What constitutes history, anyhow?
Who writes it, and what emboldens them to do so?
How is history written - moreover, how ought history to be written?
What forms and methods of transcription are accessible and acceptable? Do these standards vary based on the situation?
Are there literal truths in history, or must we resort to wholly subjective interpretations?
Is history an art? A science?
Ought history to teach us anything?
Ought we, the responder, to choose what we believe on the basis of ‘-isms’?
Most of all, why are these questions important?
Historical debates are impassioned and virulent affairs, often promising as many casualties as the issues they are fond of addressing. History to date has been party to several societal trends (as expressed by Henry Reynolds) - namely, that it is male, essentially non- (and often anti-) young, inherently censored by tender political climates, limited by the historian’s knowledge and cultural context (meaning that the narrative presented often exists before the historian begins his or her research), frail on love, overly zealous on hate and thoroughly colonial in the views it presents; although every occurrence is technically a part of history, so little of it is chronicled. One might even imagine that the wealthy and powerful have been the sole creators of the past.
From this we infer that there is always an element of bias in what is presented, somewhat thwarting the insistence of the 19th century Prussian historian Leopold von Ranke’s insistence to “tell it as it happened,” (albeit in German) which is founded on the presumption that there is a single narrative and boldly neglects the critical issue of selection of evidence, manipulation of words and the simple fact that the ‘it’ which occurred will invariably be seen to have happened in a number of different fashions. If history writing is a science, then, it is an imprecise one which uses inadequate measures, few proofs and excessive conjecture. The primary failing of literalism is in its inability to understand the paradoxical stance it takes - it attempts to achieve an adequate standard of proof without shaking the presumption that it is incontrovertibly correct: no science to be seen here.
Similarly, if history is an art then it is the only art which advocates a clinical, methodical approach. The English Enlightenment (18th century) historian Edward Gibbon employed history as a moral didactic, attempting to teach by object lesson the causes and consequences of particular behavioural patterns considered to be reprehensible during that period. Unfortunately, this naturally lends the historian’s efforts to wrest from the evidence certain properties or perspectives which are not necessarily present and means that the presentation constitutes little more than personal criticism. At any rate, if history is as transitory as the moral values of any given society then there is little to no point in adherence to standards of proof or the establishment of actual causes and consequences whatsoever. One might as well concoct one’s own stories - and this is where relativism sputters and dies. On the opposite end of the spectrum to its intractable nemesis, it casts too broad a net to catch a single fish.
Polybius wrote that the historian should not seek to entertain his (or her - but that’s my contribution to his statement) audience at the expense of historical fidelity. If neither literal nor relative means of address suffice, what is the verdict to be? Should only the barest minimum of all available sources be committed to the page? The reduction of bias might seem an admirable goal, but bias can be as informative as the text which contains it. If one understands the context and intentions of the author, other truths can be inferred, if such whimsical beasts did ever draw breath.
”Without a distinction between what is and what is not so,” writes Eric Hobsbawm (who, it might be noted, refutes the idea of ‘-ism’ application), “there can be no history.” Are there facts to be plucked? The crowning irony of this is that this is the subject of greatest debate amongst scholars of the two diametrically-opposed disciplines and that the importance of reaching a conclusive verdict (on that question alone) is the only matter they mutually hold to be necessary. Such is the plight of Australia’s National Museum, which has come under scrutiny for its post-colonial (ie favourably disposed to the minority) approach to Australian history, commonly referred to as the ‘black armband’ view.
At the centre of the debate is Keith Windschuttle, author of the revisionist the Fabrication of Australian History and a man widely renowned for his pedantry over matters of posterity (having antagonised the aforementioned Professor Reynolds - a black armband historian - for misplacing and misinterpreting a statement by Governor Phillip) and his polarisation of stance (having entirely abandoned his Marxist sympathies). Windschuttle’s own work has been criticised for its prejudicial treatment of its subject. Anything can and will be assailed by someone.
So, is the debate an eternal war? Probably; if there is truth, there are degrees and interpretations of it. If there is not, there is a lie broadly agreed-upon. Whatever the stance, there is history of one sort or another, ostensibly devoted to educating the reader. Perhaps it’s best that it doesn’t stop - a conclusion is not an answer, merely the point at which thought ends.
History must sacrifice half its art to science and half its science to art - it is unique.