• Mariner
    374
    This is a survey. If you wish to present a theory as to what exactly qualifies as a reasonable "subject of (a) history", be my guest, but my main intention here is to get a list of what kinds of subjects can have their own Histories (note the "H") written by historians.

    Political entities, sure. History of France.

    Aspects of mankind: History of Clothing. History of Cooking.

    Intellectual endeavors: History of Science, History of Religion. (History of History?).

    Not easily classifiable: History of Childhood. History of Love.

    Suprapolitical constructs: History of the West. History of Europe. History of Pre-Colombian peoples.

    Non-human constructs: History of Mammals. History of Vertebrates. History of the World. History of the Universe.

    If you can add to the list, please do.

    Once we look over the list: are all of these usages (perhaps there are more) of "History" univocal? Can we get to a solution to the problem adumbrated in the first paragraph, of what exactly is a viable candidate for a "subject of history"?
  • Moliere
    4.3k
    History of ideas: History of Being, History of Freedom

    History of a particular object: History of The Cross, History of Aristotle's Corpus,

    History of social movements: Labor, Race, and Gender struggles

    And definitely yes on history of history. That's historiography, in a remarkably consistent if somewhat funny discipline :).

    Also, World History, whether we believe in it or no, is at least a thing. And cliometric history, and all the various ways of writing a history of [x] should probably be included.


    I don't think that uses of "History" are univocal. I can see overlapping between various uses, but I wouldn't say that they are univocal at all.

    It seems to me that History is about what we care about. We explore history to find reasons to justify our actions, to find our identities, to think through problems, or to understand some topic or other.
  • schopenhauer1
    10.4k
    History is an interpretation of past events, not just the chronicling of events. Therefore, not all things that happen in historical time are "history" proper. It is the use of primary sources to get at an account of events as well as a certain understanding of them through analysis and synthesis.
  • Hanover
    12.3k
    I'm currently reading "Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its History," which is really on point to this question. It distinguishes between heritage and history, with the former being an unapologetic factually inaccurate view of the past, reciting past events purposefully designed to inspire and elevate. We see the same in our own domains, whether it be a glorification of the Old South ignoring mistreatment of blacks or American history overlooking its treatment of native peoples.

    My own view is that the distinction between history and heritage is one of degree and not black and white. What happened is always seen through the lens of what you want to have been, regardless of your best efforts at neutral journalism. This may explain why diametrically opposed political ideologues can never agree on whether a news report has been fairly reported.

    I'm somewhat sympathetic to the view of characterizing events as meaningful in some higher sense, as opposed to even attempting to portraying black and white facts neutrally, as I question whether it can be done, especially in areas where the stakes are high.

    Using the bullshit du jour we just went through as an example, I could just enumerate the facts, or I could tell you what it meant, highlighting the critical issues for effect and downplaying areas where I may wish to protect someone or something, and sticking to those facts that are thematic.

    For example, we've all been extremely careful not to question Paul's motives, and even as I bring it up now, there are likely those who feel a sacred cow is being mishandled. Am I right, or am I right? We have our heritage to protect.
  • Wosret
    3.4k


    Reading about Jew conspiracies eh? No surprise.
  • Hanover
    12.3k
    Don't eh me, you Canadian.
  • Pneumenon
    463
    I would guess that Paul's motive was cash, and that's probably it. As PF grew more popular, the amount of money probably grew larger and more and more tempting. After a while Paul got the proverbial dollar signs in his eyes and sold the site. No condemnation, praise, or excuses here.
  • Streetlight
    9.1k
    I like mircohistories of things - like the history of salt, bananas or rain.

    Histories in general attest to the autonomy of things, how things, people, ideas, nations, objects, natural phenomena and so on attain consistencies of their own, how they texture the world with a significance which bleeds into and shapes space(s) and time(s) of their own accord. History is the record of the traces that the world-in-becoming leaves upon itself, the way that thing en-world the very environment in which they are a part of.
  • Hanover
    12.3k
    Reading about Jew conspiracies eh? No surprise.Wosret

    Also, just to clarify, the book is about how the Jewish Orthodox community characterizes its own history within the realm of Judaism, not how it attempts to misstate its significance to the world at large. The community is very insular, so it would have no interest in tooting its own horn and being noticed generally. Actually, it often takes the opposite approach, trying to downplay significant differences when dealing with the non-Jewish culture due to fears of being noticed. Historically being noticed was not an advantage.

