History, that is, the creation of a narrative around facts concentrated in the past. Historiography is what historians do; it is opposed to History (or history) in this sense by being somewhat more honest about its intentions: historiography has no inherent quest for Truth. In postmodernism, historiography is used as a synonym for what is commonly understood as history, empiricists view historiography as merely 'the craft of history', that is, the process that this historian uses to construct History to equal (or approximate) Truth.

"Literary men are always apt to get sentimental about the past for much the same reason that simple men get sentimental about their happy, carefree childhood days, which in fact were full of childish cares. Looking back, they see the great monuments, the enduring records of the highest aspirations. They do not see all the trivial, paltry, vulgar, foolish ends of the unheroic dead...they forget the constant complaint of great men about the mediocrity of their age; or they remember only the nobly expressed complaint, not the mediocrity…We cannot afford to spare the past its troubles. Such enchantment makes the present seem only more unintelligible and more intolerable…too many writers have the habit of representing the loftiest ideal of some former age as its essence, and then contrasting it with the meanest actualities of the present…May God deliver us from the lies of honest men.1
    "Bisogna saper leggere", those were the qualifications espoused by the Swiss medieval historian Jakob Burckhardt when asked in Italy what it takes to be a historian: You must know how to read. At the time, the study of history was still 'unprofessional', insofar as one did not need a doctorate to practice. Indeed, as late as 1880, there were still only 11 professors of history in all of the United States. Even today, most professional historians concede the practice is more narrative art, synthetic wit and comparative recollection, than actual science. Everyone has a philosophy about history - determinist, progressive, fatalist or objective - albeit people are frequently uncertain about how they acquired these assumptions. It is important however to acknowledge these biases, however vague they might be.
    Still, even then, there are some guidelines for the writing of history, as wide consensus has emerged in the last century about base standards in historical reconstruction. Thucydides, probably one of the most objective and critical historians of the ancient world, began his History of the Peloponnesian War by stating nothing terribly important had happened previously. This would be frowned upon today; the writers of Antiquity cannot be wholly faulted, however, given we simply live in an acutely self-aware period of history, and as a result are given to obsessing over our 'place in History' to an extent which would probably have embarrassed the Greeks or Romans. Historical consciousness, as an attribute, comes and goes with each culture - it's an obsession for some, a sign of solipsism for other others. There are however, eight major, underlying assumptions acknowledged by most contemporary historians:
  1. History is the imaginative construction of the past, which while scientific in its determinations is artistic in its formulations,
  2. History is genuinely scientific, in spirit, only when it takes into account and addresses the reasons it cannot ever be wholly objective or empirical in method,
  3. Historiography, in dealing with physical, biological, psychological and cultural questions, often relies upon non-quantitative measures, which cannot be tested by experiment,
  4. Human will -of mind and character- as the vital component of history's narrative, cannot similarly be reduced to single causes,
  5. In the consideration of human ideas it is necessary to make ethical judgements about events, and even the self-proclaimed Objectivist, however amoral, never alludes this necessity,
  6. All scientific, aesthetic and moral interests call for a worldview,
  7. Only by keeping this worldview in comparative perspective can we make out universals,
  8. Universal != absolute.
    In other words, if you are truly interesting in history, you take it straight, no chaser. Avoid the picturesque survey, the romanticized biography, the paranoid expose: these are all, in Voltaire's words, 'packs of tricks played upon the dead.' While it is true (and unavoidable) that contemporaries endlessly project their particular pre-occupations into the past, the challenge is to evade relativistic conclusions or ethical revisionism.
1 H.J. Muller, Uses of the Past: Profiles of Former Societies (NY: Oxford, 169), 22-29. See also Friedrich Nietzsche, The Use and Abuse of History (1874).
Definition: History is the writing of the past. Historiography is the theory and geneaology of such a writing.

Exposition: Although I appreciate the sentiments of the above node I cannot agree with user Stone99's assessment of the difference between history and historiography. History is not contrasted to historiography, but subsumed by it. All historians assume a particular historiographical bias, though few explicate it, and if they do it is generally in their prefaces, and introductions. Historiography began as a -graphe of history-, or a writing and a tracing of history: thus we arrive at a theory of history, which is probably also a theory of writing and a theory of literature. The differences between philosophy of history and historiography are minimal.

Historiography is not inherently postmodern, though it would make sense that postmodernists (who admits to being one anyways?) would pick up on this discipline, given that it is a reflection about the writing of history, and postmodernism is a reflective mode of thought (the mode of thought that is post-modo or after-now, Lyotard's well-known future-anterior).

It is not that historiography is not a quest for Truth, but that many postmodern historians do not believe in the notion of a Truth outside of a writing. Thus, their historiogaphical theory is that history is constructed according to a rhetoric of monument (in which we erect monuments to honor the past), but not a rhetoric of memorial (in which we remember the past through the monuments that it has left us).

