Importance of Historical Evidence

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Importance of Historical Evidence

Postby Additives » Mon Dec 08, 2008 8:09 pm UTC

How important is history REALLY? Not the big details, but the little ones?


There was more to this post but after one response the OP settled on *this* as his question, so I've cleaned it up a bit. It's a fairly scant start, but let's see what happens.

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Re: Importance of Historical Evidence

Postby Ixtellor » Mon Dec 08, 2008 8:16 pm UTC

Life of Pi - This book offers an interesting take on your "Is history important question"

(Tim O'Brian would argue the details are irrelevant - which I find infuriating. I want to know if a guy exploded into a tree or not.. DAMN YOU TIM!!!)
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Re: Importance of Historical Evidence

Postby alexh123456789 » Tue Dec 09, 2008 2:22 am UTC

There's that old saying "those that don't learn history are doomed to repeat it", which isn't really valid because no two situations are exactly the same. One reason to learn history would be to understand references to historical events which would just require the basics, so I agree with you.

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Re: Importance of Historical Evidence

Postby InstinctSage » Tue Dec 09, 2008 4:11 am UTC

alexh123456789 wrote:There's that old saying "those that don't learn history are doomed to repeat it", which isn't really valid because no two situations are exactly the same. One reason to learn history would be to understand references to historical events which would just require the basics, so I agree with you.

I don't think people who say history repeats itself are suggesting events appear again exactly as they were. Air crash investigations are a good example of the wisdom of this philosophy. Knowing what went wrong, when something went wrong, and applying measures to make sure it doesn't happen again, is an example of learning from history. It might only be recent history, but the same rule applies throughout. We can look at castles and see how square turrets were replaced with rounded turrets to prevent the enemy chipping away the corner and creating a more stable structure. That sort of logic can still be applied today.

But I'm not sure I can really answer this question without clarifying what one means by "little details".
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Re: Importance of Historical Evidence

Postby Additives » Tue Dec 09, 2008 12:39 pm UTC

As far as little details go, I mean things such as: we know more or less how people in france lived 400 years ago, but is it important to now continue to devote time and money to extracting the ruins of small cottages to get exact detaisl of day to day life, or in most cases, just to confirm the details we have?
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Re: Importance of Historical Evidence

Postby Diadem » Tue Dec 09, 2008 1:32 pm UTC

Additives wrote:As far as little details go, I mean things such as: we know more or less how people in france lived 400 years ago, but is it important to now continue to devote time and money to extracting the ruins of small cottages to get exact detaisl of day to day life, or in most cases, just to confirm the details we have?


I think it's the same here as it is in all science: You don't know if something is important until you've gone and looked at it. Indeed the argument of 'what's the use of it?' could be levied against most branches of science. And the answer is always the same. We don't know. It might not have any practical use whatsoever. Or we might discover something that rocks the world. We don't know until we've looked. History however teaches us (aha!) that very often we do find something very useful. And even if we don't find something useful, we'll have learned something more about the world, which is its own reward (and might push us into doing more research).
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Re: Importance of Historical Evidence

Postby Pez Dispens3r » Wed Dec 10, 2008 2:18 pm UTC

As regards living in France 400 years ago, we often *don't* know how people lived, we just assume. There is a book called 'The Great Cat Massacre' where the historians looks at an event in a printing shop in Paris in the early eighteeneth century. The workers rounded up about two or three dozens cats, and then murdered them. They broke their skulls with pipes, or just broke their legs, and then tied them up in bags together and left them to die.

And then, they laughed about it. One of the apprentices would retell the story over and over. The author of the book took an anthropological perspective: that if we can understand why they thought it was so funny, we can understand eighteenth century France better. The fact is that people often don't account for cultural differences in the past. To understand the human past is to understand humanity, not just humanity as we think of ourselves today.

