THE THEORY OF HISTORY: PART I of IV

Canberra,  28 July 2012
History, defined in the dictionary as ‘the branch of knowledge dealing with past events; the record of past events, especially in connection with the human race; and a continuous systematic written narrative, in order of time, of past events as relating to a particular people, country, period, person etc.,’. In effect, it is the aggregate of the past. Three important points come out of the different definitions given above—one, it deals with the past; two, this past is normally intimately related to the activities of the human race; and three, it is a chronological narrative of what a defined group of humans did, why, and how. The fundamental point is that history is based on events of the past and how these events are seen and understood within the ambit of contemporary knowledge.
Events that have occurred by themselves do not constitute history, although the first step in the process of recording history is to verify the accuracy and veracity of information regarding past events like dates, places and sequence of activities. This is done not only by the study of documents but is also supported by other disciplines like archaeology, epigraphy and numismatics. An event that happened in the past that has been accurately identified becomes a fact. However, it is the interpretation of that fact, confirming that the event in question influenced the course of events for a people or nation, and the understanding of this influence and its impact that transforms that particular event or fact into a ‘historical fact’. Once this has been achieved, understanding history becomes relatively easy. In essence, history is not mere narrative or documentation, or even the authentication of documents, but a reconstruction of the past that leads to the provision of the hypotheses and theories for why an event happened the way it did in combination with an extrapolation of the event and its influence on the further progression of the nation or people.
“The facts of history do not exist for any historian till he creates them.”
-Carl Becker, Atlantic Monthly, October 1910, p. 528.
[as quoted in E. H. Carr, ‘What is History’, Penguin Books,Australia, 2008, p. 21.]
Nevertheless there is another much broader aspect to be considered. To start with, there is a subtle difference between understanding history and the history of the past. Further, appreciating the past as opposed to understanding history has a different connotation. The history of the past could be surmised to be all occurrences that happened in the past, irrespective of its importance at the time of occurrence or even later. For example, the sickness and death of an ordinary foot soldier in Alexander’s army is an event in the past that would not have created any impact when it occurred more than two thousand years ago and cannot be considered an event of influence even now. It is just an event that happened in the past, even if it had been recorded at the time of its occurrence, as may have been the case in this instance. In contrast, the sickness and death of Alexander himself cannot be considered in the same vein. This event had implications at the time it happened and even today is studied as an event of great importance that significantly changed the geo-political situation of the world. It is the responsibility of historians to evaluate, determine and highlight the events that must be recorded as ‘historical fact’ and ignore those that must be discarded as mere every day events of no consequence. Understanding the past is a process of analysing past events, discarding events that do not have any influence or implication immediately or into the future, and then placing the selected event, its influence and consequences in perspective. This process makes understanding the past a much broader enterprise than merely understanding history. The study of history, therefore, must be considered one part, albeit a critical one, of understanding the past in a holistic manner. There is another nuance to this. One of the philosophies of history is that historical facts are analysed through the eyes of the present—the prevailing norms—to get a contemporary understanding of a particular event and its repercussions. This process may not always produce the desired level of clarity necessary to fully comprehend the event of the past and its influences. Therefore this process should be used only as part of a set of tools being employed to understand the past. The broad discipline of understanding the past is complex, even in its simplest form. 
Recording history is a continual process of interpretation of available historical facts, interaction between the past and the present, and an incessant quest to answer the question of ‘so what?’. This can be an intense intellectual exercise with its own challenges to overcome. If this process is undertaken taking into account only selected historical facts, whether the selection is done at random or in a more considered manner, the results of the analysis and conclusions will invariably be distorted and are bound to be less than robust. Analysis of selected historical facts is a common flaw in a number of historical theses, which dilutes the veracity of what may otherwise have been authoritative works.
There are three fundamental requirements that must be met before any progress can be made in recording history in a credible manner. First, the historical fact being recorded must have sufficiently credible authenticity, confirmed through rigorous examination of available evidence. Further, the evidence that are examined must be interpreted taking into account all their previous analysis, even if such analyses prove to be contrary to the conclusion being drawn in the current interpretation. Second, the analysis being conducted must be as critical as possible of the veracity of the evidence, as well as the process of analysis being employed. Along with this the logic of the reasoning adopted to arrive at conclusions must be clearly discernible and not faulty. Third, the analyst must have sufficient knowledge of the original language so that interpreted documents can be revisited and their nuances understood afresh if required. This is particularly so for old and/or dated translations of ancient documents done in a different context wherein the tone and substance of some parts of the translated document could be different to contemporary interpretation. The necessity for adequate knowledge of the language cannot be over emphasised. In addition, if the analysis is of pre-historic times, the ability to correctly interpret archaeological reports would be an added bonus. It can be seen that of the three requirements, two primarily are primarily based on the knowledge resident in the individual undertaking the analysis and recording and even the third has an element of the capability of the individual for the authentication of data. In other words, recording history and its completeness is almost totally dependent on the knowledge and capacity of the person undertaking the work! Recording history is essentially a human endeavour and susceptible to all human frailties. Therefore, a corollary is that mistakes, misinterpretations and misunderstandings will automatically be part of such an enterprise.  
Before examining the theory and philosophy of history in more detail (in subsequent parts of this paper), two concepts that come up often in the study of history must be explained. First is the concept of what constitutes a nation. At least till well into the 13th century, the territories of a nation changed frequently and its borders were both porous and fluid. In fact, the language and even the religion of a nation altered with external influences and internal upheavals. Therefore, for a major part of recorded history defining a nation as such is difficult although most analysis tends to be recorded and interpreted in terms of ‘nations’. In order to understand and interpret historical facts in this context, an overarching view has to be taken, which requires a great deal of mental agility and flexibility. The second concept is that of a civilisation. For any people or nation to be considered a civilisation requires them to fulfil certain minimum qualifying requirements. The major ones are—a recognisable geographic entity, even if the borders are not rigid; a distinguishable system of centralised governance that regulated interaction with other nations and controlled internal developments; a relatively high standard of living demonstrated through unassailable evidence; and a discernible and verifiable development in the arts, literature, philosophy and science. A related aspect is the fundamental fact that no civilisation could have or can develop in isolation. Interaction and exchange of ideas, trade and even conflict are necessary impetus for the development of civilisation. Therefore, these aspects also need to be examined in order to understand a civilisation. In a broad manner, it can be surmised that a more porous border might be a better catalyst for the development of a civilisation than complete isolation and rigid control of external interaction.
There is a last point that has to be elaborated, before concluding this part of the paper—the relationship between patriotism and history. Patriotism is a zealous love of one’s nation and a willingness to support and defend its interests. This is normally based on an underlying pride in the nation and its historic and contemporary achievements. In an indirect manner history underpins and permeates the overall sense of patriotism in a nation. It is difficult to inculcate a sense of patriotism into someone who does not have at least a base level of knowledge of his or her nation’s history. The more glorified the history of the nation, the easier it will be to develop and cultivate patriotism in the contemporary context. The sense of the greatness of a nation and the ethos of the people, in terms of how they view themselves, stem from the collective and popularly accepted version of the history of the nation. Events and historical facts that is perceived to have brought defeat and shame to the entire nation are, almost always, negative influences on the well-being of a nation. This could perhaps explain the attempts by a number of nations to underplay their wrong doings of the past and to even make attempts to alter the record of events of the past, before they are confirmed as historic facts. Patriotism is a powerful and critical tool for nations to achieve greatness and history is an essential ingredient in creating the necessary aura to develop and instil this intangible quality into the population of a nation. 
To be continued…                 
            
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About Sanu kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS)

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