The historian and the search for truth
A historian is a person who studies and writes about the past and is regarded as an authority on it. Historians are concerned with the continuous, methodical narrative and research of past events as relating to the human race; as well as the study of all history in time. History, in its broadest sense, is the totality of all past events, although a more realistic definition would limit it to the known past. Of all the fields of serious study and literary effort, history may be the hardest to define precisely, because the attempt to uncover past events and formulate an intelligible account of them necessarily involves the use and influence of many auxiliary disciplines and literary forms. The concern of all serious historians has been to collect and record facts about the human past and often to discover new facts. They have known that the information they have is incomplete, partly incorrect, or biased and requires careful attention. All have tried to discover in the facts patterns of meaning addressed to the enduring questions of human life. Ever since history started to be written, historians have reflected on the theories and methods with which they approach the past, and the possibilities and limitations of acquiring reliable knowledge about it. From the ancient Greek historian Thucydides to historical scholars of the Enlightenment and the Romantic periods such as Edward Gibbon and Leopold von Ranke, they have maintained in different ways a fundamental distinction between history and myth, objective knowledge about the past and poetic reinventions of it, historical fact and historical fiction. Telling the Truth about History is a central question; whether it is even possible to achieve objective truth in history. What historians do best is to connect with the past in order to understand present-day problems as well as the potential of the future. Also historian can arrive at a clearer picture of history today than was possible using methods of the past. Beginning in the eighteenth century, science became the basis for all truth. Therefore, science became the driving force behind the methodology of doing history, eventually replacing religion as the framework for comprehending social experience. This compelled historians to become like scientists – neutral investigators attempting to piece together events of the past exactly as they happened. This method was termed the “heroic model of science” because it made scientific geniuses into cultural heroes. Later, the idea of progress prompted historians to study the laws of human development. What we see with our own eyes is open to interpretation, and the modern historian has no easy task. Research and investigation is always called for; no historian worth his salt can simply accept what an earlier historian has set down without checking facts for himself. Then, too, it's important not to let the truth get lost in "revisionist history." Imagine, then, how difficult it is for medieval and renaissance historians. How can we possibly know what did and didn't happen? To find the truth, the historian must use a variety of tools. The first step is often to examine what other historians have written. But when we do this, we must also examine the historian. What do we know about the author of any given chronicle? Is he a contemporary witness? If so, did he actually see the events he reports? Had he any reason to twist the facts? If he did not live during the time the events were taking place, how and from where did he get his information? If the history is hard to believe or contradicts other contemporary works, does he tell it persuasively, and back it up with verifiable facts? Next we should look at any documents available from the period being studied. Legal records are of course excellent sources, but letters and account books also provide helpful clues. It is most often events mentioned in passing that can solve a mystery or settle a...
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