Your use of the term 'historical evidence' is interesting, because it is often the most important part of history. History is part literature, part science. Popular and interesting history leans towards being more of the former, accurate history leans towards being more of the latter. Often people write historical narratives that are heavy on the speculation, and tell stories of what people think happened or what they think ought to have happened. Actually looking at the historical evidence, the little bits, often reveals what *actually* happened, which is almost always counter-intuitive.
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Re: Importance of Historical Evidence

Postby Indon » Wed Dec 10, 2008 7:59 pm UTC

Additives wrote:How important is history REALLY? Not the big details, but the little ones?


Example:

A historical big detail might talk about how Archimedes built a device to set Roman ships on fire remotely.

The historical little details would be very much necessary to determine if there were any truth to the claim.

So I say yes, because it functions as corroboration and support for the big things.
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Re: Importance of Historical Evidence

Postby Berk and Hair » Wed Dec 10, 2008 8:18 pm UTC

Historical evidence applied to political decsions can be misleading. For example...

People used the failure large standing armies as a deterent to prevent WWI as an arguement against the strategy of the nuclear deterent during the cold war. This fails to take into account the greater 'bang for your buck' of nuclear weapons over soldiers with rifles. In both cases neither side could back out, because doing so would leave their rivals as the major regional/world power. But the cost of maintaining a standing army was so great that it probably seemed less costly just to have it out* (given that backing down was out of the question). With nuclear weapons, for a easily affordable price you can guarantee total destruction. The cost of maintaining a nuclear arsenal wouldn't even enter in to the decision as to whether to start a nuclear war.

Another comparison people often make, I think wrongly, is between Napoleon and Hitler's invasions of Russia. They both advanced too fast, spread their supply lines too thin, and both armies died in their masses when winter came. But Hitler's invasion, unlike Napoleon's, was so ill thought-out as to have no chance of success. Napoleon believed that once he had captured Moscow the Tzar would surrender. He didn't (maybe if Napoleon been able to capture St. Petersburg as well he might have done), but it was a coherent plan. Hitler, on the other hand, even if he had not been turned back at Stalingrad and Leningrad would still not have captured the country. He'd just have been turned back somewhere else. The ideological differences between Hitler and Stalin and the atrocities against civilians in countries occupied by the Nazis would have made surrender very unlikely. Hitler would have had to reach Vladivostok before he conquered Russia.


* All sides in WWI had a legitimate casus belli, if you accept that the Black Hand had the support and protection of the Serbian government and that support for a terrorist organisation constitutes a justification for war. This, and the impossibility of pulling out of the arms race, made WWI unavoidable.

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Re: Importance of Historical Evidence

Postby Rinsaikeru » Thu Dec 11, 2008 7:54 pm UTC

Because the little details about the past are far more important than the vague broad sweeps we get from what ruling body and army did what to who and when.

When I study history I want to know what average women, men and children were doing, what motivated daily activity? What did they hope for? fear? What did they eat? drink? use as medicine? Who did they persecute? why? This is what facinates me about the past particularly because you can find corollaries to these daily lives in how we live today.

I think the originally posed question is one that pops up semi-frequently on this forum. It boils down to "I don't think your area of study is as important as MY area of study." Pissing contest. History, it works. :P
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Re: Importance of Historical Evidence

Postby DougP » Thu Dec 11, 2008 8:19 pm UTC

Rinsaikeru wrote:
When I study history I want to know what average women, men and children were doing, what motivated daily activity? What did they hope for? fear? What did they eat? drink? use as medicine? Who did they persecute? why? This is what facinates me about the past particularly because you can find corollaries to these daily lives in how we live today.


Bolded the especially relevant part. When we know about our past, we can't better understand our place in the world, which allows us to make more informed decisions about how we act, and why we act. The broad view of history lets you know vaguely what happened, but it doesn't tell you why, and it doesn't help you understand things that are personally relevant. If I come from a working class background, it behooves me to have an understanding of what families and individuals in the past in similar circumstances have done, how they've acted, what their results were etc. When we study history only at the macro level, we don't learn OUR OWN history.

