Quotations About the Historical Method
I. The historian Selects a Subject for Investigation
"The historian is part of the present and therefore subject to the values, the needs, and the concerns of his society. Consequently, the questions he asks about the past are frequently ones that reflect present interests . . . Indeed it is the responsibility of the historian to describe a community's past in terms that are meaningful to the present."
"Select a subject that is interesting and important . . . it should seem so to the researcher and to a fair part of his audience."
"Our interest in the past is really our interest in the present."
"What determines the questions the historian puts? . . . That question is determined by his interest in it, the interest arising out of his experiences."
"Historians ask questions about past events or developments and try to explain them. History is a problem-solving discipline."
II. The 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."
"We shouldn't choose only those records that portray past events in a positive light. The truth of history is woven from many sources, and it is only when history is presented in its entirety that it can support the free exchange of ideas that lies at the heart of a democratic society."
2. Analyses Evidence
"One eye-witness is better than ten hearsays."
"To read without reflecting, is like eating without digesting."
"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."
"I 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 hundred."
"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 time."
"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."
"I 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 view."
"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.'"
"A 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 or another."
"The impartiality of history is not that of the mirror, which merely reflects objects but that of the judge who sees, listens, and decides."
"There's an awful lot of evidence for the existence of Santa Claus, you know. The problem is that none of it happens to be very good evidence."
"Learning is really about perspectives, learning them, analyzing them, evaluating them."
"The contextualizing of the history and the presentation of the complexity of perspectives on the events give students a foundation for making judgments or for working out reasoned responses to difficult questions."
"Are we using our knowledge of the values and beliefs existing at the time to interpret the people, events and practices of the past?"
"Historical thinking is the cognitive process of analyzing and interpreting historical evidence to construct, deconstruct, and reconstruct historical narratives."
"We need to produce critical consumers of the media, asking the right questions to determine the reliability and credibility of sources."
"The historian was like someone with a net (historical method) used to catch butterflies . . . We take nets into the field . . . and use them to scoop out the past. Without the net we are left staring into an infinite abyss, impotent, unable to catch anything at all. That vastness of the past is what makes those nets so important."
"It is now generally accepted . . . that written documents do not contain objective truths, but provide information shaped by the cultural biases and perspectives of their authors."
"We are all the product of our worldviews-even scientists who claim pure objectivity."
The section II "The Historian 2 Biases and Prejudices" also applies to evidence.
3. Selects 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 past."
"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 proportion."
"So much of the history of this nation [Canada] has been erased, underplayed, or forgotten because it didn't fit the dominant society."
4. Organizes Evidence
"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."
"I 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 puzzle."
"History is far less about truth than it is about identifying shapes and patterns."
5. Interprets Evidence
"The main part of intellectual education is not the acquisition of facts but learning how to make facts live."
"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 movement."
"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 things."
"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."
"A philosophy of history is an effort to explain the grand patterns of human social development."
"[After evaluating evidence] the historian develops an interpretation of the past that is logical and consistent with all the available evidence."
"Finding meaning in the facts of the past, then, is the central challenge of history. It requires us to ask questions and construct explanations––mental activities far different and far more exciting than merely memorizing names, dates and facts. More important, it enables us to approach history as critical thinkers. The more skilled we become at historical reasoning, the better we will understand our world and ourselves."
"I 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."
"Archaeology is the study of the human past using material remains. These remains can be any objects that people created, modified, or used."
"Objects allow us to reconstruct the past."
"Part of history is tracing artifacts and looking at patterns."
2. Verbal Reports
"A man's character is revealed by his speech."
"Speech is a mirror of the soul; as a man speaks, so is he."
3. Visual Documents
"Every artist writes his own autobiography."
"The 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 life."
"Art is not a mirror but a hammer."
"The 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."
"Art 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 it."
"To me, the most important thing in a piece of art is the thought. Technique is totally secondary."
"Man in Canadian art is rarely in command of his environment or ever at home in it."
"Historical artworks express particular ideological perspectives representative of the class, gender, region and political position of artists and their publics."
"A 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 diary.”
"All art is an interpretation and a recreation of the facts."
"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 questions."
"While photographs may not lie, liars may photograph."
"The 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 historian."
"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 photograph."
"If the camera never lies, neither does it tell the whole truth."
"What was the person taking the photograph trying to capture?"
"Hollywood surely would have been foolish to attempt to do the American cowboy or the winning of the West realistically."
