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History as Art or Science

James Muñoz is a U.S. military veteran with a BS in Diplomacy and Military Studies from Hawaii Pacific.

Read on to learn about the process of historical research and analysis, and where the boundaries of art and science meet in the discipline of history.

Read on to learn about the process of historical research and analysis, and where the boundaries of art and science meet in the discipline of history.

Is History Art or Science?

History is the academic discipline that gives the human species the ability to understand the present through past events. History allows for a more comprehensible illumination of the present, the possibilities of our future, and an exuberant human lineage that molds and shapes the outcome of nations, cultural traditions, and human endeavors.

History is most important in times when the mysteries of the present day can be traced back to root causes or influential catalytic events of the past. Without history, we as a species would not fully understand the present and the future, as the present is directly created and molded from humanity's historical past.

History, for some scholars, is a discipline that collects data from the past and pieces together such data to create a historical event. Within the collection of data, we find the epicenter of art and science as the study of history. Interpretation of data begins and the fragmentation of historical data is linked together to form a historical event or finding.

Now, when data is interpreted or understood, the art of this academic discipline would be the ability to conclude or deduce lost pieces of history to establish a historical fact or event. Therefore, history is thought to be an art to some scholars while to other scholars’ history is science or both. To further understand this concept we must dig deeper and fully understand history as an academic discipline and unearth history’s academic systems and definitions.

Next, as we examine the academic discipline of history, we must analyze its composition and determine how this discipline correlates to science and/or art. Finally, let us reassemble the fine pieces of the academic discipline of history and see how history functions under a scientific schema, under an artistic schema, or under both. We will then conclude with our findings, and see whether the academic discipline of history stems from science, art, or a combination of the two.

What Exactly Is History?

To fully understand history and its conceptual aspects as an academic discipline, we will need to unravel history’s many systems. This is the beginning of our investigation of history as an academic discipline and will help us unearth and clarify history’s academic systems and definitions. First, we must find the answer to the question, “What is history?” as this question brings to light the broad spectrum of information that history entails. After this, we can begin to appreciate how scholars may distill information or interpretations of the past.

Arndt, Galgano, and Hyser observe that “History is not a collection of facts about the past whose primary value is to improve one’s skills while playing trivia games; it is an interpretation of the past based on the weight of available evidence.”1 History, therefore, allows for a perspective into the present based on the past. History provides a basic platform for perceiving the present, a platform rooted in the past, or history.

We may see history as a vital link of present and past with the historian’s interpretive narratives and facts, and the relationship of the two to one another. Carr has pointed out this vital relationship—of “dialogue”—between historian and facts: “What is history? It is a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past.”2 History, therefore, can be seen as a continuous relationship between the historian and his facts.

Now, without the historian’s interjection of himself into a world of facts, such facts would not be found or used and the historian would not have evidence or a basis for interpretive conclusions. With all these aspects of history we may also understand the study of history as a combination of art and science respectively. Hughes points out that “the study of history offers living proofs of the complementary nature of art and of science. One might think that this would be a source of pride to historians.”3

As we further define history, we begin to merge the science and art of history and better see how these concepts interrelate with one another. History—at a broader scale—utilizes various academic disciplines and merges them to better ascertain historical facts and how these facts have emerged or played out in history up to the present. As Hughes rightly points out, “Historical scholarship has begun to establish firm ties with such neighboring intellectual disciplines as economics and sociology.”4 The reason for such mergers is that historians must utilize the many tools at their disposal, including such various academic disciplines as sociology, economics, anthropology, religion, and others, to assist with discovering helpful contexts and building a thorough interpretive lens for deciphering facts and events.

The historian often finds themselves in the realm of science, and others begin to combine areas of art and science such as literary interpretation and psychological analysis. It is at this point that we begin to contemplate history as science or as a combination of art and science.

Marius and Page have thoughtfully discussed the difficulties in historical interpretation and its value:

“The evidence for past events is...always incomplete and fragmentary. Many pieces of evidence are lost, and others are often faded and warped. Historians fit the pieces together as carefully as possible, but holes remain in the picture they try to reconstruct…What emerges may closely resemble what happened, but we can never be completely sure that what we know as history is an exact replica of the past.”5

The historian’s act of filling in the gaps between historical facts points to the artistic aspects of history as a discipline. An inevitable part of the process of historical writing, is the historian’s need to deduce a subjective narrative and piece together facts to mold a reconstruction of history. Without this narrative construction, history would be incredibly difficult to grasp. This is the point at which history clearly becomes partially an artistic discipline.