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Re: Importance of Historical Evidence

Postby Pez Dispens3r » Fri Dec 12, 2008 1:43 am UTC

Rinsaikeru wrote:I think the originally posed question is one that pops up semi-frequently on this forum. It boils down to "I don't think your area of study is as important as MY area of study." Pissing contest. History, it works. :P


History is one of the old guard of the humanities studies. Where anthropology, sociology, linguistics etc. all have a narrower focus and are based on tighter theory, history is a smelly slut that associates itself with everything. I challenge you to define what history actually 'is' before you claim that it works. I think it does a myriad of things, but not all of them are desireable. For many people, history is associated with their high school textbooks, BBC/Discovery Channel documentaries and bestselling books like 'Salt.' These all have their flaws. Textbooks in Japanese schools paint an... interesting perspective on the Pacific War. Documentaries delve into melodrama and embellishment, sacrificing insight for narrative, and bestsellers are written by journalists who do dubious levels of research.

It's not *that* absurd to question the premise of history, or its usefulness. I think the biggest problem with the OPs question was he wasn't exactly sure what he was asking. If I was to say what I think the usefulness of history is, I would say firstly that it is informative: but where this matters the role often belongs to other disciplines. It might be called military history to study the strategies and tactics used in the Vietnam War, or economic history to look at the causes and impact of the current Financial Crisis. But more accurately, these things would be military studies and economic studies respectively. History does not have a monopoly on things that hapened in the past.

I'm almost tempted to say that the only 'point' of history is that it is interesting, but I personally beleive it has a functional role in modern society. When embelished, it can be the glue that holds nations together by telling the story of how people like to be told. The best example for Australia (and possibly New Zealand) is the Gallipoli narrative, where the myth has become much more significant than the battle ever was. This brings me to the 'other' use: conscientous historians try to destory such mythology, by revealing the actual 'small details' that tell what actually hapened.
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Re: Importance of Historical Evidence

Postby Vaniver » Fri Dec 12, 2008 2:37 am UTC

Additives wrote:How important is history REALLY? Not the big details, but the little ones?
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Re: Importance of Historical Evidence

Postby Rinsaikeru » Fri Dec 12, 2008 6:08 am UTC

There's a difference between the study of history and the nationalist propaganda that is used in state schooling. Codified myths of nationhood and patriotism are well and good--if mostly useless except at encouraging disputes and wars.

History is the study of the past both through primary source material, remains, and the study of secondary materials written by other historians. It includes the discourse between historians about past events and does leave some room for interpretation. I personally think the fine details are most interesting because they provide the nitty gritty aspects of what happened day to day. Both the military and economic studies you mention ARE history--so I'm not sure how you intend to divorce them from historiography.
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Re: Importance of Historical Evidence

Postby Pez Dispens3r » Fri Dec 12, 2008 3:28 pm UTC

There are serious historians who spout blatant nationalist crap of the type found in school textbooks. A good example is the Argentine version of the history of the Falkland Islands (see http://www.embassyofargentina.us/en/home/news.htm and look for the stuff on the Islas Malvinas. It was printed as a pamphlet and its claims were supported by a group of credible and respectable scholars in London this year. However, it represents extremely poor history). It is not always easy to tell where 'history' ends and 'nationalist propaganda' starts; they can sometimes be the same thing, although the better they are at being the former the worse they are at being the latter and vice versa. Its usefulness is another matter: it helps foster community feelings within countries so that the individual can identify as belonging to a nation (because, for example, the British stole territory from us so we're going to unite together to get it back and, failing that, anguish over it forever). So yes, it does encourage disputes and wars but it also prevents states from fracturing internally.

To clarify what I meant about military and economic studies, I was arguing in the context of the 'usefulness' of history. It is people with degrees in economics who thoroughly study the Asain Financial Crisis, in order to understand its causes and to observe how economies recovered from it. An economist would seek a publication from this sort of person to try to understand how to avoid an identicle crisis. He would not go to a historian writing about the Asian Financial Crisis, because the historian would have a different perspective that would not be useful to the economist. Similarly, you can study the Korean War to understand where strategies and tactics failed, but this is not the same as writing a military history of the Korean War. Again, the history is not 'useful' in organising subsequent conflicts.

