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Aims and Purpose of History

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The aims and purpose of history can be evaluated through the study of historians and their audiences. The differing methods of collecting and using sources and evidence has caused countless debates between historians and other academics from Herodotus, the ‘Father of History’ to G.R Elton and his views on objective truth. Similarly Stuart Macintyre’s “The Historian’s Conscience” debates and discusses the issues surrounding evidence, time and motives of historians.

The aim of history according to Stuart Macintyre is to provide knowledge of the past that allows the present to be better understood. The Elton V Carr debate raises this issue with conflicting views on the truth as being objective to Elton and subjective to Carr. The element of bias is a factor in determining how objective history is, as addressed by Elton who states that if bias can be avoided the objective truth can be reached. However Carr was of the belief that bias obstructs the path to truth as one’s motives cloud judgement and therefore an historian can manipulate a source in order to derive a desired meaning by taking a quote out of context. Thus Carr’s aim was to find the subjective truth as he believed it was impossible to eradicate bias, while Elton’s aim was to find the objective truth as he believed it was completely possible to remove any bias if one was trained properly. Macintyre’s work mirrors Elton’s theory as he states that an historians is “obliged to…report findings dispassionately”.

While there are many opinions on what the aim of history is one cannot argue that it is a finite body of knowledge. This is evident in the study of Carr when it is explained that an historian chooses what events become historical fact. Thus elements of bias are evident and the purpose of history to relay the absolute truth is hard to achieve due to historians disregarding some events. The motives of historians also interfere with their aims and purposes as events are taken out of context. A contempory example of this is the reporting of the war in Iraq. Events take place however those involving Iraqi extremists are covered less in order for one version of the truth to be believed. This is closely linked to Macintyre’s discussion on national history and how this becomes a motive of historians.

Thucydides and Herodotus both attempted to glorify epic battles in order to maintain their country’s reputation. However Herodotus’ sources were never named and his use of oral sources allows for elements of bias to surface. The way his history was presented, in the form of speeches and entertainment also raises questions of the reliability of his work. Though his aim of history was to “preserve the memory of the past”, it was also to entertain the masses and his unreliable sources leads to his preservation of events to be seen as somewhat unreliable, regardless of the fact that he was skeptical of some events.

Thucydides adopted a scientific approach to history, thus his aim and purpose was to use reliable sources in order to come to the absolute truth. However though he tried to take account of bias and corroborated sources, his nationalism often clouded judgement as the legacy of a nation defines its being. He focused on “deeds of renown” in militaristic and political history. His nationalism often led to him making up parts to speeches in order to glorify his own people and country. Thus while his aim may have been to find the objective truth, his purpose conflicted with this as he attempted to maintain the legacy the country.

Macintyre comments on the manipulation of facts to suit a national purpose. This is closely linked to the work of Bede, a Christian monk. His purpose was to convert Pagans to Christianity which conflicts with his professions of aiming to write the objective truth. His main source was the Bible and he used miracles to glorify God thus he produced subjective history based on the fact he used one bias source. Similarly, von Ranke believed that in studying the past one would see God’s work. His aims conflicted as he sought to tell “wie es eigentlich gewesen” or “how, essentially, things happened” and to produce a “board and popular rather than academic” piece of work due to the fact he believed history was more an art than a science.

Though von Ranke’s purpose was to find the objective truth in history and study the past in its own context, his use of political sources conflicts this. Political sources were written by society’s elites therefore the complete objective truth is not communicated. While von Ranke’s aim and purpose was initially objective, his sources and methods are somewhat unreliable as they are from one section of society and his religious beliefs often prevented him from explaining the science of certain events. However the time of von Ranke’s written history may explain this as the Lutheran church was emerging.

The aims of historians, while initially objective may become clouded by their purpose for writing history. As seen in the case of Herodotus and Thucydides their aim was to tell the objective truth, however their purposes for maintaining national legacy caused their history to become somewhat unreliable. Similarly with Bede and von Ranke their aim was to communicate “how essentially things happened” however their religious beliefs caused their history to also become unreliable. The Carr V Elton debate succinctly describes how bias and judgement can influence an historian’s aim and purpose and therefore their history.

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