Different Perspectives on History


In the 5th edition of the IB Theory of Knowledge programme outline History is defined as:


“the attempt made by professional historians to record and reconstruct the past through the study of evidence derived from a variety of sources……History can never be objective in an absolute sense and the contribution of every historian must contain a subjective element …..every generation must rewrite its own history in the light of new evidence and under the influence of its particular attitudes and prejudices.  History is also part science, in its approach to evidence, and part art, in recording and communicating its findings.”


In his book, ‘What is History?’ E.H Carr writes that History ‘is a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past.’



Different Historical Schools:


The Scientific Objective School

Led by the German historian Leopold von Ranke who stated that the task of the historian was ‘simply to show how it was’/ ‘to show what actually happened’,  Ranke and his followers aimed to separate the past from the present and argued that history had to be studied for its own sake; they must avoid moralising and laid great emphasis on the essential basis of primary sources.  This is known as the scientific professional objective approach and these historians try to abandon the present and study the past on its own terms; this they claim will enable the historian to understand the past from within; the role of the historian is limited to establishing what the facts of the past are; the facts dictate the kind of history written.


The Relativist Subjective School

The excesses of this approach did lead to a reaction which is known as the relativist subjective approach based on the ideas of Croce and Collingwood - Croce made the famous statement that ‘all history is contemporary history’ that is that it only exist in the mind of contemporaries.  Croce insisted that there was a fundamental distinction between historical and scientific knowledge, and argued that history has reality only in the mind of the historian Other idealist philosophers also argued that the past does not have an existence independent of an interpreter, Becker for instance sees history as constantly falling out of date and only being true ‘relative to the needs of the age which fashioned it.’  Collingwood argued that “the historian makes a distinction between what may be called the outside and the inside of an event.  The outside means everything belonging to it which can be described in terms of bodies and their movements (e.g. Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon or his assassination in Rome).  The inside means that in the event which can only be described in terms of thought.  When a scientist says “Why did that piece of litmus paper turn pink?” he is investigating the outside of the event.  By contrast when a historian asks “Why did Brutus stab Caesar?” he means “What did Brutus think that made him stab Caesar?” – he is investigating the inside of the event.  The cause of the event means the thought in the mind of the person whose agency the event came about … all history is then the history of thought.”  Collingwood argued that rather than apologise for history not being a science this was its strength.  He maintained that historians have the ability to understand the inner nature of their subject matter to an extent that scientists, who can only observe, can never do.  A physicist, for example, can only describe an atom for he does not know what it is to be one, but a historian can do more than merely describe Julius Caesar, for Caesar was a man, and a historian knows what it is to be a man. 


Relativists emphasise that there is a difference between history and antiquarianism - each generation must rewrite its history; all historical judgements are interim judgements to be reassessed and modified in the light of new evidence and changing perspectives; relativists argue that complete impartiality in the writing of history is just not possible; there is bias of the historian and of the society in which he exists.  If this is accepted, they go on to advocate that the study of history should be undertaken for the present’s sake and on the present’s terms.  This approach does not attempt to establish what happened in the past as an end in itself - the historian still tries to analyse the historical situation he is concerned within its own context, but his over riding concern is to assess it significance in the light of changing human experience.


The Radical School

Radical historians have taken this relativist argument to extremes.  They accuse professional historians of failing to stand up for truth.  Radical historians, such as Howard Zinn, believe that historical writing must not lose the ‘urgent desire for a better world’ nor suppress any passion for humanity and human suffering.  Radicals see the needs of mankind as the starting point of historical inquiry. They would like to see historians taking a more active interest in the present. The danger with such an approach is that what gets written is not history but propaganda, although radical historians acknowledge their obligation to accuracy.


The Positivist School

The founder of modern sociology, Auguste Comte aimed to introduce into the study of society the same scientific observations which formed the natural sciences.  Those historians who subscribe to this view are referred to as positivists - they include:


·         Eighteenth century Enlightenment historians such as Condorcet who saw all history leading to the perfection of the human mind;

·         Nineteenth century British historians nicknamed Whig historians, who viewed history as steady progress towards liberal ideas and institutions;

·         metahistorians like the Egyptians, Greeks, Chinese and Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee who adapted cyclical models to describe the rise and fall of civilisations;

·         Nineteenth and twentieth century Marxist historians Karl Marx believed he had that this underlying law was the dialectic of history shown in class conflict


they share the believe that all explanations as in science are deductive: a puzzling fact is said to be explained if and only if it could be shown to follow from a known law.  The crucial significance of the argument was the claim that if the laws underlying the development of history could be discovered, man could predict the future course of events; once a law was found to ‘cover’ a particular fact, it could equally be used to predict its recurrence. The main criticism of all such attempts is that the historian seems to first establish his pattern and then select the pieces to fit it and relegate the influence of individuals to the role of serving the inevitable force. They do not take into account the role of the individual nor the idea of chance. It is now widely accepted that history is not a science in the way that Comte and Bury insisted. Compared to the physical sciences, history’s claim to be able to predict or to be objective seems extremely limited, and its ability to repeat experiments non-existent.