History (‘ἱστορία,’ historia, meaning ‘inquiry’ from Greek) is a study of the past. It is considered to be a humanitarian science. Humans study the events of the past recorded in papers and images coming from even before the invention of writing. History is an important part of human species’ as a civilization, humans even have a sector in their brains to record events of the past. Historical writings are a crucial part of historical assessment, however, they are an unreliable source of information individually and must be examined in conjunction and other historical writings covering the same event.
The reliability of the historical records is a question to be answered. Any historical writing is a way to pass the knowledge of the event to further generations and keep it in existence. History is written by people, people who lived through a life and experienced events which have formed and altered their views on the world and certain subjects.
“REPORTER: How will history look back on your decision to drop charges against Flynn? ATTORNEY GENERAL BARR: “Well, history is written by the winners. So it largely depends on who’s writing the history.”
—Interview, CBS News, May 2020”
Every historical event that is or not considered important has different sides that can, should and must be examined. Any historical event is a topic for discussion between people with certain opinions on the subject. For example, Nazism was the right ideology from the standpoint of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party, while USSR considered communism the right ideology. The conflict between Third Reich and USSR is a big topic for discussion which must be looked at from all perspectives and standpoints. It is practically impossible for a writer to cover a topic without having knowledge about the topic, and thus forming an opinion about it. The only way for a historical event to be recorded without any bias, is for every small detail that has happened to be documented by a 3rd party that does not possess any knowledge about the event, an entity uncapable of forming opinions and emotions – a robot. An artificial mechanism to supervise the event and log all actions, decisions and words as they happen cannot put any bias into the writing because it is not capable of doing anything else other than outputting the events on film or paper. An entity as such is purely hypothetical and cannot exist (at the time of writing) in a physical world, thus, it is not possible for a historical writing to be free from perspective and bias, making History an uncertain Area of Knowledge.
The uncertainty and subjectivity of historical writing raise the question about the reliability of historical records made in the past. The records are essential for analysis and assessment of historical event, which is the main purpose of History.
“Imagination plays too important a role in the writing of history, and what is imagination but the projection of the author’s personality.
Events that have happened hundreds of years ago have to be assessed by the records made by the people who have lived through or have first-order knowledge about the events. These people put the bias and their own opinion in the writings, making them subjective, or worse, lied and altered the events on paper. The content is critical to the assessment of the events, altered content may lead to a different result that shows the subject in a better or worse light. The information learned from the writings may be taught to future generations and alter their views as well. Therefore, it is critical for the records to be proven reliable. One way to prove the reliability of a source may be to compare it to other records of the event made in the same time period by different authors. Every author will put their own bias and point of view in their writing, thus by examining different opinions on the subject and finding a common information, we may be able to form a more reliable and objective view of the event.
In conclusion, a historical writing as an individual piece of work done by one author cannot be objective and will always have some perspective on an event that it is covering. The reliability of a historical writing may be assessed by comparing it other works covering the same event made in the same time period. Multiple historical records form a wider and more objective point of view of an event, yet History as Area of Knowledge is uncertain and may never have one exact answer to any question.
4 thoughts on “Uncertainty and unreliability of historical records”
Maxim, this is very good. Two questions and a comment: a) What is a “humanitarian science”? b) If history is an “uncertain” AOK, which AOKs are certain? c) You overlook is the role of *documents* in writing history, which is similar to the role of documentary evidence in police work. If we find a receipt for the purchase of a certain gun by the accused assassin, and a photo of him holding that gun, and if we match the bullets that killed the victim to that gun, this is important evidence that can be used to search for the truth about what happened. Historians use similar documents. So reading accounts by several different historians is very important, but examining the documentary evidence they rely on is at least equally important. If Historian A carefully examines the documentary evidence, while Historian B does not, and Historian C mostly relies on Historian B’s account of events, then Historian C’s perspective will not add much value in our search for the truth about what happened.
a) “Humanitarian science” is a synonym for “human science” or “humanistic social science”
b) An example of a certain AOK would be Mathematics or Natural Science. Mathematical knowledge is provable and determined, we obtain it with careful analysis and there are no “different sides” such as ethics or morality, Math does not depend on political opinions or historical context, but only on knowledge and analysis. Natural sciences apply mathematics and do research (a very general term) the Universe. One might argue that even in Physics or Chemistry there are different opinions, and while it is true, usually there is only one correct answer which has to be obtained via the analysis. Unfortunately, results of research are hidden or scientists are forced to lie because of the political scene, but once that happens, the subject is not a matter of Science anymore, but of politics and ethics.
Your post is very detailed and convincing. I strongly agree with you that every historical events has its different perspectives. No one can write an article without bias because we view things from different sides.
I agree with you when you said that one way to prove the reliability of a source is to compare it to other records of the event. this is a good way to prove the reliability of the source because if the description of the events match up, then its probably a good indicator that the other source is accurate.