    The book is written from a secular perspective, but draws interesting parallels about communities create their histories.
  • discoii
    196
    There is a popular protest chant that is used: "Who's street? Our street!" In using language to describe anything, there is often inherent in the language a built-in structure of identification: me, you, yours, them, they, and so on. In describing history, we often lace it with words implying some sort of ownership that something has over some aspect. Even the word history comes from the root learned narrative, where it is the learning of an account belonging to something else. As such, there can be no objective account of history that isn't laced with the inherent bias of thought and language.
  • Mariner
    374
    There are two meanings to the expression "the history of X":

    1. The series of events
    2. The [literary -- though we may imagine a day in which it will be cinematic, or use some other medium] product presenting the series of events.

    We call both of these meanings "the history of": "Have you read the history of X?" "in the history of X, R and S happened before we got where we are".

    Microhistories are a good hook. StreetlightX mentioned the history of salt. What is "the history of salt"? It is a series of events, and a book. What links both meanings is the intent of an author; someone saw a reason to write a book about the history of salt. (I haven't read it, but I have little doubt that it must be interesting!).

    As discoii mentions, there can be no objective account of history, for many reasons. One of them is that the selection of facts (the so called "series of events") proceeds according to biased viewpoints. Another is that the presentation of these facts is also biased. And even the reader is biased. But the concern here is not bias, it is about the identification of what it is about. The history of salt is not about salt; it is about our interest in salt. As Borges would say, there are infinite histories which have not been written and which will never be written, because no one -- not a single human being -- will identify that particular series of events as being meaningful to the extent that it spurs the writing of a history.

    So, to sharpen up the concern that led me to the OP: what is it that leads people to write histories of X? This is a personal decision; in theory, the historian has absolute freedom. But there must be some common trait or traits between salt, clothing, mammals, France, science, the West, the Universe and childhood; these are the stuff about which histories are written of.

    The answer certainly points up to some movement of the historian's being towards the preservation (or, the bolstering up) of something cherished. People write histories because (a) they thing the subject is meaningful, (b), they want other people to know about it, and (c) they think that, by telling other people about it, they are participating in the life of the subject. The historian creates and enters the history he writes.

    There is more to be said, but I'm not sure what. It's a meditation in process around here (in my mind). I don't know where it will lead.
  • Mongrel
    3k
    So, to sharpen up the concern that led me to the OP: what is it that leads people to write histories of X? This is a personal decision; in theory, the historian has absolute freedom. But there must be some common trait or traits between salt, clothing, mammals, France, science, the West, the Universe and childhood; these are the stuff about which histories are written of.Mariner
    Someone suggested earlier in the thread that there is nothing that could not be a subject of history. The list of possible subjects you presented in the OP mentioned both human and non-human constructs. That's everything. Do you agree?

    The answer certainly points up to some movement of the historian's being towards the preservation (or, the bolstering up) of something cherished. People write histories because (a) they thing the subject is meaningful, (b), they want other people to know about it, and (c) they think that, by telling other people about it, they are participating in the life of the subject. The historian creates and enters the history he writes. — Mariner
    I started studying history because I came across the idea of social cycles. My ability to see and understand (broadly speaking) is dependent on my ability to see patterns. Early on in my attempt to see patterns in history, it occurred to me that my project was similar to seeing patterns in clouds. If I see a dolphin in a cloud.. where is the dolphin? Noticing that, I became bound to the contradiction. I'm blind without the pattern, but I don't have a passive relationship to patterns.

    As contradictions play out, convoluted situations develop. I'm attracted to historians like John Ferling who explained that when he was young, he thought of history as a parade of ideas expressed in human action. As he got older, he realized that mass events are really the fusion of diverse individual agendas. The more simplistic a history is, the more inaccurate it's likely to be. And yet what the simplest history expresses is a pattern... like a skeleton waiting to support the meaning of fleshy details.

    I settled down into doing what Nietzsche appears to me to have done. I allow myself to become passionate about a narrative only if I'm taking the pattern of it with a grain of salt. Another way to put it is that I realize in the background that the world is a mirror.
  • schopenhauer1
    10.4k
    As stated before, history proper is not just chronicling of events, but interpretation. One can have a bunch of primary sources and secondary sources, but get a better understanding from the secondary sources because of the bias or the superstitious nature of the primary source. Let us say that there was only one primary source on a Roman general, and this source said the general was fair, virtuous, and compassionate. However, evidence containing the name of the general from that date, shows that he beheaded tons of innocent villagers- well, the contradictory evidence must be interpreted. Let us say, that there is a second hand source 100 years later that contradicts the primary source from the time period, but it corroborates with the barbarity of the archaeological evidence. Here, the historian must make a true judgement call and use the best of his/her knowledge of the other circumstances of that time period, to evaluate the deeds of the historical figure. By evaluating the sources for reliability, proximity, and bias one can get a better approximation of the figure at hand.

