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From An Introduction to the History of History, by James T. Shotwell; Columbia University Press; New York; 1922; pp. 1-11.





UNTIL recently, history itself has lacked historians. There have been histories of almost everything else under the sun, of literature, philosophy, the arts and sciences, and, above all, of politics. But until the last few years, — with the exception of a few works for students, — the story of history has remained unwritten. Clio, though the oldest of the Muses, has been busy recording the past of others but has neglected her own; and apparently her readers have seldom inquired of her about it. For even yet the phrase “history of History” conveys but little meaning to most people’s minds, seeming to suggest some superfluous academic problem for which a busy world should afford no time, rather that what it really is, that part of the human story which one should master first if one would ever learn to judge the value of the rest.

The prime reason for this state of affairs is probably that which has just been hinted at. Clio was a Muse; history has generally been regarded as a branch of literature. Historians have been treated as masters of style or of the creative imagination, to be ranked alongside poets or dramatists, rather than simply as historians, with an art and science of their own. Thucydides has been read for his Greek, Livy for his Latin. Carlyle ranks in book-lists with the word-painter Ruskin. Now and again historical criticisms of the “great masters” have appeared, and scholarly studies of limited fields. But so long as history could be viewed as primarily a part of literature its own history could not be written; for the recovery of the past is a science as well as an art.

The history of History, therefore, had to await the rise of scientific historical criticism before it attracted the attention of even historians 2 themselves. That has meant, as a matter of course, that not many except the critics have been attracted by it. Masked under the unlovely title Historiography, it has recently become a formal part of the discipline of historical seminars, but, with few exceptions, such manuals as there are have been mainly contributions to the apparatus of research. They have, therefore, lacked the allurements of style and often even of imaginative appeal which win readers for history; and few but the students have known of their existence.

And yet the history of History demands rather than invites attention. Art, science and philosophy combined, history is the oldest and vastest of the interests of mankind. What was the past to Babylon to Rome? When and how was Time first discovered, and the shadowy past marked out by numbered years? What traveling Greeks first brought home that knowledge of the dim antiquities of Egypt and the East which made them critics of their own Homeric legends and so created history? What havoc was wrought in scientific inquiry by religious revelations and in revelations by scientific inquiry? By what miracle has the long lost past been at last recovered, in our own day, so that we are checking up Herodotus by his own antiquity, correcting the narrative of Livy or Tacitus by the very refuse deposited beneath the streets upon which they walked? This is more than romance or literature, though the romance is there to the full. For the history of History is the story of that deepening memory and scientific curiosity which is the measure of our social consciousness and our intellectual life.

But we must first get our bearings. For the word “history” has two meanings.1 It may mean either the record of events or events themselves. We call Cromwell a “maker of history” 3 although he never wrote a line of it. We even say that the historian merely records the history which kings and statesmen produce. History in such instances is obviously not the narrative but the thing that awaits narration. The same name is given to both the object of the study and to the study itself. The confusion is unfortunate. Sociology, we know, deals with society; biology with life; but history deals with history! It is like juggling with words.

Of the two meanings, the larger one is comparatively recent. The idea that events and people are historic by reason of any quality of their own, even if no one has studied or written upon them, did not occur to the ancients. To them history was the other thing — the inquiry and statement, not the thing to be studied or recorded. It was not until modern times that the phenomena themselves were termed history. The history of a people originally meant the research and narrative of a historian, not the evolution of a nation. It meant a work dealing with the subject, not the subject itself. And this is logically as well as historically the more accurate use of the word. Things are never historic in themselves. They can be perpetuated out of the dead past only in two ways: either as part of the ever-moving present, — as institutions, art, science, etc., — things timeless or universal; or in that imaginative reconstruction which it is the special office of the historian to provide.

This distinction must be insisted upon if we are to have any clear thinking about the history of History. For obviously in this phrase we are using “history” only in its original and more limited meaning. We are dealing with historians, their methods, their tools and their problems; not with the so-called “makers of history” except as materials for the historians, — not with battles and constitutions and “historical” events, in and for themselves, but only where the historian has treated them. And it is his treatment rather than the events themselves which mainly interests us.

