Philosophy of history: AC Grayling surveys the essential literature from Thucydides to Popperby AC Grayling / December 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
There is an ambiguity in the word “history.” It either means past events, or writings about past events. But what if the former is a creation of the latter? The past, after all, has ceased to exist. Here in the present we find objects which, we suppose, have survived from the past, and we weave narratives around them. These objects, and our interpretations of them, belong to the present. If history exists as different narratives constructed in the present, is it any wonder that historians disagree so much among themselves?
The idea that the past is another country which we could visit if we had an HG Wells time-machine is na?ve. Yet our realism is offended by the claim that the past is created in the present, and we oppose the latitude thus accorded to those who, for example, deny that the Holocaust happened.
What, then, is history? Is it an art that creates, or a science that discovers? Either way, is there-can there be-such a thing as historical truth? And if so, to what extent can it be known?
“History” derives from the 6th century BC Ionian Greek word istoria, meaning enquiry. But even in classical antiquity the ambiguity arose; by the 4th century BC the historikos-reciter of stories-had supplanted the historeon-the enquirer. Into which category should we place the great early historians-Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius, Livy, Sallust, Tacitus?
These men were aware of the problem. Thucydides attacked Herodotus’s methods; the latter’s Histories is an artfully arranged collection of anecdotes, facts, hearsay, observations and legends, about the great east-west struggle between Persia and Greece. Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War starts with his claim that history should be “contemporary history,” restricting itself to what can be verified by observation. He served in the Athenian army, writing as he fought.
Art outweighed science in most historical writing as far as the Renaissance. But from the 17th century the possibility of scientific history emerged from work on sources. Jean Mabillon (1632-1710) and his fellow Benedictine monks established principles for dating and authenticating medieval manuscripts-his De re diplomatica is a classic. By the time Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886) summoned historians in his Histories of the Latin and Germanic Nations to eschew uncritical methods and record the past “as it actually happened,” the means for doing so seemed available.
One of von Ranke’s fellow positivists, HT Buckle, claimed in his History of Civilisation…