    Also, historians are apt to link cause and effect and make comparisons to determine why there are differences for historical circumstances. Why did the Babylonians have a shadowy depressing underworld and the Egyptians a more redemptive one? Perhaps the chaotic Tigris/Euphrates flooding cycles led to notions of chaotic afterworlds, and Egyptian's more timely Nile led to more organized after world.

    Often historians must make judgement calls for what is not explicitly stated. Take the Bible. Even though this theory is not necessarily in fashion anymore, some historians could argue that through literary analysis, it is clear that certain passages are clearly styled using Yaweh with references favoring the Kingdom of Judah, where others reference Elohim with references favoring Kingdom of Israel. One can conclude that the Yaweh "J" texts were authors from Judah and Elohim "E" based were authors from the Northern Israel tribes. One can also possibly conclude that these, and other elements were redacted into one narrative around the time of Ezra perhaps for political unity at a time when Persia allowed for reestablishment of a national identity. However, this is mere speculation based on circumstantial evidence and again, proves that much of history is interpretation.
  • fdrake
    6.1k
    So, to sharpen up the concern that led me to the OP: what is it that leads people to write histories of X? This is a personal decision; in theory, the historian has absolute freedom. But there must be some common trait or traits between salt, clothing, mammals, France, science, the West, the Universe and childhood; these are the stuff about which histories are written of.Mariner

    I suppose such a commonality would have to be a very abstract one. How abstract? Maybe this can be delimited by finding something that couldn't in principle have a history written of it. Is there any property of an entity [placeholder] that denies the possibility of writing a history?

    The common thread for the possibility of writing such a history seems to me like being able to agglomerate some collection of entities [placeholder, not necessarily things] in a group such that the grouping is salient for some reason.

    A history probably wouldn't be written of the relationship of the last skin flake I shed and the point up the side of a specific bottle of Ginger Joe below which half the bottle's mass resided... on the other side of the world... because it's (almost) impossible to provide a salient link between the two. Unless it was as a footnote in the History of Interconnection or whatever.

    I think the last bit: the possibility of subsuming an irrelevant or almost impossible history to construct to some higher order history: is a way of restating something that was already said.
    @
    There can be a history of anything since everything takes place in history. If there's a problem, then, in my view, the problem is that there can be no unified history. There can only be histories, even if in order to write the history of something, it should in principle contain other histories too.Πετροκότσυφας
  • Streetlight
    9.1k
    So, to sharpen up the concern that led me to the OP: what is it that leads people to write histories of X? This is a personal decision; in theory, the historian has absolute freedom. But there must be some common trait or traits between salt, clothing, mammals, France, science, the West, the Universe and childhood; these are the stuff about which histories are written of.

    The answer certainly points up to some movement of the historian's being towards the preservation (or, the bolstering up) of something cherished. People write histories because (a) they thing the subject is meaningful, (b), they want other people to know about it, and (c) they think that, by telling other people about it, they are participating in the life of the subject. The historian creates and enters the history he writes.
    Mariner

    This seems to be on the right track, and I'd suggest that what ties the sorts of things you've listed together is the 'mark' that they've left on the world. To have a history is to have made a dent in the run of things, to have altered, to have made significant - to some field, context, place or time - the impact of 'one's' existence (and this is the case when the 'one' is question is something like salt). This is what I meant when I said - perhaps too cryptically - that histories attest to the way in which things texture the world.

    That the historian enters into the history he or she writes is to have the presence of the past extend it's texture into the present in the form of the historian. One of my favorite historical quips was Zhou Enlai's
    answer to the question - 200 years after the event - of the significance of the French revolution: "it's too early to tell". History does not end in the past; The very event(s) themselves fade and amplify in modulation with the temporal rhythms of the present of which they are a part of. To take up your turn of phrase, history is not a dead past but a 'living' echo; the 'life' in question belongs not simply to the historian but the past that makes itself felt in him or her. The life of rain, salt, bananas, France, science and planets.
  • BC
    13.4k
    Languages have histories, and history has history, and it all bears evidence of the users' history.

    Some people, Henry Ford for instance, think history is bunk. (see illustration below) Rejecting history has its uzis. Fundamentalists--Islamic, Nazi, Christian, et al--are inclined to destroy history (either literally or figuratively) in order to simplify and amplify.

