Wednesday, September 12, 2012

History: The Hybrid Animal

I once read that History is a discipline that no one can quite pin down. Is it an art or is it a science?

On the one hand, art implies a medium where the artist has complete control over the final product. The painting’s too dark? Add some light. Not enough trombones in your operetta? You can fill the orchestra up with nothing but trombones, if you like. When practicing art, not only the style but also the content is completely within your control.
With a science, it’s not about style so much as it is about methodology. You are structured, disciplined, and analytical. The crux of good science is drawing conclusions about your questions logically, using evidence that you systematically collect. Theoretically, therefore, if two scientists examine the same data, they should arrive at the same conclusions, leaving a margin of error for miscalculation or personal bias.

The study of history lies somewhere in the middle. The historian of course has the freedom to choose their topic; their time period, person, or event. They can examine large portions of humanity or dissect one individual; their writing can be intimate or stay remote. Although they cover many of the same subjects, there is a huge difference between David McCulloch’s popular history 1776 and the cool legal jargon of Hiller B. Zobel’s Boston Massacre. In this way the historian apes the artist, and as with art no style is inherently better than the rest. To a degree, the final product is judged on the basis of personal needs and taste.

But unlike the artist, the historian has a predefined set of materials to work with. If you set out to write about the contributions of American women during World War II, you will read and analyze primary sources. Secondary sources will lay out the findings of other writers, which can be used to develop your own argument or find other sources to continue the process. With everyone working from the same materials, you would expect everyone researching WWII American women to arrive at the same answers to the same questions. If history was purely science. But while science relies on empirical data (information that can be sensed, experimented on and proven), history has no specimens that can be brought to a laboratory. Therefore, its conclusions are constantly being reevaluated and updated by new generations. It’s like a perpetual conversation, where the speakers get closer and closer to agreement, to uncovering the truth… but they never quite get there. Like a spaceship orbiting a black hole, to use a scientific analogy.

So, is history an art or a science? I would argue that it’s a bit of both, and many institutions of higher learning seem to agree with me. I’ve seen history courses listed in college curriculums as both Liberal Arts and Social Sciences/Humanities, and once they were in the College of Arts and Science (that last one was hedging their bets). The discipline boils down to a study of human structures and human nature, specializing in dead humans. As such, we need our scientific methods to measure the structures, and our inner artists to study the nature. It’s a system that will never be perfect, but that makes it compellingly human.

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Do you disagree with me about the nature of history? Would you like to argue for one side or another? Are you reading this while orbiting a black hole? Join in the perpetual conversation with a comment in the space provided below.


Gaddis, John Lewis. The Landscape of History. Oxford University Press, 2002.

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