Also: the 'day-to-day' history you mentioned is called microhistory. I would highly recommend you read The Return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zemon Davies and The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller by Carlo Ginzburg if this is what you find interesting.
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Re: Importance of Historical Evidence

Postby Rinsaikeru » Fri Dec 12, 2008 3:39 pm UTC

That serious historians DO write nationalist propaganda doesn't make it history necessarily. These are the mythos of nation building. They are fairytales that are not completely related to the history they are based on. I'm not saying that this is always evil or wrong, in some cases it can even be innocuous. If, however, large swaths of relevant historical events are ignored in favour of spouting only positive aspects--I wouldn't say that it could be considered factually historical.

To me that just reads as: Economists and Military Personnel also do history.

Thanks for the recs. I do like microhistory--though I don't say it's more important, it's just my favourite.
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Re: Importance of Historical Evidence

Postby Pez Dispens3r » Fri Dec 12, 2008 3:57 pm UTC

Rinsaikeru wrote:They are fairytales that are not completely related to the history they are based on.


Sometimes it's just about not telling the whole story, or accusing some primary sources of being unreliable. In this instance, this is exactly what historians do, except we hope with a little less political bias.

Rinsaikeru wrote:To me that just reads as: Economists and Military Personnel also do history.


Well, yes. But what I meant to get across is that a book about an economic crisis written by a historian is useless to an economist, hence "history isn't useful" in this case.
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Re: Importance of Historical Evidence

Postby Rinsaikeru » Fri Dec 12, 2008 4:00 pm UTC

Sometimes it's about utter fabrication. Sometimes it's about focusing very specifically on one aspect of history to the exclusion of other things.


A book about an economic crisis written by a historian may or may not be of use to an economist. It depends on what the historian's grounding in economics is and what information the economist would find useful about the situation. There are historians who are very much into other areas of study--they incorporate scientific, economic, military, culinary, and many other points of interest in their studies.
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Re: Importance of Historical Evidence

Postby The Great Hippo » Fri Dec 12, 2008 6:19 pm UTC

Okay, before I begin, quick anecdote (spoiler'd, because it's slightly off topic).

Spoiler:
I once knew this guy back when I was playing D&D. He was very introverted and shy; he always had a copy of Jurassic Park on him. Anyway, I come to find out that he was absolutely obsessed with Jurassic Park--all the movies, the books, Crichton, so on. I mean, the mother-fucker had dedicated his LIFE to it. So just imagine, in the midst of a casual conversation with some of the people I was playing with, the topic of Jurassic Park just happens to come up...

His eyes lit up like a Christmas tree. His lip trembled. His entire body shook.

"Are--are you talking about Jurassic Park?"

Okay, now just imagine that, only switch Jurassic Park with 'History' and make me that kid.


History is the most comprehensive case-study in existence. It provides context and understanding for every situation we face today.

Historical evidence, though? It's... tricky. A lot of people have pointed out that history is a bit murky; someone even accused it of being slightly, ah, promiscuous. Let me go further and point out that history is a two penny whore.

When the entire breadth and scope of your field could be overturned by the incidental discovery of a bit of tobacco leaf in the chest cavity of an Egyptian Pharaoh, you know you're standing on shaky fucking ground. I mean, all history is held hostage by the whims of our predecessors.

I mean, seriously. The Greeks? You know what we know about the Greeks? Shit. That's what we know. Some guys wrote some stuff about them, and then some other guys came along and burned all that stuff, but hey they read it before they burned it and they kinda remembered the gist of it, so they wrote it all down again, except next week some other guys charged in and burned all that stuff, except they didn't have the common decency to read it first so when they were asked to rewrite it they just wrote the textual equivalent of "I LIKE DONGS"1 on six hundred pages. I'm oversimplifying here but you get the gist--the entire field of ancient history is a subjective quagmire. We're all just guessing over here; we can only cobble together a rough consensus from whatever evidence didn't get burned in a fire. And every Tuesday, we discover a chunk of bone where it doesn't belong--upsetting everything and forcing us to rewrite all the high-school textbooks again.

