Quotations About the Historical Method
The historian Selects a
Subject for Investigation
"Select a subject that is interesting and
important . . . it should seem so to the researcher and to a fair part of
"Our interest in the past is really our
interest in the present."
Historian Applies the Historical Method
"History is all the remains that have come
down to us from the past, studied with all the critical and interpretative
power that the present can bring to the task."
"History is the attempt to recreate and
explain the significant features of the past on the basis of fragmentary
and imperfect evidence."
"History is not a body of knowledge but a
heap of materials which survives from the past."
"History is not the past . . . History is the
distillation of evidence surviving from the past. Where there is no
evidence there is no history."
"The evidence available to the historian is
not "fact" but testimony on the facts."
"To read without reflecting, is like eating
"We have not read an author till we have seen
his object, whatever it may be, as he saw it."
"Faithfulness to history involves far more
than research, the narrator must seek to imbue himself with the life and
spirit of the times."
"The gift of historical thinking which is
better than historical learning."
have always told a jury that if a fact is fully proved by two witnesses
[reliable and independent?] it is as good as if proved by a
"An idea does not pass from one language to
another without change."
"The golden rule . . . history has to be
based upon a neutral reading of documents."
"In assessing the value . . . of evidence,
the vital element is that of time: when did the witness say it, when did
he write it? The human memory, one soon discovers, is a very frail
instrument. . . The best historical evidence is evidence recorded at the
"No witness except God could tell the truth,
the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and up to now he has not
appeared in my court as a witness."
read as widely as possible because it pays to be skeptical and never to
form an opinion based on a single source of information . . . Readers owe
it to themselves to look at events from more than one point of
"We approached history as a discipline
requiring critical skills rather than as a narrative of received truths
that students needed to ingest."
"The investigatory work conducted in the
lab-centred history class is exactly that: interrogating historical
sources to develop and defend a source-based interpretation that responds
to a question about the past."
"The first law of story-telling . . . 'Every
man is bound to leave a story better than he found it.'"
major part of the historical method relates to efforts to find
corroborative evidence and weigh its quality, or to resolve problems
arising from contradictory evidence, by corroboration for one explanation
"The impartiality of history is not that of
the mirror, which merely reflects objects but that of the judge who sees,
listens, and decides."
The section II "The Historian 2 Biases and Prejudices" also applies to evidence.
"The secret of historical composition is to
know what to neglect."
"History may be used to support any
conclusion, according to the emphasis of our conscious or unconscious
principle of selection."
"The historian cannot tell us every fact of
what happened in the past; he inevitably selects from a great number of
events and facts the ones he thinks are important."
"To draw the curtain over unpleasant
happenings in history is not less to be deplored than conscious
falsification. The selectivity of the historian is revealing."
"There's never only one story . . . its
always a subjective assessment of what's important and what isn't . . .
authors put themselves in the story."
"As they work, historians must make choices.
A point of view [bias] guides and limits, the selection of sources as well
as the analysis of sources . . . the decisions of historians about what is
worthy and significant."
"Selection is, in fact, twofold: first the
selection of a subject, and second, the choice of facts to be presented in
the development of that subject."
"History as it is written is not the past, it
is a representation of the past. It is a selection of the facts of the
"It is proper to demand that an historian be
thorough, fair and impartial in seeking and using all the evidence, not
just evidence which accords with his preconceptions or supports his
thesis. . . – that is, they set forth the pros and cons in true
"The writer of popular history must discover
a design, a pattern, into which all these endlessly varied threads of
research can be woven, and which will yet have meaning, intelligibility,
and significance for the reader."
"All historians are imposing all the time a
pattern of their own discovery upon their material."
discovered the fascination of reconstructing history from the records left
by the men who made it, fitting it together like the pieces of a jigsaw
"History is far less about truth than it is
about identifying shapes and patterns."
"The main part of intellectual education is
not the acquisition of facts but learning how to make facts
"Two historians, working with the same
historical materials and agreeing on basic facts, can arrive at two
entirely different explanations for the same event."
"An interpretation of historical material is merely a
writer's explanation of the significance of a series of events, an epoch, or a
"History . . . is not just opinion. It is
interpretation grounded in evidence."
