What is History?

By Moksha Agarwal 2021-08-29


It has been 60 years since E.H. Carr posed the question in his eponymous book and despite the radical advancements in the study of the past, historians of the world still find themselves at a crossroads when it comes to answering What is History?


Today, we will attempt to understand what history is by contemplating what it is not. 


It’s not all facts and figures


Why history seems “boring” to many has less to do with the nature of the subject and more to do with how it is taught. At school, we are expected to memorize key dates, important places, and influential names but we are seldom entrusted with the task of analysis and interpretation. The latter, however, is the crux of a historian’s work. History is not about knowing that the Soviet Union fell in 1991, it is about exploring the ‘why’ and the ‘how’. 


It’s not objective


When one indulges in analysis, the illusion of objectivity is tossed out of the window and into the garbage bin. The act of interpretation, by its very nature, implies subjectivity. If you ask a group of people to describe the shape of a cloud, many will differ in opinion. The same logic applies to history. This is not to say that historians can never agree on anything but that there’s a very real possibility that they won’t. Thus, the idea of a single truth, a grand narrative of human history, is implausible, if not impossible.


It’s not set in stone


Unlike parliamentary debates, the discourse of history is never settled. There’s always new strings to pull, new evidence to evaluate, and new ideas to assimilate. It is an ongoing dialogue about the past, in the present, with consequences that only reveal themselves in the future. 


It’s not unidimensional


History is a conversation and conversations often tend to flow in multiple directions. To uncover the history of a place, event, or person, one must not only dedicate themselves to unearthing facts and anecdotes but also engage seriously with the prevailing political, economic, cultural, and even philosophical beliefs of the time. History is a multidisciplinary pursuit, and it is with this knowledge that one must approach the task of writing it.