So why bother? What's the point? If it's all just relativistic quicksand, why even give it a good ol' go? Because, again--history is the most comprehensive case-study in existence (what little of it we can manage to hobble together), and more importantly, it informs the present. It gives us context to understand our situation--even if the context is completely wrong.

1 Later on, the Church would find this offensive, and change it to the far more polite 'I QUITE FANCY DONGS, GOOD SIR'.

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Re: Importance of Historical Evidence

Postby Pez Dispens3r » Sat Dec 13, 2008 7:19 am UTC

The Great Hippo wrote:history is the most comprehensive case-study in existence (what little of it we can manage to hobble together), and more importantly, it informs the present. It gives us context to understand our situation--even if the context is completely wrong.


...about as good a defence as I ever heard. Well said :).

Rinsaikeru wrote:Sometimes it's about utter fabrication. Sometimes it's about focusing very specifically on one aspect of history to the exclusion of other things.


Worrryingly it often isn't utter fabrication at all, but people practising history that is completely legitimate except for their nationalist bias, which they are often completely sincere in. It's kinda like, if you're an atheist, you may think I'm completely wrong for being religious (Dawkins would anyway, some atheists are a bit more tolerant). And if you're religious, you may think I'm completely wrong for being an atheist (again, not always. but you get the idea).

I touched on it earlier, but one of the cyclical disputes between Japan and China is the issue of 'comfort women.' Japan, in the spirit of imperialism, conquered Manchuria and forced the local women into prostitution for the benefit of the Japanese soldiers etc. The official line on it in Japan is somewhere between 'it didn't happen' and a reproachful 'it hapened, but we'll keep quiet about it.' The school textbooks reflect this, but it's not a clear cut case of Japanese historians deliberately manipulating the record. I think you'd actually find many of them actually beleive it didn't happen, and that the evidence was synthesised by anti-Japanese Chinese. Telling them they are wrong is like an atheist telling a religious person they are wrong for beleiving in a higher being.. both beleive they are correct, netiehr is going to change their mind.

This is why history can be synonymous with nationalist material. Just because it's biased it doesn't make it *not* history. It just makes it flawed history. I know I'm not making the most concise point, but what I'm trying to say is that history is a narrative of the past, and the concept of a shared past is a brilliant way to unite people under a flag. This is why history often lends itself to nationalism and nationalist bias, regardless of the intent of the author.
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Re: Importance of Historical Evidence

Postby The Great Hippo » Sat Dec 13, 2008 3:47 pm UTC

((oh man oh man oh man are you still talking about history oh man oh man oh man squeeeeeeee))


Or one of my favorite incidents, Unit 731--horrible tests performed on Chinese prisoners and later published in legitimate scientific journals, only switching out 'Chinese people' with 'Manchurian monkeys'. Today, plenty of the Japanese obstinately refuse to believe that this happened; even despite the fact that it is very, very fucking clear that it did.

I don't know how much of the Japanese situation is national fervor or what. Japan is a special case; they're they were very isolated and, uh, very weird (think how much 9-11 changed our mindsets--now imagine what you get when you're a highly isolated country and TWO ENTIRE CITIES disappear overnight). It seems like a lot of Japanese would much prefer to go on living in fantasy-land than face reality.

But the point still stands; nationalists hijack history all the time. The important thing to keep in mind when experiencing any history--textbook, book, lecture, even these posts--is that everyone approaches history with an agenda1. As history is dangerously wishy-washy, the first question must always be: What master does this person serve?

Pez Dispens3r wrote:This is why history can be synonymous with nationalist material. Just because it's biased it doesn't make it *not* history.


Here's something interesting to consider: there are plenty first person of oral accounts from the Holocaust, in just about every form you can imagine (book, tape, video, everything). When compared to facts we know, we discover that a lot of these accounts contain... Well, errors. Big ones.

