Cool ways of understanding the past

One of the things that always intrigues me about history – as a field of endeavour – is the way so much effort is put into thinking about how we understand the past, and in particular, how to assess the nature of the data.

Although enthusiasts often take the attitude that ‘the facts’ as shown in historical documentation are sufficient of themselves as a literal and whole truth, actually they’re not. Understanding both the limits of the data, and how we might understand it are both necessary parts of the deal.

Woah! Can we really know what was going through this guy’s mind when THIS happened?

After all, if we don’t understand how to handle the collected data, we’re not going to discover anything meaningful about it. Needless to say, this ‘meta-issue’, itself, provokes arguments within the historical academy – nobody can actually agree on precisely how to proceed in detail.

But the broad principles are shared, and one of the questions is this. We know that historical data is patchy on many levels, particularly when we try to penetrate its meanings and so gain a picture of social theme and trend – something that transcends any individual record.

All kinds of issues have to be considered, ranging from the motives and purpose for which any past document was written, through to the nature of its contents, and so on.

The issue is that people of the day had far better information about the details than we do – and didn’t write most of them down. But they also usually lacked the wider perspective to perceive the big picture of whatever social trend they were in the middle of. Part of the cause was that they didn’t know their future, but there was also the fact of being entangled with those events.

Today, we have extremely poor details (by comparison), but that big picture is usually more obvious – not least because we have the one detail that past people didn’t. We know their future.

This principle is basic History 101 stuff at universities, but the detail of how to handle it has exercised academics to the highest level. To me, such people confuse understanding of the data nature and limits with a solution to those limits. My take – which I’ve published a number of times – is that you can’t overcome them – they are hard barriers.

I have often enough stated, in as many words, that we should not be so arrogant as to suppose we are above such matters.

This means the trick is not to try to overcome them – but to instead understand what those limits mean, and to bear that in mind as part of the analysis. The implication is that from today’s perspective there is no single, absolute truth about the past. I am not convinced that such truths exist at any time, but in any case, we can’t penetrate the limits of source information to perceive them in the past.

From this flows the conclusion that we shouldn’t be trying to find a universal single truth – that is not the purpose of studying history. It’s all relative; and what is more interesting – to me at least – is looking at the way our various views of the past have changed through time, as the nature and priorities of our own society shift.

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Of course there is a lot more to this than I can summarise in a few words here – the proofs of the principle literally fill volumes. But it’s all interesting and, as I say, to me is by far the most fascinating part of looking at the past.

If you want to read a book written with this principle in action, don’t forget to pick up a copy of The History of Hawke’s Bay.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017