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At the same time, however, that historians are managing facts and their gaps, there still remains the aspect of hypotheses and theories within history and historical findings. A balance by the historian must be achieved to better enhance historical facts and historical narratives. This area of balance is often a point at which the historian may eschew evidence or interpret such facts subjectively. Arndt, Galgano, and Hyser caution historians (and their readers) about this when they write that “[While] historians might find it impossible to eschew their own point of view, they must be aware of their own prejudices and guards against letting these intrude into their approach to historical study.”6

Here we find the battle between the objectivity and subjectivity of historical data and evidence, which in most instances are bits and pieces of a much broader historical event or perspective. In this scenario, the historian may test evidence under a hypothesis or under a theory. Under testable scientific conditions, the historian often finds himself working with gaps and fragments.

As noted, this is when the art of historical study begins and the historian must work to piece together or create a basic structure and make sense of missing links or paths toward the historical past. As we begin to further isolate interpretation, subjectivity, and objectivity in the context of history, we must further dissect the academic discipline of history to fully see the range of mechanisms at work in historical study. This will help us further understand how historical study is simultaneously a form of art and science.

Historiography and Various Approaches to History

As we explore the academic discipline of history, we must take its elements and investigate how this discipline correlates to science and or art. To do so, we need to understand historiography, which is a meta-perspective on historical analysis. In the words of Arndt, Galgano, and Hyser, “Historiography, or the study of the history and methodology of historical interpretation, is of great interest to historians.”7

So, understanding the processes of history and its methods of interpretation are key to the discipline of history: “Understanding historiography is important to historians in that it shows what questions have received much or little attention, and reveals questions of the past that might be ready for a second look.”8 Historiography allows for an understanding of historical interpretation based on how information has been constructed in its context. With a better understanding of different scholars’ approaches and different schools of thought, we may better understand the contexts and formats for the use of science and art within the academic discipline of history.

For example, the School of Ranke (or the Ranke method) “…argued that while the historian could attempt to understand the past on its own terms, it required a certain leap of imagination.”9 We may see clearly that in Ranke’s method, “imagination” marks the point at which history becomes an art. With the emergence of further scientific approaches influencing Ranke’s method, an approach known as Positivism was birthed, which claimed “…to be objective, and in the extreme, argued that by using the scientific method, historians could efface themselves of their biases, report what had occurred, and ultimately uncover the laws of human behavior. By claiming to be scientific historians could confidently make truthful claims about the past.”10

This aspect was further carried forward and, eventually, a Progressive school taking a more sociological approach emerged from the Positivist scientific approach. The Progressive school began to think in terms of social scientific methods when approaching history. Further developments led to the emergence of another interpretive school known as the Annales School. This approach to history sought to write total history that examined history over the long term. Their interest was in studying the rhythms of everyday life.

Fragmentation and Postmodernism in Historical Study

Through these different interpretive schools, we see can observe an emergence of a collaboration between social science and the scientific method. Each method evolved or emerged with an attempted scientific objectivity in its approach to history. However, none of these methods could ever become entirely objective. Due to this, historians began to see that fragmentation, or an inescapable subjectivity, was highly relevant to historical methodology. From this emerged what is known as postmodernism: “For postmodernists, fragmentary evidence and the inability of an observer to escape his or her point of view make the past unknowable. Instead, they believe that history is little more than an artistic representation of the past that reveals more about the author than the period discussed.”11

We now may begin to link past historical fragmentation with the use of scientific methods. We’ve discussed the artistic approach to the gaps and missing links of historical events and/or the past and concluded that it is inescapable that history has an artistic aspect. Furthermore, such meanings as gender, race, class, and ethnicity have increasingly become foundational aspects of historical analysis. Thus, these elements will inevitably lead the historian to the social science spectrum that exists within historical gaps and influence their imaginative work when piecing together a narrative.

As an artist creates his painting so does the historian, using the available methods as various paints when he begins to piece together a portrait of history. The historian also has different genres or subjects to focus on, specializing their approach to history with categories such as political, military, diplomatic, intellectual, religious, economic, and social history. Perhaps many more are evolving in the field of history as further expansion of history’s ability to merge with various academic disciplines takes place. Within each historical context lies unique scientific and artistic approaches to history.

Finally, let us reassemble the finer pieces of the academic discipline of history and see how history functions under a scientific schema, under an artistic schema, or under both. Now that we have looked into the different components of history and have a larger understanding of the academic discipline of history, let us go ahead and relate history in its entirety to science and art.