    Some people's history can be downright unsanitary: the history of London's sewers (fascinating and appalling) or the history of gay sexual activity (accounts have been written...)
    and then there is dreaded "dead hand of the past".

      Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.” Karl Marx

    History is bunk - New York Times, Oct 28 1921
    ejlcc224o4r068jw.jpg
  • mcdoodle
    1.1k
    History of Irretrievably Forgotten Events.
    History of The Year After Next.
    History of The Only Unique Electron
    :)
  • The Great Whatever
    2.2k
    History is always made up, and there are no limits to what you can make up, and so no limits as to what can have a history. But then there's a sense in which nothing actually has a history, we just pretend it does (make up stories).
  • ssu
    8.3k
    Non-human constructs: History of Mammals. History of Vertebrates. History of the World. History of the Universe.Mariner

    Actually this I wouldn't define as history. Sure, if you have the history of the use of mammals, but basically describing all the time that mammals have roamed the Earth isn't history. It more closer to biology.

    History typically has something relating to human beings in some way.

    If some astronomers write a book about "The History of the Milky Way - From it's birth to the present" I would argue that the book is put under "Astronomy" and not "History".
  • ssu
    8.3k
    As far as I know astronomy tell us how stuff up there works and it has more to do with math and measurement than with narratives.Πετροκότσυφας
    That is because we can use so well math to explain the phenomena we see in astronomy.

    In history the use of math is limited. It isn't because it hasn't been tried or because historians don't have the education of natural scientists. No. It is because the phenomena tried to be explained simply cannot be calculated / given a mathematical model. The basic reason is that humans are aware about what they are doing, they learn from past actions. Hence they learn from their history.

    If we were to pursue this reductionist model, we would end up saying that everything is micro-physics or something.Πετροκότσυφας
    Which would lead to nonsense. History isn't about verifying if some molecules or atoms interacted in some way or not. Yes, at the most simple level the historical question is that did something physically happen or not. This kind of question doesn't get us far and it doesn't at all tell about the reasons why something happened.

    First and foremost come the questions we ask and things we want to know. And they are a lot more complicated.
  • AbsurdRhetor
    8
    Which would lead to nonsense. History isn't about verifying if some molecules or atoms interacted in some way or not. Yes, at the most simple level the historical question is that did something physically happen or not. This kind of question doesn't get us far and it doesn't at all tell about the reasons why something happened.

    That doesn't mean History cannot have empirical elements in order to answer certain questions. It's certainly feasible that an archaeologist would take a sample of pottery from a dig site, and have a chemical analysis done on it in order to further his own studies. History cannot be analyzed through pure mathematics, but mathematics can be a boon to historical study.

    Now getting back to your original question: all the fields of history are, in the broadest way possible, univocal. From the History of the Cosmos to the History of the 2000's, every time we study the past, we are asking the univocal question: "What happened?"

    The only problem is that looking at History in such a broad context would be difficult. Imagine taking a survey of U.S. History course and having to listen to a lecture on the time period between the Big Bang and the rise of the Mississippian Culture.

    Bottom line: Univocal? Yes, but in a broad and impractical way.
  • Mariner
    374


    Yes, but we still can distinguish between fiction and history; there is some ingredient that is present in one and missing in the other (and, or, vice versa).

    I'm still using you guys, shamelessly, as the fuel for my reflections on the topic. Right now I've reached the following conclusions:

    1. The "common trait" between all histories involves the sense of consubstantiality of being ("everything is interlocked").
    2. That said, histories are different (compared to one another) because of the freedom of the historian to pick and filter subjects, events, data, all of the stuff he uses when writing his history.
    3. In other words, a history is a creation of a historian who, being limited in being (he was born, he will die, he is not omnipresent, he has to carry the burden of his ethnicity/upringing/culture/politics/etc.), will always present a subjectively distorted viewpoint.

    (3) is not a criticism. (I'm all for subjectivity). In a strange way, there is a great affinity between history and the "hard sciences" in that both are forced to slice up reality in pre-defined ways, according to the intention of the historian/scientist. And both are similar in that this slicing of reality often obscures itself, and then the thinker (and, often enough, many of his readers) becomes mystified by his own efforts, concluding that his product is "reality" (or, close enough to "reality" that the distinction makes no difference). In both cases, this is clearly mistaken because it ascribes some omni-trait to a limited being.