A word first, however, upon history in the wider, looser sense of “what has happened.” Does it include all that has happened? If so, it includes everything; for the whole universe, as modern science shows, is in process of eternal change. It extends beyond the phenomena of life into those of matter; for that vast story of evolution from amœba and shell-fish to man, whose outlines we are 4 learning to decipher from the pages of stratified rock, is but one incident in the whole. The rocks themselves have “happened” like the life whose traces they preserve. In short, if history includes all that has happened, it was under way not less when the first stars took their shape, than it was when about a century ago science began to decipher and read it.

The deciphering of such history, however, is not the task of the historian but of the natural scientist. There is no harm, to be sure, in considering the analysis of matter as a branch of history when it reveals the chemical elements which have gone into the upbuilding of phenomena or the electron which is probably responsible for the element. But this is not the historian’s kind of history. Faced with such conceptions, he realizes that he must content himself with what is scarcely more than an infinitesimal fraction of the vast field of knowledge. And yet it is good for him to realize his place in that great fellowship which is today so busily at work upon the mystery of the processes of nature. For, once he has had the vision of the process itself, he can never face the old tasks in the same way. It transforms his perspectives, gives him different sets of values and reconstructs that synthesis of life and the world into which he fits the work of his own research. Although he realizes the partial nature of his outlook, yet it is not rendered invalid. On the contrary it acquires a greater validity if it is fitted into the vaster scheme. The significance of his work grows rather than lessens, in the light of the wider horizon. The perspectives of science are an inspiration for the historian, even while he recognizes that he can never master its original sources or trace its history. That is for the scientists to deal with. And, as the nature of their phenomena becomes clearer to them, they are becoming, themselves, more and more historical. The larger historical aspects of physics and chemistry, to which we have just alluded, are taken over by the astronomer, while “natural history” in the good old meaning of that term is the especial province of the geologist and biologist. Between them and historians the connection is becoming direct and strong; and there is much to be said for the claim that, both through his work and his influence, the greatest of all historians was Darwin.

But if History in the objective sense is not all that has happened, 5 how much is it of what has happened? The answer to this has generally depended upon the point of view of individual historians. All are agreed, for instance, that the term “history” should be limited to substantially human affairs. And yet it cannot be narrowly so defined, for the body and mind of man belong to the animal world and have antecedents that reach far beyond the confines of humanity, while the natural environment of life, — food, climate, shelter, etc., — are also part of the human story. When we try still further to limit the term to some single line of human activity, as for instance, politics, we shut out fields in which the expression of the human spirit has often been more significant, the fields of culture and ideas, of literature, art, engineering, education, science or philosophy. Why not, therefore, avoid trouble by admitting the whole field of the human past as history?

There seems to be just one qualification necessary: it must be that past viewed historically, which means that the data must be viewed as part of the process of social development, not as isolated facts. For historical facts are those which form a part of that great stream of interrelation which is Time.

This is still history in the objective sense, the field which the historian may call his own. But a careful reading of our definition shows that we have already passed over into a consideration of history in the truer meaning of the word — the performance of the historian; since it is the attitude assumed toward the fact which finally determines whether it is to be considered as historical or not. Now what, in a word, is this historical attitude? It consists, as we have already intimated, in seeing things in their relation to others, both in Space and in Time. Biography, for instance, becomes history when it considers the individual in his setting in society; it is not history in so far as it deals exclusively with a single life. It may deal with the hero as an isolated, solitary figure or as a type common to all times. In either case it lacks the historical point of view, for it is only by connecting the individual with his own society that he enters into that great general current of events which we call Time. The study of any farmer’s life, as a farmer’s life, set in the unending routine of the seasons is almost as timeless as the study of Shakespeare’s mind. The New England farmer, on the other hand, and the Elizabethan Shakespeare enter the field 6 of history because they are considered in their setting in society; and society is the reservoir of time, the ever-changing, ever-enduring reflex of human events.

