09 January 2008

A more accurate picture of our past

“Historical explanation then becomes an enterprise in which the refinements of concepts and theories are a constant necessity, not only because of the availability of fresh evidence from new sources but also because of greater precision in our understanding of the categories which we use to analyse these sources. It is a bi-focal situation where the frame of reference provided by the analysis of ideology remains the distant view while the historian’s use of a theoretical explanation of the data indicates the closer reading.”

– Romila Thapar, eminent Indian historian, in Early India: An Overview.

In certain aspects, historians are like scientists, systematically collecting, recording and analysing data from our past; and then, forming theories which, after some corroboration and peer reviews in journals, finally, end up in our history books.

History is not just a string of narratives – stories – as we normally think it to be (and I had laboured under this limited view for many years). Like science, it is a systematic gathering and dissemination of knowledge, with newer and newer versions replacing old records and theories – so we can have a more accurate picture of our past.

[Citation: Quote reproduced from the chapter Early India: An Overview from the book Cultural Pasts: Essays in Early Indian History by Romila Thapar, pg. 88.]


Madhuri said...

Hi Runawaysun, I have been enjoying your series on history and its fictionalization.
I agree with the view that history is a science. The difference is that you cannot repeat experiments and results, and have to rely on shreds left from the past. The observation points are far and few. In any science, scientists collect a lot of points and then weave a story between these points. In history, since these points are far apart, the proportion of story and conjecture increases. Perhaps that is why there appears to be a lot of fiction in history.

runawaysun said...

Glad to hear that you’re enjoying my recent posts. A friend has already warned me about ‘an overkill’ and has advised me to wind up the series.

The points you’ve raised are true – particularly the bit about experiments. God forbid if we had to do an experiment called World War II or drop the atom bombs all over again. You’re right, historians usually have very little factual data to go by and, hence, have no choice but to invent… fictionalise.