    There remains the question of why should a historian ever decide to write a history.
  • Mongrel
    3k
    There remains the question of why should a historian ever decide to write a history.Mariner

    Imagine that you woke up with amnesia. You find out your name and occupation, but none it means anything to you. You don't know who you are because you can't remember your history. The oldest histories, like the Old Testament, are like community memories. They keep the community from falling into amnesia.

    Interestingly, one interpretation of the epic of Gilgamesh, particularly his search for immortality and his meeting with the flood survivor (kind of like Noah), is that it's about the magic of writing... writing bestows immortality.
  • AbsurdRhetor
    8
    1. The "common trait" between all histories involves the sense of consubstantiality of being ("everything is interlocked").
    2. That said, histories are different (compared to one another) because of the freedom of the historian to pick and filter subjects, events, data, all of the stuff he uses when writing his history.
    3. In other words, a history is a creation of a historian who, being limited in being (he was born, he will die, he is not omnipresent, he has to carry the burden of his ethnicity/upringing/culture/politics/etc.), will always present a subjectively distorted viewpoint.
    — Mariner

    1. Everything is interlocked, but we have to categorize in order to study things in a practical way.
    2. Agreed. Categories and subcategories.
    3. I see your reasoning, but I don't know if I agree with it 100%. The Historian assesses an occurrence in the past. Yes his bias is a product of his ethnicity, politics, culture etc, but despite that bias, there is a kernel of objective truth in the past. Without that kernel, you are dealing in fiction, not history.

    We write history because it gives us certain bearings on reality. Through history we see where we come from. From that narrative, we can derive legitimacy to certain claims, and make decisions about the present and the future.
  • ssu
    8.3k
    History cannot be analyzed through pure mathematics, but mathematics can be a boon to historical study.AbsurdRhetor
    Yes, like with the statistical wonder called the arithmetic mean, the average. No really, some dynamic mathematical models are not exactly useful, but the trusty average is extremely useful. Just look at how much history has math with averages... and compare it with everything else mathematical, if we skip the most simple arithmetic (adding and subtracting). As somebody said "If Mathematics is a language, so is English."

    From the History of the Cosmos to the History of the 2000's, every time we study the past, we are asking the univocal question: "What happened?"AbsurdRhetor
    Perhaps first. Yet usually we ask why. What and why are two different things. Let's say in Astronomy the questions are far more of the "What" type even if naturally the objective is to find causal explanations for the events.

    If history would be just answering "what" happened, then for example that I would write that so-and-so many people died during a short historical period, from the early to mid 1940's, in Central Europe because they inhaled pesticide, which in other times is a far more rare way for people to die. That would be the "What" question. End of story, nothing there to add to it.

    And then there is our interest in History: what questions do we find important. Whose history we consider to be interesting or important. This changes through times. Yes, it can be exactly the same historical event, no need to assume some kind of Multiverse, yet just how it is explained can change. And usually it doesn't go the way that a later historian refutes the findings of earlier ones. No, what typically the later historian will argue is that earlier historians missed something important, didn't explain some detail, looked at the events only from a certain viewpoint. Hence a lot of history is simply things that add to earlier history.

    In my view the complexity and uniqueness of history is so self-evident to us that we understand that one of the best ways to describe it is to use simply narrative: "First there was this and then happened that." With a story. Because trying to describe it like we do with the natural sciences, first assuming some basic laws and then collecting data points and extrapolating from one moment to another is something that simply cannot work in history. Or if done, we end up with a hilarious study. And lab testing doesn't work either so well.
  • The Great Whatever
    2.2k
    Yes, but we still can distinguish between fiction and history; there is some ingredient that is present in one and missing in the other (and, or, vice versa).Mariner

    If you're interested, Sartre's Nausea is essentially an attempted refutation of this claim in fictional form.
  • Cavacava
    2.4k
    "1. The "common trait" between all histories involves the sense of consubstantiality of being ("everything is interlocked")."

    I wonder what is entailed by the word "interlocked". Do you mean that the events that unfolded in time can be related to each other causally, or are they related as similar words are related to one another, or is history just "...one damn thing after another" with no causal connection beyond the interpretation the historian places on these events.
  • Soylent
    188
    How about future looking histories:

    History of Prophecies
    History of Predictions
    History of Invention
    History of Doomsday Scenarios

    These, it would seem, are histories that are a little more unstuck in time in terms of the historical study can anticipate future events to complete the narrative.
  • ssu
    8.3k
    Prophecies, predictions and especially Doomsday Scenarios tell far more about the time they are done than from the actual future.
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