What Is History?

The study of history is the best medicine for a sick mind; for in history you have a record of the infinite variety of human experience plainly set out for all to see; and in that record you can find for yourself and your country both examples and warnings: fine things to take as models, base things, rotten through and through, to avoid.

- Livy, The Early History of Rome, I, 1

Podcast of the Day

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss how the writing of history has changed over time, from ancient epics to medieval hagiographies and modern deconstructions. In the 6th century AD, the bishop of Tours began his history of the world with a simple observation that “A great many things keep happening, some of them good, some of them bad”. For a phrase that captures the whole of history it’s among the best, but in writing about the past we are rarely so economical. From ancient epics – Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War - to medieval hagiographies and modern deconstructions, historians have endlessly chronicled, surveyed and analysed the great many things that keep happening, declaring some of them good and some of them bad. But the writing of history always illuminates two periods – the one history is written about and the one it is written in. And to look at how the writing of history has changed is to examine the way successive ages have understood their world. In short, there is a history to history.

Listen to the In Our Time episode: History of History

Video of the Day

Short Article of the Day

People live in the present. They plan for and worry about the future. History, however, is the study of the past. Given all the demands that press in from living in the present and anticipating what is yet to come, why bother with what has been? Given all the desirable and available branches of knowledge, why insist—as most American educational programs do—on a good bit of history? And why urge many students to study even more history than they are required to?

Any subject of study needs justification: its advocates must explain why it is worth attention. Most widely accepted subjects—and history is certainly one of them—attract some people who simply like the information and modes of thought involved. But audiences less spontaneously drawn to the subject and more doubtful about why to bother need to know what the purpose is.

Historians do not perform heart transplants, improve highway design, or arrest criminals. In a society that quite correctly expects education to serve useful purposes, the functions of history can seem more difficult to define than those of engineering or medicine. History is in fact very useful, actually indispensable, but the products of historical study are less tangible, sometimes less immediate, than those that stem from some other disciplines...

Continue reading Peter N. Stearns' article: Why Study History?

Further Reading

The concept of history plays a fundamental role in human thought. It invokes notions of human agency, change, the role of material circumstances in human affairs, and the putative meaning of historical events. It raises the possibility of “learning from history.” And it suggests the possibility of better understanding ourselves in the present, by understanding the forces, choices, and circumstances that brought us to our current situation. It is therefore unsurprising that philosophers have sometimes turned their attention to efforts to examine history itself and the nature of historical knowledge. These reflections can be grouped together into a body of work called “philosophy of history.”...

Continue reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on the Philosophy of History by Daniel Little

Related Topics

 Ancient GreeceThe Industrial Revolution | Hegel | Literature

Want to learn more? Sign up via email to get the best resources on a new topic each day. Or you can follow on Twitter or Facebook.

Leave a Reply