History As Art, Not Science
Do you believe everything you read history books? If you answered “No,” you are thinking like a historian. A historian’s purpose, as John Lukacs explains in The Future of History, is to find out what “untruths” have been recorded and discover the truth. Currently, that job is becoming harder for several reasons, including the proliferation of “amateur historians,” who sometimes produce excellent scholarship and sometimes are more interested in a New York Times review than one in the American Historical Review. Of course, the ancient Greeks were arguably the most famous historians ever, and they were hardly “professional.” What makes writers now different is partly due to an incomplete understanding of the subject itself.
History is important—without it, we are bound to repeat it, and all that—but defining it is harder. As a subject taught in school, or even as a topic of writing, it developed relatively recently in history. The Greek historians certainly made important contributions in the field, but it was not until the eighteenth century that many writers again considered history a useful topic. Since then, the form in which writers and readers of history have understood it has changed: in the eighteenth century it was literature, in the nineteenth, science, and in the twentieth, social science. Historians essentially shifted their focus from studying governments to studying peoples within eras. Lukacs argues that we need to understand, as the first “modern” history writers did, that history is literature. It is never totally objective even if it is never totally subjective either.
While whole generations have grown up taking years of “social studies” classes without ever actually completing a history course, it should be recognized that history is much more of an art than it is a science. Lukacs argues that it is not a science at all, because history is almost never definitive. When history tries to describe how a group of people lived (rather than simply listing facts about a state) it is a literary rather than scientific endeavor, because the historian is trying to reconstruct why they lived the way they did. Here is where “amateur historians” are successful: they often read the literature of their time period more than “professional historians,” which gives them a better idea of the era they study. A literary approach to history helps us to comprehend how and why certain events happened, that is, to understand what people thought rather than just what they did.