The same texts that apply to biography apply to antiquarian research. Because an event belongs to the past it is not necessarily historical. Indeed in so far as the antiquarian isolates his material for our inspection, interested in it for its own sake, laying it out like the curator of a museum, he robs it of its historical character. For the facts of history do not exist by themselves any more than the lives of historical personages. They are parts of a process and acquire meaning only when seen in action. The antiquarian preserves the fragments of the great machinery of events, but the historian sets it to work again, however faintly the sound of its motion comes to him across the distant centuries.2

History in the proper sense of the word began with the Greeks. They had already surpassed the world in the purely art creation of the epic, where the imagination urging the laggard movement of events secures the dynamism of the past which is the first condition of history. Then they turned from poetry to prose, and in sobriety and self-restraint began to criticise their own legends, to see if they were true. Before the sixth century B.C., so far as we know, no critical hand had attempted to sort out the data of the past, impelled by the will to disbelieve. This revolutionary mood, as happy in finding what had not happened as what had, marks the emergence of the scientific spirit into the great art of story-telling. History in the true sense is the combination of the two.

The word “history”3 itself comes to us from these sixth century Ionians and is the name they gave to their achievement. It meant, not the telling of a tale, but the search for knowledge and truth. 7 It was to them much what philosophy was to the later Athenians or science to us.4 The historian was the critical inquirer. Herodotus was as much an investigator and explorer as a reciter of narrative, and his life-long investigation was “history” in his Ionian speech.5 Yet Herodotus himself hints that the word may also be applied to the story which the research has made possible,6 not to the guileless tale of the uncritical, to be sure, but to a narrative such as he and his soberly inquisitive fellows could tell. It was not until Aristotle,7 and more especially Polybius,8 that we have it definitely applied to the literary product instead of to the inquiry which precedes it. From Polybius to modern times, history (Latin, historia) has been literature. It is a strange but happy coincidence, that when the scientific investigator of today turns from literature to scholarship, from writing books to discovering facts, he is turning not away from but towards the field of history as the word was understood by those forerunners of Herodotus to whom science was as yet but a dream and an inspiration.9

This double aspect of history — the one no older than Ionia, the other reaching back to the dawn of Time — has apparently puzzled a good many who write about it. There are those who try to prove that history is either a science or an art, when, as a matter of fact, it contains the elements of both. We shall recur to this in a later section, where we shall have to face the further question of the relation of art to science in general. But without entering into that problem yet, we may for the present, with a view to clarity, frankly divide our subject into two: the research which is science and the narration which is art.

The history of these two divisions runs in different channels, 8 and has always done so. History, the art, flourishes with the arts. It is mainly the creature of imagination and literary style. It depends upon expression, upon vivid painting, sympathy, grace and elegance, elevated sentiments or torrential power. The picture may be partial or incorrect— like Carlyle’s description of revolutionary France; sympathies may warp the truth, as in Froude’s Henry VIII or Macaulay’s History of England; elegance of style may carry even Gibbon beyond the data in his sources, and the passionate eloquence of Michelet ride down the restrictions of sober fact. But in the art of history-narration these are magnificent even if they are not true. Indeed the art in history seems to run, with most perverse intent, in the opposite direction to the science. Wherever the great masters of style have dominated, there one is likely to find less interest in criticising sources than in securing effects. The historian’s method of investigation often seems to weaken in proportion as his rhetoric improves. This is not always true, but it is sufficiently common to make the scientific historian eternally distrustful of the literary. The distrust in the long run has its sobering effect upon the literary historian, in spite of his contemptuous references to the researcher as a dry-as-dust who lacks insight, the first qualification of the historian. And from the standpoint of supreme historical achievement both criticisms are justified. The master of research is generally but a poor artist, and his uncolored picture of the past will never rank in literature beside the splendid distortions which glow in the pages of a Michelet or a Macaulay, simply because he lacks the human sympathy which vitalizes the historical imagination. The difficulty, however, in dealing with the art in history is that, being largely conditioned upon genius, it has no single, traceable line of development. Here the product of the age of Pericles remains unsurpassed still; the works of Herodotus and Thucydides standing like the Parthenon itself, — models for all times.

