What is History?

I’ve been studying history for quite some time now. In undergraduate I was initially a triple major in History, Philosophy, and Theology, and in my current graduate work I am close to earning my Master’s in History. As a result, the question has come up time and again, what is it that I’m actually doing? What is history, and what does it mean to study history?

When I started seriously in this field as an undergraduate, I came up with a straightforward answer to this question that was entirely based on time. History, I said, is the study of humanity between the invention of writing and exactly one hundred years before the present. It made sense to me to place a limit on history closer to the present, because I found it difficult to accept that people that I knew in my own lifetime could be studied in history just like someone who lived two thousand years ago.

This method worked fairly well for me, considering that I never seriously wanted to study anything more recent than about 1870, and generally stuck to Ancient Rome, Medieval England, the Renaissance, or Colonial America. Why worry about the twentieth century when it wasn’t what I studied?

Yet as I started my most recent master’s programme, I came to a new conclusion for what can be classified as history. You see, the tricky thing is that if we define the start of history as being the start of writing, then that must differ on a timeline depending on the culture. After all, while I generally only wanted to make a career out of studying people who lived at least four or five hundred years ago, by my own calculations history began for my paternal ancestors when the first written records of their lives appear in the 1790s.

But if I’m considering only those documents written by the people themselves then there’s another catch, because the Irish Censuses from the turn of the twentieth century show my Keane second great-grandparents as illiterate, making the scale of my family’s history written by members of my family rather short, if not non-existent per my century-based calculation as my great-grandfather was born just over 125 years ago at the time of recording.

So, how to compensate for this complication? As I thought about this, in between papers in the Fall of 2017 I came across a new definition of history, one that made more sense in the extremely complex tapestry that is humanity. Today, I see History as the study of the human past through the methods and tools used by the historian as developed since the turn of the nineteenth century.

These methods, based off of the similar philosophies thought up at the same time, and inspired by the new scientific method help make History a method of studying and understanding the human past that can be adapted to different cultures and societies around the globe. The biggest remnant from my old definition of History that survives in this one is that History relies entirely upon the written word. If a society does not have writing then the study of that society’s past should be left to experts in studying the human past through their material remains, i.e. archaeologists.

Thus, someone who died fifty years ago like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or Bobby Kennedy are just as historical as someone who died millennia ago like Queen Nefertiti or Zhuge Liang.

But what do you think? How do you define history? And which historical period or figure do you like the most?

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