Friday, March 12, 2010

Sherlock Holmes and the Historian's Question

As I'm sure you are aware, I am a student of history. One of the funny little things about history when you really dive into the proper study of the subject is that it is nothing like what you think.

When I first started to study history, I thought of the historian as a kind of Sherlock Holmes. We'd take the information available to us and try to figure out what really happened. There's a common belief that history involves a knowledge of dates and names and then culminates in a sort of whodunnit. When the mystery is solved, we're pretty much done with it. The only thing left to do with the given event is to remember it - someone needs to study it every generation so as to keep it alive; the rest of us read about it or learn about it in school because it's interesting and worth knowing. Maybe we can even glean some knowledge about how to go about our own undertakings by seeing how things played out in similar situations in the past.

Elementary, my dear Watson.

This way of thinking has led to an idea in the popular mind that there is a right way to understand any event in the past, while any other view is, for whatever reason, wrong and must be dismissed.

The problem? It's utterly wrong.

Sure, in some sub-disciplines in history, there is a sense of figuring out what happened. This is especially true of ancient history, which provides us with so few sources that there is some debate as to the historicity of many events.

But outside of ancient history, this just doesn't work. Think of it this way - we have more sources from World War II than we do from all of Greco-Roman literature.

So, with the (tentative) exception of archaic/ancient history, we know what happened. The historian's major questions, then, are how and why, which are more interconnected than may be obvious at first glance.

The how is perhaps a little easier to understand - how does a German dissident jailed for treason gain a massive following and, in a matter of years, pull all of Europe into war? The how is connected both to the what and the why. How do we get from one point to the next?

The why is most certainly the biggest question posed by the historian.

It can be posed about the big issues:
- Why did the Renaissance occur when it did?
- Why didn't the American colonists not revolt against England in 1773 or earlier?
- Why did the Crusaders attack Constantinople?
- Why did the US drop two atomic bombs on Japan in rapid succession?

Or it can be posed to the individual:
- Why did George Whitefield prefer extemporaneous preaching outside of the traditional church building?
- Why did Herodotus choose to write about the Persian War(s) in the way he did?
- Why did Napoleon return to France from exile?

The great thing about the why in history is that there is no one right answer. There are plenty of wrong answers, but the right answer is eternally elusive. I know a number of people that find this to be the most frustrating thing about the study of history.

So if the historian is not Sherlock Holmes or Nancy Drew, who is he/she?

Stay tuned to find out...

1 comment:

  1. What happens to long-standing consensus among historians?
    Even if historians say formally that there isn't a final word on some subject, aren't there cases where most everyone agrees anyway?