so comparing the decline and fall of the Roman Empire to today does not work. From these theories, we can establish very different interpretations of how history works, but more importantly why history matters.
We rely on history to let us know who we are, where we’ve been, and how we got here. By doing all of this we are implicitly predicting where we are going because we are using history as our starting point. In history, we learn a lot about the human condition, not only how humans tend to behave, but perhaps how they ought to behave.
However, once again we run into a problem. Are we able to put our standards onto those in the past? If you are a relativist you say no, but how can we hold any horror or condemnation for the ravages of the slave trade? If you are an objectivist you say yes, but then if all the things that are wrong now were wrong then, then why did so many not view it as such? This contention is ultimately unresolvable because it is fundamentally a philosophical debate.
However, this is why history matters. Without the presence of history, there is no progress because history lies within every discipline. Without it, you are missing the fundamental ability to place yourself and the world in context. History matters because to make any claim is to rely on history. Any argument for the present relies on the past. That’s why it matters.
Jensen, Anthony. “Philosophy of History .” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, iep.utm.edu/history/.
Neem, Johann. “The Publics of History: A Report on the National History Center's Discussion of The History Manifesto: Perspectives on History: AHA.” The Publics of History: A Report on the National History Center's Discussion of The History Manifesto | Perspectives on History | AHA, 27 Apr. 2015, www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/april-2015/the-publics-of-history-a-report-on-the-national-history-centers-discussion-of-the-history-manifesto?Src=longreads.
Stearns, Peter. “Why Study History? (1998): AHA.” Why Study History? (1998) | AHA, American Historical Association, 1998, www.historians.org/about-aha-and-membership/aha-history-and-archives/historical-archives/why-study-history-(1998).
Vann, Richard. “Historiography.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., www.britannica.com/topic/historiography.