Jacques Derrida writes in his Archive Fever of the writing of the past, which is generally written and researched only through the archive. The past, then, and the history that unveils it (if we may be allowed so tendetious a word) is a particular technological form of monument, or reconstruction. The archive, being a technological form of preservation, preserves only those elements of events and persons which are susceptible to the technologies of this preservation. The point is simple, and obvious. It is not Truth, then, that is uncovered, but a particular technological practice of the reproduction of events, objects, and persons.

(The best historiographer is Jorge Luis Borges. On e2, my only goal is to find the flotsam of a popular conception of history that still pervades Nietzsche's weak, and shipwreck it over and over again. History is above all a story. In saying that I am postmodern if you will, I am after now. I am dead here.)

What constitutes history, anyhow?
Who writes it, and what emboldens them to do so?
How is history written - moreover, how ought history to be written?
What forms and methods of transcription are accessible and acceptable? Do these standards vary based on the situation?
Are there literal truths in history, or must we resort to wholly subjective interpretations?
Is history an art? A science?
Ought history to teach us anything?
Ought we, the responder, to choose what we believe on the basis of ‘-isms’?

Most of all, why are these questions important?

Historical debates are impassioned and virulent affairs, often promising as many casualties as the issues they are fond of addressing. History to date has been party to several societal trends (as expressed by Henry Reynolds) - namely, that it is male, essentially non- (and often anti-) young, inherently censored by tender political climates, limited by the historian’s knowledge and cultural context (meaning that the narrative presented often exists before the historian begins his or her research), frail on love, overly zealous on hate and thoroughly colonial in the views it presents; although every occurrence is technically a part of history, so little of it is chronicled. One might even imagine that the wealthy and powerful have been the sole creators of the past.

From this we infer that there is always an element of bias in what is presented, somewhat thwarting the insistence of the 19th century Prussian historian Leopold von Ranke’s insistence to “tell it as it happened,” (albeit in German) which is founded on the presumption that there is a single narrative and boldly neglects the critical issue of selection of evidence, manipulation of words and the simple fact that the ‘it’ which occurred will invariably be seen to have happened in a number of different fashions. If history writing is a science, then, it is an imprecise one which uses inadequate measures, few proofs and excessive conjecture. The primary failing of literalism is in its inability to understand the paradoxical stance it takes - it attempts to achieve an adequate standard of proof without shaking the presumption that it is incontrovertibly correct: no science to be seen here.

Similarly, if history is an art then it is the only art which advocates a clinical, methodical approach. The English Enlightenment (18th century) historian Edward Gibbon employed history as a moral didactic, attempting to teach by object lesson the causes and consequences of particular behavioural patterns considered to be reprehensible during that period. Unfortunately, this naturally lends the historian’s efforts to wrest from the evidence certain properties or perspectives which are not necessarily present and means that the presentation constitutes little more than personal criticism. At any rate, if history is as transitory as the moral values of any given society then there is little to no point in adherence to standards of proof or the establishment of actual causes and consequences whatsoever. One might as well concoct one’s own stories - and this is where relativism sputters and dies. On the opposite end of the spectrum to its intractable nemesis, it casts too broad a net to catch a single fish.

Polybius wrote that the historian should not seek to entertain his (or her - but that’s my contribution to his statement) audience at the expense of historical fidelity. If neither literal nor relative means of address suffice, what is the verdict to be? Should only the barest minimum of all available sources be committed to the page? The reduction of bias might seem an admirable goal, but bias can be as informative as the text which contains it. If one understands the context and intentions of the author, other truths can be inferred, if such whimsical beasts did ever draw breath.

Without a distinction between what is and what is not so,” writes Eric Hobsbawm (who, it might be noted, refutes the idea of ‘-ism’ application), “there can be no history.” Are there facts to be plucked? The crowning irony of this is that this is the subject of greatest debate amongst scholars of the two diametrically-opposed disciplines and that the importance of reaching a conclusive verdict (on that question alone) is the only matter they mutually hold to be necessary. Such is the plight of Australia’s National Museum, which has come under scrutiny for its post-colonial (ie favourably disposed to the minority) approach to Australian history, commonly referred to as the ‘black armband’ view.

At the centre of the debate is Keith Windschuttle, author of the revisionist the Fabrication of Australian History and a man widely renowned for his pedantry over matters of posterity (having antagonised the aforementioned Professor Reynolds - a black armband historian - for misplacing and misinterpreting a statement by Governor Phillip) and his polarisation of stance (having entirely abandoned his Marxist sympathies). Windschuttle’s own work has been criticised for its prejudicial treatment of its subject. Anything can and will be assailed by someone.

So, is the debate an eternal war? Probably; if there is truth, there are degrees and interpretations of it. If there is not, there is a lie broadly agreed-upon. Whatever the stance, there is history of one sort or another, ostensibly devoted to educating the reader. Perhaps it’s best that it doesn’t stop - a conclusion is not an answer, merely the point at which thought ends.

History must sacrifice half its art to science and half its science to art - it is unique.

His*to`ri*og"ra*phy (?), n.

The art of employment of an historiographer.


© Webster 1913.

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