How Art and Science Both Shape Historical Analysis

Hughes has made a compelling case for a broader perspective on science and art, that treats them both as languages: “The two processes, that of science and that of art, are not very different. Both science and art form in the course of the centuries a human language by which we can speak about the more remote part of reality, and the coherent sets of concepts as well as the different styles of art are different word or groups of words in this language.”12

We may now visualize the adeptness of art and science within history in its entirety and how both shape historical outcomes for the historian: “If a scientific hypothesis is a metaphor, so is a plastic design or a phrase of music. At the same time as metaphors they are radically incommensurate.”13 It is important to note that, although incommensurate, science and art still complement each other in gathering historical data and analyzing it. The artistic aspect is a broader approach utilizing the historian’s years of experience in disciplined investigation, examination, and correlation. A necessary intertwining of science and art in historical method is the essence of history to historians, simply because historical facts are often extracted orally or secondarily through many avenues such as eyewitness testimonials, artifacts, or manuscripts. From these sources, the historian begins to create historical writings.

Thus, we may now see the merger of science and art from the historian’s perspective as historical facts or events come to light. In the process of discovering his materials, the historian may have used scientific methods to extract his findings or a more artistic approach of piecing together his narrative from other findings or past discoveries.

Hughes very poignantly makes the case for the inescapable struggle of subjectivity and objectivity, art and science, in the work of historical analysis:

“Historians—in contrast to investigators in almost any other field of knowledge—very seldom confront their data directly. The literary or artistic scholar has the poem or painting before him; the astronomer scans the heavens through a telescope; the geologist tramps the soil he studies; the physicist or chemist runs experiments in his laboratory. The mathematician and the philosopher are abstracter from reality by definition and do not pretend to empirical competence. The historian alone is both wedded to empirical reality and condemned to view his subject matter at second remove.”14

Thus, it is in the historian’s realm alone that a combination of art and science enables the historian the ability to write their accounts. (It could alternatively be argued that this interplay becomes most apparent in the work of historical analysis, but that it exists in all fields to greater or lesser degrees.)

History as a Complex Interplay of Science and Art

We may now conclude with our findings, that indeed the academic discipline of history stems from a combination of science and art. We’ve also seen that, while historical methodology once tried to be fundamentally scientfic or fundamentally artistic, the real picture is something more like a complex interplay of the two. This is a large reason why, as Hughes observes, historians are alert to overly concrete terms and definitions:

“Historians are by nature wary of precise definition; they hate to be confined within tight terminological boundaries, and they are ever alert to the fallacy of misplaced concreteness; they much prefer to write ordinary words in their common sense usage and then let the reader little by little become aware of how these words have subtly changed their significance through time.”15

We may learn that historians, through their literary uniqueness, tend to gravitate to the artistic medium despite the usage of the scientific medium. A historian, with their nature to not pinpoint themselves with precise language, therefore, leaves room to navigate within the realm of artistic approaches to history.

History allows for a more comprehensible illumination of the present, future possibilities, and an exuberant human lineage that molds and shapes the outcome of nations, cultural traditions, and human endeavors. We are reminded of the influence of history in our daily lives as our traditions, nationalism, and human achievements blossom from a historical past, but yet it is with these influences that artful literary prowess, progress, and scientific facts adorn each other. History influences the present through its artful historical depictions and records.

History is most important in times when the mysteries of the present day can be traced back to its root causes or influential catalytic events of the past. Without history, we as a species would not fully understand the present and the future, as the present is generally directly created and molded from humanity's historical past. History, therefore, allows for a perspective into the present from the past. History provides a basic platform for the present, rooting itself in the past, or history.

We may see history as a vital link between present and past and the historian’s interpretive narratives of facts and how they are associated with one another. As we further define history we begin to merge the science and art of history and how these concepts merge with one another. Science and art complement each other in methods of gathering historical facts and events, while the historian becomes an artist in the act of creating a narrative through disciplined investigation, examination, and correlation.

With a better understanding of different historical scholars and schools, we may better understand the contexts and format for the use of science and art within the academic discipline of history. The historian often finds themselves in the realm of science, but also combine areas of art and science such as literary interpretation and psychological analysis.

Historians study documents, artifacts, testimonies, various written records, and more—all of which are hard data-evidence. And yet, they must interpret this data and turn it into something readable and understandable as a perspective. Marius and Page skillfully illuminate this basic aspect of the historian’s efforts:

“Solving such puzzles of history involve both science and art. Science is a synonym for knowledge. But knowledge of what? History includes data-evidence, the names of people and places, when things happened, where they happened, bits of information gathered from many sources. It also includes interpretations of historians and others in the past who have written on the topic that the writer decided to treat in an essay. The art of history lies in combining fact and interpretation to tell a story about the past…”16

The Inescapable Subjectivity of the Historian (and Why That's Not Bad)

As we have seen, historical methods recognize that there are gaps in facts and evidence, and help historians decide where their interpretations best fit in a larger perspective. In other words, they help establish boundaries for how to best formulate stories or narratives of the past. The historian may seek a better understanding through various interpretive notions or beliefs, yet the historian’s scientific approach obligates the historian to seek as much factual data-evidence as possible. The historian’s interpretation and approach influence the meaning of historical data and, depending on the scientific method or objective school of thought (Ranke, Positivism, Annales, Postmodernism, etc.), the historian will still need to utilize a format or artistic additive in order to piece together the fragmented historical data.