On the other hand, history, the science, has a development and logical history of its own. Paralleling other scientific work, it has come to the front in our own age, so that it has not only gained recognition among historians as a distinct subject, but by the results of its obscure and patient labors it has recast for us almost the whole outline of our evolution. Impartial, — almost unhuman 9 in its cold impartiality, — weighing documents, accumulating evidence, sorting out the false wherever it can be detected, no matter what venerable belief goes with it, it is piecing together with infinite care the broken mosaic of the past, — not to teach us lessons nor to entertain, but simply to fulfil the imperative demand of the scientific spirit — to find the truth and set it forth.

It is this scientific history — this modern fulfilment of the old Greek historia — which is responsible for the development of that group of auxiliary sciences of which archæology is the most notable, by means of which the scope of history has been extended so far beyond the written or oral records. The advance along this line, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, has been one of the greatest achievements of our age. The vast gulf which separates the history of Egypt by Professor Breasted of Chicago from that of Herodotus gives but a partial measure of its achievement. By the mechanism now at his disposal, the scientific explorer can read more history from the rubbish heaps buried in the desert sand than the greatest traveller of antiquity could gather from the priests of Thebes.

This history of scientific history, from the Greeks to our time, is therefore, the central thread of our story. But a proper historical treatment of it must not be limited narrowly to it alone. It includes as well the long pre-scientific and the subsequent unscientific achievements. All of these belong, more or less, to our subject. Indeed, in so far as they exhibit any clear sign of that sense of the interrelation of events which we have emphasized above, they are history, — winning their place by their art if not by their science. One must not omit, for instance, the work of mediæval monks, although they copied impossible events into solemn annals without a sense of the absurdity, and although individually they are the last to deserve the title of artists. For they had, after all, a vision of the process of history, and one which was essentially artistic. The Christian Epic, into which they transcribed their prosy lines, was as genuine an art-product as the Greek or Babylonian, although it was one which only the composite imagination of religious faith could achieve. The history of History must deal with such things — historically.


The same is true of the pre-scientific origins. These lie unnumbered centuries beyond that comparatively modern world of Hecatæus and Herodotus. They reach back, indeed, to the dawn of memory — when, as we suppose, some descendants of those shaggy, simian brutes of the tertiary forests and caves, which were destined to produce humanity, first learned, however dimly, to distinguish past from present. This means that the origins of history are as old as mankind. For the dawn of memory was the dawn of consciousness. No other acquisition, except that of speech, was so fateful for humanity. Memory — the thing which binds one’s life together, which makes me, me and you, you, which enables us to recognize ourselves of yesterday in ourselves of today, that reproduction of the dead past thrilling once more with life and passion, that magic glass that holds the unfading reflection of what exists no more — what a miracle it is! Destroy memory and you destroy time as far as you and I are concerned. The days and the years may pass along, each with its burden of work or its boon of rest, but they pass from the nothingness of the future to the nothingness of the past like the falling of drops of rain upon the ocean. The past exists in the memory as the future in the imagination. Consciousness is itself but the structure built upon this tenuous bridge between the two eternities of the unknown, and history is the record of what has taken place therein. Memory, in short, reveals the world as a process, and so makes its data historical.

At first glance it might seem absurd to carry our origins back so far. We have been used to thinking of early history as a thing of poetry and romance, born of myth and embodied in epic. It demands a flight of the imagination to begin it not with rhythmic and glowing verse but almost with the dawn of speech. But the origins of history begin back yonder, with the very beginning of mankind, before the glaciers swept our valleys to the sea, instead of by the camp-fires of Aryan warriors or in the clamorous square of the ancient city. When men first learned to ask — or tell — in grunts and signs “what happened,” history became inevitable. And from that dim, far-off event until the present, its data have included all that has flashed upon the consciousness of men so as to leave its reflection or burn in its scar. Its threads have been broken, tangled, and lost. Its pattern cannot be deciphered beyond a few 11 thousand years, for, at first, the shuttle of Time tore as it wove the fabric of social life, and we can only guess by the rents and gashes what forces were at work upon it. What we do know, however, is that although history itself in the true sense of the term did not start until midway down the process of social evolution, when the social memory was already continuous, when deeds were inscribed on monuments, and the critical spirit was at work, — in short when civilization had begun, — still the prehistoric history is of more than mere speculative interest; for civilization continued the pattern begun for it; and anthropology has shown us how absurd has been our interpretation of what civilized man has been thinking and doing, so long as we have ignored his uncivilized, ancestral training.


