Tuesday, February 15, 2005

The Threefold Sense of History

I was reading Paul Newall's excellent little essay on the philosophy of history, and read this:

...often an equivocation is made between two distinct uses of the word:

History as the past; and
History as an account of the past.

This, of course, is true. But it occurred to me that there is another use of the word that is very often confused with the second, namely, that history is an account of the evidences we have of the past. This is actually a different thing altogether; one can have an account of the past that shows no concern for the evidence of the past, for instance. One can also have an account of the evidences we have of the past that makes no attempt to construct an account of what actually happened, i.e., is not actually an account of the past. The issue is an important one, I think, because most actual historical scholarship is history in this third sense, not in the second sense. To be sure, the reason why we want an account of the evidences of the past is usually that we want to know what happened in the past; but this common subservience of the third to the second is actually incidental to most work in history taken as a discipline - the same work would be done even if we had no interest in what actually happened, but were just looking at possible interpretations of our evidence about what happened.

In any case, for anyone interested in the getting a first-bearings in the philosophy of history, I recommend Newall's essay. Newall also has an interesting weblog on the history of science, Studi Galileiani.

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