What Is History? Definitions and Philosophy of History

Updated on November 20, 2017

History: The Practical and the Ideal

Plato taught that all things are perceived in light of a perfect “Ideal”, that which we see as good is an imperfect manifestation of the ideal goodness, that which is just is measured by its relation to the one Justice; for all things there is a more perfect form or idea. So it is with the ideal history, and like all other Ideals, man will by nature strive to attain it even when it lies far beyond his reach.

The ideal history can be defined simply as “What really happened.” Everyone begins with a false assumption, that the histories we read in textbooks and learn in classrooms are the ideal. This is not to say that all textbooks are necessarily wrong in everything they say, it simply means that much of what we hold as history is, at best, an educated guess, and often time merely an assumption—a leap of faith. Our understanding of the past is constantly changing, and that which seems incontrovertible today may be proved foolishness tomorrow. Even as boys and girls study the pages of their history books, confidently learning what we can know for certain, our best scholars are fiercely debating the very same thing.

When considering the history of the world, we are only as certain as we are credulous. Tempting as it is to regard the past as historically established, the best scholars (in this writer’s opinion) are quicker to acknowledge what they do not know than to affirm what most desire to believe is known. Satisfying as a thoroughly confident textbook may be, a frustrating read through the more tentative publications of those men and women at the front line of our collective learning strips away many preconceived notions, leaving us standing on less, but hopefully more solid, ground. And it is in this latter way that we begin to find our best path toward the ideal history—practical history.

Even to quote Plato reminds us of the tentative nature of history as we know it when we consider the late manuscript data by which we know his works
Even to quote Plato reminds us of the tentative nature of history as we know it when we consider the late manuscript data by which we know his works | Source

The Goal of a “Practical History”

Before attempting to define (for this article) what a “practical history” is, let us first define the goal of such a history for our purposes: a practical history presents a substantial, conservative framework which is carefully distinguished from faith and hypothesis, allowing the student to draw their own conclusions concerning that which cannot be substantiated fully.

A comparatively late rendering of Eusebius
A comparatively late rendering of Eusebius

Practical History

History itself does not “happen”; events happen and only then are recollections recorded, oral traditions are passed down, ramifications are observed, scenes are left behind which might be unearthed and studied. Collectively these clues, as many (or few) of them as survive the ravages of time, are assessed and compared (by methods both true and flawed) and the conclusions of scholars enter into the annals as history. And so we cannot think of practical history as “What happened,” but rather “What the evidence presented suggests has happened” at best.

But because these clues must be interpreted through that most insurmountably flawed of vehicles – human reason – if we define practical history simply in these terms then the discipline is doomed to complete fragmentation, and every textbook must be subtitled “a history according to…”. No one, regardless of their beliefs or background, is impartial, those who believe themselves free of tradition are slaves to their traditions*. All have their biases and blindness; each may read their own preference into the evidence and so develop their own history which they confidently call “fact.”

So what must we do? Here we have come to the crossroads; shall we abandon all hope of attaining the Ideal History or press on in the pursuit? If we press on, then how? Even if we have sufficient facts to draw conclusions, what certainty do we have we drew the right ones?

Permit a historical example to provide a solution; when various churches in the second century found themselves beset from without and within by various new teachings that denied the doctrines they had received from the apostles and their disciples, their solution was to consult the evidence (in the form of the letters, or copies thereof, they had received from the founders of the Christian Church,) and consult with other churches beyond their own region. It was this response that began the business of assembling a New Testament Canon of books shared among the inquiring churches and which allowed the early church to first call its profession of faith “Catholic” – according to the whole. “In an abundance of councilors there is safety.**”

So a practical history must be “a history according to the whole,” (the whole of the evidence and the whole of interpreters.) Naturally, to expect complete consensus would be absurd, and anything but practical, as the most esteemed scholars often disagree and critic one another strongly at times. But remember the goal of such a history; we need only to provide a firm framework and then we may present our further assertions (provided we make the delineation between the two clear).

To demonstrate this…well, practically…let us take the four Gospels as an example. As a Christian, it would be very easy to assert that anything stated in these gospels must be true, therefore it is not only practical history, but the Ideal. In opposition to this, there are many who would readily dismiss the gospels as merely religious writings with no historical value. The former claim is not demonstrable, the latter is not reasonable. Rather than dogmatically clinging to their own camps, for the sake of providing a “practical history,” those who approach the Gospels as Christians should be willing to concede that what they cannot demonstrate should not enter into the core framework of a practical history, and those who are more skeptical must acknowledge that such radical skepticism would erase all history altogether, and is rooted in much the same faith as their Christian counterparts.

Closing

Of course, even forming such a relatively modest framework cannot be achieved with total consensus, nor is the majority necessarily right. It would be easy to write about the pitfalls of pursuing such a “Practical History.” Just as the Catholic Church found itself in ever worsening need of reform, so too will this catholic history (with “facts alone” as its rallying cry). Men are fallible, and political and spiritual movements often sweep the majority into error, and, of course, the very nature of man does not lend itself to perfect solutions. Perhaps, in a way, even this lesser form of history is no less an Ideal than the Ideal History, but, for those who would strive for it with an honest intention, a practical history allows an equal footing to reason and learn together for scholars and students alike.

Footnotes

* Here I have borrowed some wisdom from Dr. James White

** Proverbs 11:14

© 2017 B A Johnson

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