Next, the historian’s actual present-day life may also affect the ability of the historian to interpret the historical facts, thereby often influencing historical events and their context(s). As the historian’s daily life may influence historical context, it is at this point that art and subjectively become highly relevant, inevitably affecting historical data to better fit the historian’s arrangement of historical data or findings. Thus we may see that the historian, with his known variables, must be to some degree an artist when making sense of historical data through an array of influences.

As Hughes so importantly points out, the historian “cannot escape [this], its pressures are all around him. And if his trade has more than antiquarian meaning for him, he will feel impelled to comment on the recent past. For the same dilemmas of personal loyalty and ideal allegiance, of the inborn ruthlessness and good will toward men, which have troubled his mind in his study of remote ages will force themselves upon him when he rests his weary eyes for a moment on the circumstances in which he is actually living.”17 The historian must understand that his own time may affect or influence his interpretation of the past. This “present-time effect,” so to speak, may include such influential present-day factors as politics, ideology, and/or groups that could change the psychoanalytical objectiveness of the historian. These tremendous variables greatly affect the outcome of the historian’s interpretation, and it is in these variables that the historian’s art manifests into the academic discipline of history.

Through various schools of ideology within the interpretation of history, we may clearly see the creation of historical narrative as being a science and an art despite interpretive conclusions. No matter how scientific the historian may administer his ideology of interpretive findings, there will be a point where science ends and art begins. Science alone within the field of history would not be able to piece together the entire historical event as proven by scientific limitation and through the fragmented historical actualities. The historian must accept and honor both roles and their purposes in his work: “For the historian who sees not incompatibility between his different roles—who is at least as much an artist as he is a social scientist—is uniquely equipped to lead others toward the imaginative fusion of these attributes, and thereby to illuminate the era in which we live.”18 The historian must have the ability to utilize science and scientific disciplines and fuse them with disciplined imagination to create a balanced ahistorical outcome and sort through the past and piece together a historical time frame.

Perhaps an apt comparison would be how an artist finds shapes and sizes of material that nobody would see or comprehend and begins to sculpt and piece together a work of art. Where the ordinary person fails to see the possibilities, or possess the imagination to construct the artwork, the historian begins to find and see the possibilities of piecing together historical facts and stories. Similarly, the artist utilizes the laws of science in molding, sculpting, and creating pieces, but they also employ the strength of their imaginations in the process. Therefore, history is an inevitable and complex interplay of art and science.

Can History Be Objective?

References

Notes

1. Chris J. Arndt, Michael J. Galgano, and Raymond M. Hyser. Doing History Research and Writing in the Digital Age, Boston MA: Thomson Corp, 2008, 1.

2. Edward H. Carr. What is History?, New York: Random House, 1961, 35

3. H. Stuart Hughes. History as Art and as Science: Twin Vistas on the Past, New York: Harper and Row, 1964, 3

4. Hughes, 2

5. Richard Marius and Melvin E. Page, A Short Guide to Writing About History (7th Ed.), New York: Pearson Education Inc, 2010, 4

6. Arndt, Galgano, and Hyser, 5

7. Arndt, Galgano, and Hyser, 6

8. Arndt, Galgano, and Hyser, 6

9. Arndt, Galgano, and Hyser, 7

10. Arndt, Galgano, and Hyser, 7

11. Arndt, Galgano, and Hyser, 12

12. Hughes, 2

13. Hughes, 2

14. Hughes, 4

15. Hughes, 6

16. Marius and Page, 3

17. Hughes, 106

18. Hughes, 107

Bibliography

Arndt, Chris J., Galgano, Michael J., and Hyser, Raymond M. Doing History Research and Writing in the Digital Age, Boston MA: Thomson Corp, 2008.

Carr, Edward H., What is History?, New York: Random House, 1961.

Marius, Richard and Page, Melvin E. A Short Guide to Writing About History (7th Ed.), New York: Pearson Education Inc, 2010.

Stuart, Hughes H., History as Art and as Science: Twin Vistas on the Past, New York: Harperand Row, 1964.

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