Pivotal Problems in Philosophy of History (HIS 505)
HISTORICAL QUESTIONS AND FACTS
** Please note that E-CLASS MATERIALS ARE NOT SUBSTITUTE FOR MATERIALS RECOMENDED BY LECTURERS
What is History?
This question is the basis for an entire field of study called historiography -- the study of how History is written. For the purpose of our class, we will define history as the sum-total of all actions taken by humans, and all other events that affected those actions. Thus, for example, history includes the arrival of Huricane Katrina on the US Gulf Coast in the summer of 2005 and the actions of individuals ranging from government oficials to Gulf Coast residents.
In order to make the study of history more manageable, it is customary to limit the size of the group of human actions under consideration. That can be done by limiting the identity of actors, the time span, the geographical range (location), the type(s) of activity, or all of the above. In this course, we limit our time span to the 19th and 20th centuries, our geographical range to West Chester and the surrounding area, and our actors to people who lived or worked inm West Chester.
For the time being, we will not limit the types of activity, although you may consider that later when it comes time to select a topic for your paper. You will need to narrow your focus in order to complete your research project in a single semester. One way to do this is to compose a historical question.
What is a historical question?
The idea of a historical question is more than a century old. It is the result of a revolution in the way humans thought about the definition of history. For many centuries and in many cutlures, history was written for a purpose -- to praise people, justify actions or teach values, among other reasons. In the late 19th century, some scholars began to reject the kind of history that became common in the European Enlightenment. Instead of writing history "with a purpose," they began to follow the lead of German historian Leopold Von Ranke who said historians should "simply to show how it really was (wie es eisentlich gewesen war)."
A group referred to as the Positivists formalized a systematic approach to history based on collecting facts. As Edward Hallett Carr wrote in What is History? (New York: Vintage Books, 1961), "This is what might be called the common-sense view of history. History consists of a corpus of ascertained facts. The facts are available to the historian in documents, inscriptions, and so on, like fish on the fishmonger's slab. The historian collects them, takes them home, and cooks and serves them in whatever style appeals to him." Carr also warned that just because a fact appeared in a document, it was not necessarily relevant. Since then, other historians have created the concept of a "historical fact" to include relevance as a criterion, and the concept of a "historical question" to direct the search for historical facts.
A historical question may begin with any of six interogative words -- who, what, when, where, why and how -- but the most sophisticated ones usually try to explain "why" someone did something. The process of creating a historical question usually begins with "What has been recorded about such-and-such?" As the questioner accumulates more information, the question metamorphizes into "Why did such-and-such undergo change at a certain time, and what determined the kind/rate/direction of change?" For example, I once started by asking "what impact did a railroad have on an African colony?" and ended up explaining why the railroad helped to bring about independence. On another project, I began with "what did railroad workers experience?" and ended up answering why working conditions changed in response to railroad business cycles.
To select a historical question for your web page or research paper, you should begin by reading background material, becoming familiar with the 1932 Borough Directory, and walking around West Chester. As you do this, jot down a list of subjects that interest you. Use that list to focus your investigations. Later, you'll evaluate the information you've collected to figure out what historical question(s) you are able to answer.
What is a historical fact?
A historical fact is an ordinary fact with some additional information. According to the Webster's Encyclopedic Dictionary (Franklin J. Meine, editor, Chicago: Columbia Educational Books Inc., 1940, page 270), a fact is "anything done or that comes to pass; an act; a deed; an effect produced or achieved; an event; reality; truth; a true statement." To make this kind of fact "historical," you must include the time, place, act, and the protagonist--usually human--who performed the act. A historical fact also has a source from which all of the other parts of the fact are derived. (In historical writing, the source appears in the reference note, not with the fact itself.)
Each human action or related event provides content for historical facts. For example, "The American army defeated the British army of General John Burgoyne at the Battle of Saratoga on October 17, 1777." In this example:
· Actor(s): people in both armies, including General John Burgoyne
· Action: fought a battle won by the Americans
· Place: Saratoga, in New York state
· Time: October 17, 1777
· Source: the memoirs of various officers who fought on each side
The actor can be an individual (like John Burgoyne, above), a group of people (the British or American soldiers), or an abstract group with shared identity (the Amnericans, the British, etc.)
The action can also take many forms, but all actions share one thing in common: they require a verb to express, and most involve an object. Thus, Burgoyne lost the battle , the American soldiers defeated the British force , or the British soldiers lost the battle .
The time of a fact has some flexibility. It can be a single moment, such as sunrise on October 17, 1777, an entire day (October 17, 1777), a longer period (fall 1777) or an era (the Revolutionary War).
Similarly, the location of a fact can be extremely specific or broadly vague. For instance, the battle took place in North America, in the colony of New York, at Saratoga, or along a tributary of the Hudson River north of Saratoga.
In other words, each of the components of a historical fact can be either specific or general, but all must be present to make a complete fact. If any of these parts are missing, then you do not have a fact.Sometimes, things that seem factual are really something less. For instance, in the statement "The American victory at Saratoga was decisive in the War of Independence," something is missing. There is no source that proves this battle was the single decisive moment in a war that lasted for years. Instead, this is a statement of opinion by a historian that asserts the primacy of one particular fact (the Americans defeated the British at the Battle of Saratoga) over others, such as the fact that "the French signed a treaty in Paris in February 1778 that created an alliance with the Americans against the British."The first statement only becomes a fact if you add "[So-and- so] said ..." so that you get something like "In his old age, New York resident and veteran of the American Revolution John Doe believed that the American victory at Saratoga was decisive in the War of Independence." In this fact, John Doe is the actor, "believing" (or holding an opinion) is the action, the period after the Battle of Saratoga is the time period, and New York is the place where this action occurred.As you conduct historical research using primary sources, make sure you differentiate between facts and opinions. Record opinions if they help you to formulate your own opinions or tell you something about the actors in your facts, but don't make too much of them. Instead, focus on the facts that you find and use them to formulate your own opinions.
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