For the general treatment of the problems of the historian, see Ernst Bernheim, Lehrbuch der historischen Methode und der Geschichtsphilosophie (5th and 6th ed., 1914); C. V. Langlois and C. Seignobos, Introduction to the Study of History (tr. 1898) and C. V. Langlois, Manuel de bibliographie historique (2d ed., 1901-1904). The sketch of the general subject in the article History in the eleventh edition of The Encyclopædia Britannica was the starting point for this study. It would be well, however, to read first The New History (1912), by James Harvey Robinson.

For ancient history in general an important manual is that of C. Wachsmuth, Einleitung in das Studium der alten Geschichte (1895). For mediæval historiography such works as W. Wattenbach’s Deutschlands Geschichtsquellen im Mittelalter (2 vols., 6th ed., 1893-1894) or A. Molinier’s Les sources de l’histoire de France (6 vols., 1901-1906), are adequate in their respective fields. No similar survey exists of English mediæval historians. For the modern field E. Fueter’s Geschichte der neueren Historiographie (1911, there is also a French edition, 1914) covers the ground from Machiavelli to about 1870, while such works as G. P. Gooch’s History and Historians in the Nineteenth Century (1913) or A. Guilland’s Modern Germany and Her Historians (1915; the French edition appeared in 1900), deal with important topics. R. Flint’s History of the Philosophy of History, Historical Philosophy in France and French Belgium and Switzerland (1894) is preceded by a short general survey. B. Croce’s Theory and History of Historiography (translated by D. Ainslie, 1921) has somewhat more theory than history, but it is found stimulating by the philosophically inclined. For more specific references see below.


1   Cf. E. Bernheim, Lehrbuch der historischen Methode and der Geschichtsphilosophie (5th and 6th ed., 1914), Chap. I. The German word “Geschichte,” meaning that which has happened (was geschieht, was geschehen ist), is even more misleading. R. Flint, History of the Philosophy of History . . . (1894), (p. 5) called attention to the ambiguity of the term in English, but limits his distinction to the twofold one of objective and subjective history, as substantially in the text above. Bernheim insists (Chap. I, Sect. 5), upon introducing a third category — the knowledge or study of history, which is neither the events nor their artistic presentation but the science of research (Geschichtswissenschaft). There is a suggestive anthology of definitions in F. J. Teggart’s Prolegomena to History (1916), Part III, Sect. 1.

2  It will be seen that this conception is practically identical with that which Bernheim develops with such care in his manual, p. 9. His definition of history, in this subjective sense of the word, runs as follows:

“Die Geschichtswissenschaft ist die Wissenschaft, welche die zeitlich und räumlich bestimmten Tatsachen der Entwicklung der Menschen in ihren (singulären wie typischen and kollektiven) Betätigungen als soziale Wesen im Zusammenhange psycho-physicher Kausalität erforscht und darstellt.”

The expression “Kausalität” he explains later in quite a Bergsonian sense. It is not mechanistic. Cf. Chap. I, Sect. 4, pp. 101 sqq.. A study of Bergson’s conception of Time would help to elucidate Bernheim and to elaborate the idea of the text above.

3  Ionic ἱστορίη, Attic ἱστορία. (Vide infra, p. 135.)

4  Cf. Gilbert Murray, A History of Ancient Greek Literature (1912), p. 123.

5  Cf. the opening sentence, “This is the setting forth of the researches of Herodotus of Halicarnassus,” etc.

6  Cf. Bk VII, Chap. XCVI.

7  Cf. Aristotle, Rhetoric, Bk. I, Chap. IV, Sect. 8 (cf. note in E. M. Cope and J. E. Sandys’ edition) and Sect. 13; Poetry, Chap. IX.

8  Cf. Polybius, The Histories, Bk. I, Chap. III.

9  The achievement of the Hebrew historians was primarily in the field of art. Although sections of the early records of the Jews are the finest narrative we possess from so early a date, — far earlier than any similar product in Greece, — the principles of criticism which determined the text were not what we should call scientific. They were not sufficiently objective. (Vide infra, p. 79.)