"The first duty of the historian . . . is to
establish what happened: the facts. After that . . . establishing why it
happened and philosophizing about its importance in the cosmic scheme of
"Any national history turns out to be a
photograph of our own brief age, speaking to us and our children, and
discarded by them when they have no further need."
philosophy of history is an effort to explain the grand patterns of human
never realized that there was history too, close at hand, beside my very
own home. I did not realize that the old grave that stood among the
brambles at the foot of our home was history."
2. Verbal Reports
man's character is revealed by his speech."
"Speech is a mirror of the soul; as a man
speaks, so is he."
"Every artist writes his own
function of the artist is to disturb, to arouse the sleeper
and shake the compliant pillars of the world. In a world terrified of
change, it is the artist who preaches change, the principle of
is not a mirror but a hammer."
greatness of an artists' work is measured by the depth and intensity of
his feelings and emotions towards it, and towards life, and how much of
these he has been able to implant and express in that work."
at its most significant is a Distant Early Warning System that can always
be relied upon to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to
me, the most important thing in a piece of art is the thought. Technique
is totally secondary."
in Canadian art is rarely in command of his environment or ever at home in
"Historical artworks express particular
ideological perspectives representative of the class, gender, region and
political position of artists and their publics."
work of art is a conscious human effort that has to do with communication.
It is that, or it is nothing."
“Painting is just another way of keeping a
"Propaganda is communication in a moment.
Works of propaganda must therefore be direct and are expendable. . .
Art is communication which takes longer and demands contemplation. Works
of art therefore should be enduring . . . which involves serious formal
consideration . . . Propaganda deals in answers while art deals in
"While photographs may not lie, liars may
moment that a photographer selects a subject, he is working upon the basis
of a bias that is parallel to the bias expressed by an
"Quite small and ineffectual demonstrations
can be made to look like the beginning of a revolution if the cameraman is
in the right place at the right time."
"Nothing can be so deceiving as a
"Hollywood surely would have been foolish to
attempt to do the American cowboy or the winning of the West
"Political cartoonists are like canaries in
the coal mine with regard to free
caricature is usually the portrait of a person, which in its distortion
and exaggeration reveals the true personality of the subject."
"Peterson said his method is to decide who he
thinks, essentially, is right and who is wrong – and then to draw the
cartoon with the 'wrong' side all but muted. 'You have to do it that way,'
he contends. 'An editorial cartoon has just got to come down fairly hard
on one side or another if it is to be successful. It's got to be stated in
black-and-white terms to have any impact on a reader loafing through the
"Most cartoonists are guys who can't stand
"Good caricature goes behind the actual
traits, the actual design of a face. A good caricaturist can dig deep and
betray the inside of a man, the type of man, the character."
job is to attack power."
purpose of a cartoon is to create discussion, discourse and debate. The
purpose of those murderers (Charlie Hebro, Paris, 2015) was to end
"When you put down the good things you ought to have done,
and leave out the bad ones you did do well, that's Memoirs."
"To write one's memoirs is to speak ill of everybody
"The memories of men are too frail a thread to hang
"As one reads the book (Diefenbaker's autobiography) one
becomes increasingly skeptical about the unrelieved self-congratulation on every
page. Only once in 320 pages is there an admission of failure. . . The rest in
an unbroken catalogue of flawless achievement. . . The author describes events.
. . in 'Grit equals black, Tory equals white terms.'"
"Autobiographies written after the lapse of years . . .
are open to mistakes resulting from faulty recollection, limited opportunity to
observe, and ego serving misinterpretations."
"The correspondents sent by Canadian newspapers [to the
North West in 1885] . . . second-guessed commanders, repeated every rumour and
embroidered the exploits of hometown heroes. If they wrote for opposition
newspapers, they sought evidence of military blunders and administrative
"He had been kicked in the Head by a Mule when young and
believed everything he read in the Sunday Papers."
"The press is the hired agent of a moneyed system, and set
up for no other purpose than to tell lies where the interests are
"News is the first rough draft of history."
"Editors who work for us have the right to voice their
opinions after they stop working for us."
"History will be kind to me as I intend to write
"It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a
needle than for a biographer not to be partisan."
"Look behind statistics! Find out how they're made up and
on what definition they are based. Don't take them at face value."
"Figures lie and liars figure."
"Statistics are like alienists – they will testify for
"Statistics – I can prove anything by statistics – except
IV. The Present – the Historian
"The point of view, the experiences, the beliefs, the
attitudes of the historian must affect the search for evidence and the
interpretation of that evidence."
"The present is unintelligible without an understanding of
how it is made by and contains the past."
