Introduction to History: Cleopatra’s Nose
If Cleopatra’s nose had been a slightly different shape, would she have attracted Julius Caesar or Marc Antony? Would history be dramatically different with this seemingly minor alteration? So asks a well known anecdote of historians and focuses attention on the futility of the historian’s task. They can not run trials in a laboratory. The circumstances surrounding Cleopatra cannot be replicated nor can the variable of her nose size be isolated. This may seem like a silly real life situation, and it is, but it directs us toward thinking of historical knowledge in a complex way. Historians need to distinguish causality. If we agree that we cannot reliably attribute causation to Cleopatra’s physical appearance, is there anything we can reliably endow with that importance?
When we analyzes the past looking for patterns we need to find a place to start our explanation. The historian Marc Bloch explored this question through the following anecdote: A man slips and falls to his death from a high cliff. We could go back in time as far as the geological formation of the cliff looking for causations here, but that would be as useful as attributing history to the size of Cleopatra’s sniffer. Most people, I imagine, would say that the slip is a more reliable cause of the man’s death in Bloch’s thought experiment. Bloch explains that this answer is the most common because “it occurred last; it was… the most exceptional in the general order of things; [and] finally, by virtue of this greater particularity, it seems the antecedent which could have been most easily avoided” (quote from John Lewis Gaddis’s Landscape of History). For Bloch, if the historian is attempting to find the causation of a particular event, a transition from one status quo to another, she must go back in time until the transition being explored is in the stable first status quo and work forward. The traveler was alive, and then the traveler was dead. The intermediary event was the slip.
But is that actually the best place to stop? The mathematics of chaos theory explain how a small difference in initial conditions within a complex system can have a dramatic impact. So can we look at Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses as the cause of the Reformation and start our history just before he puts pen to paper? Or should we look at the proliferation of printed texts after the Guttenberg’s innovation of the 15th century as causal and so start our story medieval monasteries? Or do we need to go back to philosophies of St. Augustine and start our story in the final days of the Roman Empire? Or further to the editing of the sacred texts in question? Or even further to the life of Christ? All this is to ask, how does the Historian know what she knows?
History and Ways of Knowing:
Language is the primary tool of the historian. It is language that commemorates and maps the past, and historical knowledge seen primarily through the filter of language. From the blind poet who commemorated the deeds of Achilles and fulfilled his prophecy of legendary fame, to modern day historians accumulating and organizing statistics on trade inequality, language has been the most effective tool to record our past; consequently, our past is, to a large degree, as Wittgenstein once said of himself, imprisoned by the limits of language.
In the study of history there are approaches like “Content Analysis” that, according to the cultural historian Peter Burke, is to “ choose a text or corpus of texts, count the frequency of references to a given theme or themes, and analyse ‘covariance’, in other words the association of some themes with others” (What is Cultural History?). In that way conscious and unconscious biases of history can be explored through many different text types.
Additionally, the historian crafts a narrative using language. Hayden White even argued in his work Metahistory (1973) that historians model their narrative after leading literary genres of their time period. So each memory, whether personal or shared, is confined to the language used to express it.
As stated above, history cannot be replicated in a lab, variables cannot be isolated, but there are still elements of history that can be described as logical. In the same way that a Historian cannot rerun the tape of history to study its development, an evolutionary biologist cannot rerun the tape of evolution. Both knowers need to take the current state of the world and reverse engineer the path it took to arrive here. This requires the use of reason based on a set of premises and inductive logic.
Imagination, tempered by logic and reason, must play some part in our reconstructions of the past. A geologist knows that strata can only be laid down horizontally, and yet, when viewing vertical or slanted layers of the earth she must use her imagination to form hypotheses to infer the past processes that resulted in our present observations. The role of the imagination in the historian's task is similar. The historian must take observations of our present conditions, artifacts and written records left behind, and derive past processes through the use of imagination.
The English historian Clayton Roberts once wrote that “Historians instinctively stop the backwards search for the ultimate cause at the point where the state of affairs, whose alteration they seek to explain, flourished” (The Logic of Historical Explanation). In the search for causes or the structuring of a historical narrative there must always be a place where that story begins. The historians instinct for narrative is one of her most convincing tools. Additionally, the historian cannot, as the scientist does, run trials on economic or cultural causalities. Certainly, without being able to rerun the tape of history or run trials on historical situations, the historian must use a some degree of intuition in this process of building knowledge.
“History”, John Lewis Gaddis stresses, “like cartography, is necessarily a representation of reality. It’s not a reality itself.” As people who lived through historical events, and have clear memories of the events, pass away, the representations of the reality become shared historical knowledge. Gaddis goes on to call this shared knowledge manufactured by the historian “constructed memories”. Similar to our personal memories, we suppress some events and emphasize others.
Additionally, much of what we call historical knowledge comes from individual memories which we know to be flawed. As the research of Elizabeth Loftus has shown, eye witness accounts of traumatic situations are largely unreliable, yet they are used by historians all the time.
Because so much of history is communicated through written texts, the impressions we have of the past are often quiet, but as the military historian Roger Crowley obsessively repeats in his books, the most common words to describe these battles deal with the sounds. We have a tendency to picture our histories through the art and artifacts left behind, but history was not quiet, and it often did not smell very good. Our knowledge of history never has a tactile element, and only sometimes has visual or auditory component. This has a meaningful impact on the way we think about the past.
There are also art historians like Michael Baxandall who claim that the 15th Century man actually saw the world differently than we do today in Painting and Experience in 15th Century Italy. The argument is that sights and symbols come with meanings that are particularly to certain cultures. The historian Alain Corbin makes a similar argument with sound. A bell in Medieval Europe would signal piety or parochialism and would therefore be heard differently than a bell today.
One problem of historical knowledge is that history is based on narrative, and engaging narratives often appeal to our emotions. This, consequently, shapes our understanding of history. The stories of everyday collaborations between nameless actors in history do not get remembered, but tempers of Kings and acts of soldiers do. This can lead to a great knowledge question asked by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book Skin in the Game, “To what extent does the narrated map to the empirical?”
Additionally, Nietzsche complained in The Gay Science that “everything that has given colour to existence still lacks a history… where could one find a history of love, of avarice, of envy, of conscience, of piety, or of cruelty?”. The late 20th century and early 21st century has answered that call with a “cultural history” of many of those items listed. On such history, The Great Cat Massacre by Robert Darnton, argues for the role of history in promoting empathy. In its opening lines he argues that when a historian comes across a joke that isn’t funny, or a line that doesn’t make sense, it offers us an opportunity to “shed some of our modern worldviews and enter into the alien mental world of ordinary persons who lived two centuries before us. That kind of contact is an experience that makes this kind of history rewarding.”
Because of the limits placed on historical knowledge by Language as its primary vehicle, the unreliable nature of Memory, and the necessary dependence Intuition and Imagination, the historian acts on faith to move forward from foundational questions like, “Can we know and understand the past? Is the knowledge we can gain from the past useful?” To write history is to have faith that those questions have affirmative answers.
Here you can find a series of helpful videos that will expose you to different perspectives and philosophies on History.
Areas of Knowledge are the backbone of the TOK class. Here you’ll find some lesson plans for teaching the Historian's craft, handouts, rubrics, and other materials for teachers. These plans use Google doc Templates you are free to copy and use, but I please ask the same as you would ask of your students: Please cite your source.