"A 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 newspaper.'"
"My job is to attack power."
"The purpose of a cartoon is to create discussion, discourse and debate. The purpose of those murderers (Charlie Hebro, Paris, 2015) was to end it."
"Cartoons give ideas, facts and events an intelligible shape that renders them accessible."
f. monuments and memoirials
"Statues of persons are dehumanizing. The abbreviated version of history does not allow space for the individual's failures or acknowledge their struggles in history. Every individual is flawed. Viewers need to critically engage with statues. They need to know the context of the time when the statue was erected in order to understand why the statue is there."
"Statues are a romanticized version of history."
"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 except oneself."
"The memories of men are too frail a thread to hang history from."
"History will be kind on me for I propose to write it."
"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."
"Whatever else it is, autobiography stems more often than not from a need to explain and justify the self.' Early American autobiography always involves three central questions. Why does the writer feel the need to justify his/her self? To whom is s/he writing? Why (if published) was the story of that self interesting enough to merit publication? . . . Autobiography is not really ‘about’ the facts and events related; it is about how the writer chooses to interpret and make sense of these events."
"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 incompetence."
"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 involved."
"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."
"Whose stories are we telling? What perspectives are included? Who or what voice is missing from the story."
"History will be kind to me as I intend to write it."
"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 either side."
"Statistics – I can prove anything by statistics – except the truth."
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."
"There can be no 'pure history' – history-in-itself, recorded from nobody's point of view, for nobody's sake. The most objective history conceivable is still a selection and an interpretation, necessarily governed by some special interests and based on some particular beliefs."
"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."
"History depends more on the historian than on documents. What is a document without an historian to discover and interpret it?"
"Objectivity is something that historians are supposed to strive for – but rarely attain. Most historians wear blinders of one sort or another."
"Every historian has a point of view that determines which of the thousands of issues he or she will discuss, which of the millions of facts he or she will relate, and what things he or she will emphasize or ignore."
"The instrument with which the historian looks at the past is modern. It was made, and shaped, and it operates, in the present. It is his own mind. And however much he bends his thoughts toward the past, his own way of thinking, his outlook, his opinions are the products of the time in which he lives. So that all written history . . . is a compound of past and present."
1. Background Knowledge
"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."
"The present shapes our understanding of the past."
2. Personal Values and Beliefs
"Context matters. Context shapes us."
"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."
3. Biases and Prejudices
"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 perpendicular."
"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 presented."
"A fox should not be of the jury at a goose's trial."
"A liberal education. . . frees a man from the prison-house of his class, race, time, place, background, family and even his nation."
"The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose."
"Neither great poverty, nor great riches will hear reason."
"I have never seen pessimism in a Company prospectus."
"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."
"A married man with a family will do anything for money."
"I know that truth is one of the first victims of war."
"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 are."
"The years of my childhood, spent at Summer Hill, developed my character, molded my tastes, and coloured my point of view for life."
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 nation."
h. family and friends
"No fathers or mothers think their children ugly."
"All that I am my mother made me."
"He that has his father for judge goes safe to trial."
"Nine times in ten the heart governs understanding."
"Two men look out through the same bars: One sees the mud, and one the stars."
4. Interpretations of History
"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 historical evidence."
"Historians carry their personal philosophies and values to their work and they affect the search for evidence and the interpretation of that evidence."
"Museum collections are subjective interpretations of cultural beliefs and values."
"A balance must be maintained between history as a body of facts, based solidly upon research, and history as an exercise in analysis, interpretation and generalization."
"The first duty of the historian . . . is to establish what happened: the facts. After that . . . establishing why it happened and philosophizing about its importance is the cosmic scheme of things."
"The past can be imagined and reconstructed into comprehensible patterns through the evidence left behind."
"Perspectives do not simply change; we recognize today that some perspectives were entirely left out of earlier histories."
"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."
"The third element in historical writing is presentation – the narration, description, and exposition required to set forth the results of reseach and interpretation."
"There is no getting it 'right' in history. The past cannot be recaptured and represented 'as it was,' for the writing of history is always about drawing conclusions from insufficient evidence."
"The final steps are to write an account of the past in clear, accessible prose, and to point out to the reader, through footnotes and bibliography, the sources that formed the basis for the conclusions."
"The more I read, the more I research, the more reservations I have about ‘knowing’ history.