"Study the historian before you begin to study the facts."
"To be biased means to have a perspective, a frame of
reference, a particular point of view. Everyone has a perspective, we see the
world through our own eyes, heart and mind . . . Every perspective, then is
biased in the sense that it represents one person's vision."
"The 'telling of history,' whether it be oral or written,
is not and never has been neutral. It is always the reflection of the priorities
of the narrator and their perception of the world."
"History depends more on the historian than on documents.
What is a document without an historian to discover and interpret it?"
"Each age writes the history of the past anew with
reference to the conditions uppermost in its own time."
"If the Aborigine drafted an IQ test, all of Western
civilization would presumably flunk it."
"I acted on the information I have been accumulating since
I was three years old."
"Part of where you
are is where you've been."
Personal Values and
"The historian must ever endeavour to be conscious and
critical of his own system of values, but he cannot escape from it or from the
dominant ideas of his own age."
"The historian has a heart, and no rules can prevent his
emotions from influencing his work."
"You have a set of beliefs that you're acting on every day
. . . You realize these beliefs in the way you live, and, if you're a history
professor, in the books you write and the way you approach the past.. . . I was
made by my family, my town and my country."
"Every man's work, whether it be literature or music or
pictures or architecture or anything else, is always a portrait of himself, and
the more he tries to conceal himself, the more clearly will his character appear
in spite of himself."
"The first duty of an historian is to be on his guard
against his own sympathies."
"Prejudice is a great time saver. It enables one to form
an opinion without getting the facts. That has its advantages, but they are not
on the side of intelligence."
"Everyone is a prisoner of his own experiences. No one can
eliminate prejudices – just recognize them."
"No important history has yet appeared which does not
reveal some bias, and . . . in the greatest of histories the element of
partiality is strong."
"Show me a man who is completely objective and I'll
arrange to have his tombstone made."
"I have yet to see a piece of writing . . . that does not
have a slant. All writing slants the way a writer leans, and no man is born
"While prejudice and bias are commonly considered
synonymous terms they should be distinguished. A bias is a natural leaning
towards one's own interests or group or hypothesis, and influences even those
who desire to weigh all evidence fully and honestly. A prejudiced person, on the
other hand, prejudges issues regardless of the evidence or before it is
"A fox should not be of the jury at a goose's
"Neither great poverty, nor great riches will hear
"I have never seen pessimism in a Company
"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when
his salary depends upon his not understanding it."
"I know that truth is one of the first victims of
"In wartime a people only want to hear two things – good
of themselves and evil of the enemy."
"Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is
old, he will not depart from it."
"Part of where you are is where you've been."
"Show me where you came from and I'll tell you what you
"The years of my childhood, spent at Summer Hill,
developed my character, molded my tastes, and coloured my point of view for
e. racial or ethnic
"Why is it always that when the Indian people win a
victory over the white man it is a massacre, yet when the white man kills Indian
women and children, it is a victory."
"A land may be said to be discovered the first time a
European, preferably an Englishman, sets foot on it."
"Male and female are really two different cultures and
their life experiences are utterly different."
"Its not only problematic to have history without women,
it's highly inaccurate."
"Each time a girl opens a book and reads a womanless
history, she learns she is worth less."
"The nation that fails to enlist the magnificent resources
of its women is flying on one wing and bound for a crash landing."
"Tis education forms the common mind, Just as the twig is
bent, the tree's inclined."
"A liberal education . . . frees a man from the
prison-house of his class, race, time, place, background, family and even his
h. family and friends
"No fathers or mothers think their children
"All that I am my mother made me."
"He that has his father for judge goes safe to
"Nine times in ten the heart governs
"Two men look out through the same bars: One sees the mud,
and one the stars."
"The 'facts' many not change, but often the importance
accorded to them and the historians interpretation of them will."
"An age is a chaos while one is living it, and the past
would be in chaos also if it were not interpreted for us."
"There is always peril in concentrating too intensely on
one thread in human affairs when it is the whole cable of many strands that has
to be accounted for."
"Very few facts are able to tell their own story, without
comments to bring about their meaning."
"History is about the debate between competing
interpretations of events, individuals and ideas based on the utilization of
The Historian Writes a
"The first quality of an historian is to be true and
impartial; the next is to be interesting."
"What use is research in history if the researcher cannot
make his results clear and interesting to the reader?"
"Most of us think history is the past. It's not. History
is the stories we tell about the past."