14 10 2008

During the first of many lectures on my new post-grad course last weekend, I sat and listened to one of my lecturers explain how sources, so long considered friends of the historian, are actually the bitter bitter enemies of those seeking an explanation or understanding.

Since GCSE I have had the value of sources plugged into me. “Use sources” we were told, “but watch out for bias“. As I have come through the system I have become naturally more and more cautious about source material. Everything, everyone has another agenda. Apparently. It is, therefore, the job of the historian to weed out the information from the bias.  Easy peasy. Except that it isn’t .

Apart from starting with a suspicious mind, and assuming everything is bad in some way, trying to work out what the hidden values are in a diary kept by a young, frightened solider on the front line in 1915 is bloody hard work. There may be bitter resentment at the authorities (although most soliders, certainly in early 1915, were volunteers, most members of the famous pals battalions). There may be a hatred of the Germans which shines through, although some soldiers didn’t want to kill the Germans any more than they wished to die themselves. Or, they were just documenting their experience. Put simply, there was no hidden agenda, they were writing to pass the time.

Except that the cynical historian would not believe that for a minute. For the historian, everything has another motive. The value of the source therefore lies in this ulterior motive, rather than the actual content.

The source therefore, due to this hidden agenda, serves to mask history in its purest sense. We cannot truly comprehend what happened because all the information we have actually hides the ‘truth’ with layers of rhetoric about another problem, be it a veiled criticism of someone, or something. Be it a subtle suggestion of a different opinion. Be it simply propaganda. The source complicates everything.

The paradox in historical terms is that the source is the only thing we can learn from. Source material is the only way we can access the past. Be it an old newspaper, or a document from 1300, or someone talking about 1945.  These are the only ways we can access the past, seeing as how, despite technological advances, no-one yet has mastered the art of time-travel (which is another problem that is infathomable, but is another issue for another time). We can only learn about the past from various sources. But all are biased in some way.

The formula is simple in this regard. The outcome is even simpler. We, as historians and indeed people, cannot ever understand the past simply because it is impossible to given the nature of what we have to work from.

If therefore we take away the idea of ‘trying to understand the past’ from the historians motives, what else do we have? What else does the historian do?

The obvious answer is that they try to understand the past. And then write about it. Having just decided that it is impossible to achieve such an aim, surely this is counter intuitive? I would argue not, simply because historians do not work in the principle that there is a definitive answer: “the past was like this. Full stop.” Rather they understand that the level of complexity in relation to the past is huge. The reason for this is also simple. The human.

The trouble with the past is that it is full of people. I mean there are millions and millions of them throughout the course of time. Think for a moment of your life. Of the hundreds and hundreds of people you have met at some stage. Think of your story, the various things you’ve done, places you’ve been, things you’ve seen. Think of your opinions, think then of how many people disagree with you. Then multiply that by millions and millions. That is history. Every single one of them has a story, has thoughts, opinions, feelings, just like you. The world may have been different, the people aren’t.

It is this multitude of stories which means we cannot understand the past. They vary so much. The understanding of a single event varies from person to person, depending on a whole range of factors. Historians therefore can only document the way they see things. They can only comment on what they know or understand. They cannot ever really understand history though.

If they cannot understand it, the question returns, why study it? My answer would be pure fascination. Here we have something 5000+ years big, that we cannot ever really understand. And this is fascinating. Why study anything at all if you know what you are going to get out when you start? It is similar to studying space. Here you have something so infinitely big that it is almost impossible to truly understand it. Yet scientists keep on looking, just in the hope that they find something, anything, that can progress their understanding just a tiny bit. I think it is the same for history.




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