I just finished a class in “Philosophy of History”. What was it about you wonder? So did I when I signed up for the class. I’ve taken a few philosophy classes before, and I always LOVED history. So I figured that the combination of Philosophy and History would be interesting – and it was, but not in the way I imagined.

Simply put, ‘Philosophy of History’ with different approaches for writing and evaluating History. It answers the question: “what do historians do when they write history?” This sounded like a trivial question at first, but as class progressed things became very convoluted.why-study-history

Early guidance on how to write history existed in ancient times, but the discussion really gathered steam in the 19th century. Leopold von Ranke, a German scholar, set the foundations for the “science of history” in modern times.  He is perhaps best known for saying that “history should describe how things actually were”. Sounds simple, right?

Some thought that in order to follow Ranke’s principle, historians should first carefully examine their sources, verify their authenticity,  extract ‘facts’ from the sources, and finally synthesize an accurate description of the past based on those facts.  But that’s where things get complicated: we’re talking about people with biases (the historians) going over documents created by other people with biases (in the past) and trying to create an ‘objective’ description out of it. Doesn’t sound so simple anymore…

Throughout much of the ‘modernism’ period (mid-19th century to mid-20th century) there were many attempts to improve and refine the “science of history”. The philosopher Carl Hempel , in his paper titled The Function of General Laws in History” (1942), went as far as claiming that there are general laws that govern historical events, much like any other scientific phenomena. Other philosophers like Robin Collingwood, believed that unlike physics, history deals with people and their willful actions. The key to explaining history according to that approach was to fully empathize with a particular historical figure and virtually “get into her mind”. This approach assumes that people act “rationally”, and therefore historical events can be explained using a “rational decision process” applied to the circumstances at the time.

The development of related fields, such as economy, sociology, psychology, and anthropology offered new tools for historians to use. Some historians believed they should use these tools to analyze the broader aspects of society in a particular period. This was a departure from traditional ‘Political History’, which focused on the actions of individual leaders or governments. A group of French philosopher named ‘Annales School’ paved the way to the development of “Social History”.

The evolving field of Anthropology offered new promises for historians. Coming to think of it, history faces the challenge of understanding a different society – separated from us not just by geography, but also by time. Yet some of the obstacles that face anthropologists are shared by historians: can they truly understand a different society, or are they projecting their own values, beliefs and judgments on it? One of the areas where this dichotomy became evident is in the approach Western historians took in documenting the history of non-Western cultures: Africans, Asians and Arabs for example. Edward Said in his book “Orientalism” accused the “West” for creating a fictitious image of other culture and effectively distorting their history to suite the Western approach.

Some historians chose to “rise above the noise” and look at human history as a whole. They sought to extract from the study of individual events the rules that govern all of history, i.e. create a meta-historical theory. Perhaps the most known one is Karl Marx, who concluded that history reflects the ongoing conflict between those who provide the labor (working class) and those who own the means of production (ruling class). The progression of history according to Marx is driven by that conflict: long periods characterized by a specific economic structure, rising inter-class tensions that eventually lead to a revolution, and a transition into a new economic and political structure. Marx used his meta-history to explain the transitions from Feudalism, to Capitalism and eventually to Socialism.

In my humble view, what characterized most of the ‘Modernist’ theories that predated World War II was the underlying belief there was a true answer to the question ‘what is history’, but then came WW II and its aftermath gave rise to Postmodernism.

Postmodernists cast doubts on the underlying assumptions of traditional history: was there really a “past” that we can uncover through research? Is there a single truth that we all need to strive for? Jean-François Lyotard in an essay titled “The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge declared the death of ‘Grand Narratives’: No, science and research do not lead us to a better existence. And no, the “human spirit” doesn’t continuously progress towards a higher level of enlightenment. He urged historians to stop looking for, or using big narratives to describe and explain history. Rather they should focus on small, local narratives. And if small narratives is all we have, then there isn’t really “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” in history. We’re left with small narratives developed by social groups, each hanging tight to its own.

This brings me to our own little patch of land – Israel. And boy do we have competing narratives here…  Are Jews simply a modern incarnation of medieval Crusaders? Have they been sent by Western Colonialism to occupy the holy land and drive out the Arabs? Or are Jews the rightful owners of this ancient land, who spent two millennia in forced exile and finally came back to claim what’s rightfully theirs? And this is just the tip of the ‘local narratives’ iceberg.

I must pause here and give credit to a young man named Amit Deutsch, who figured this out 5 years ago in his TEDx talk at UC Berkeley. Sorry for being a bit slow, son…

Some say there are different types of knowledge: things ‘you know’, things you ‘know you don’t know’, and things you ‘don’t know you don’t know’. I thought I knew what history was, but after this class, I became much more aware of the things I don’t really know about it… There is a lot more to learn about this subject, but most importantly – once you pick a “version of the truth” that suites you, keep in mind there are many other versions out there.