Memory is permeable; for instance, two Holocaust survivors who saw Schlinder's List reportedly became convinced that they had experienced the shower scene (where they're brought into the shower, think they're going to get gassed, and... get a shower, instead) firsthand. This never happened; Auschwitz's gasing chamber was not a functional shower.

Does this mean their testimonials should be dismissed, because they're unreliable? No. Because, as you mentioned and as I'll re-iterate: Flawed history is still history (and all history is flawed). The oral account itself is what we're studying--whether it's completely correct or not is a side-issue; the testimony itself is a product of history, and even if nothing but lies come out of their mouth, it's useful to any historian worth their salt.

In the same vein, a national history is still history. Instinctively, most historians will seek to confront and deflate it, but it's still useful for us to understand, because it gives us insight into the authors' minds. This is actually getting a little into historiography (which is actually my true love), but you get the picture.

1 In case you're wondering, my master is activism. I'm very much an activist historian, seeking to dredge up the ugly past to confront an even uglier present. I actually greatly enjoy talking about the worst incidents in a people's history, which makes me a fantastic dinner conversationalist.

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Re: Importance of Historical Evidence

Postby Rinsaikeru » Sat Dec 13, 2008 10:12 pm UTC

I once got into a horrific argument in tutorial with another history student. We were reading Battalion 101 (which is about a fire or police brigade? that becomes a killing squad during the Holocaust). The text was about how evil become banal--how ordinary people become anesthetized to the things they are doing.

She could not take the fact that the text described nazis as people. I find it's necessary to realize that that is the case because if you don't, if you dehumanize those who perpetrate evil, you leave opportunities for it to happen again.
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Re: Importance of Historical Evidence

Postby The Great Hippo » Sun Dec 14, 2008 2:37 am UTC

By the way, forgive me if I sound condescending and seem to be assuming other people don't know about what I'm saying; it's just that when you put certain history topics in front of me I am like a rabid wolverine.

Rinsaikeru wrote:She could not take the fact that the text described nazis as people. I find it's necessary to realize that that is the case because if you don't, if you dehumanize those who perpetrate evil, you leave opportunities for it to happen again.


That'd be Christopher Browning's excellent book--Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. He studied a group of police auxiliary units who were not career Nazis--most of them became Nazis because that was pretty much the only way to hold down a government career--who, when ordered to 'deal with the Jews in Poland and Russia', proceeded to do so with great fervor and horrifying inhumanity. The premise here is that depravity wasn't a German trait or a Nazi trait, it was a human trait; anyone was capable, it was just a matter of breaking down the right inhibitions.1

Not a lot of people like this, but it's an important feature to discuss and one of the reasons why history is so goddamn important. Explaining that situations similar to the Holocaust can (and have--in great number, no less) happen again is the duty of all historians. The tools at their disposal are historical facts--as subjective as 'historical facts' might be.

Since I'm not sure where else this discussion can go (I'm basically just repeating what everyone else has said above, only with a lot more "squee!"-ing going on in the background), I humbly submit that an interesting topic of discussion here might be the role of historical facts in the digital era. For instance: What happens when the next Declaration of Independence is purely a digital document? Or the next Mona Lisa? How does a historian study something with absolutely no physical component? Will historians one day excavate ancient servers containing logs of posts from /b/?

1 For thoroughness, a gentleman by the name of Goldhagen disagreed with this very loudly, and wrote a refutation: Hitler's Willing Executioners. It bares mentioning that Goldhagen is not a very good historian--and it shows. He thinks that Germanic anti-semitism was more virulent and 'special' than anyone else's anti-semitism, which is what led to Nazi Germany. Yeah, uh, no. Everyone hated the Jews back then. Fuck, even Jews hated the Jews.

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Re: Importance of Historical Evidence

Postby Pez Dispens3r » Mon Dec 15, 2008 4:02 pm UTC

I think in about twenty years there'll be a social historian writing about /b/. Probably someone who already had alot of downloaded internets on their computer right now. A current /b/tard, even.

As far as digital information being part of the historical record... I think it could easily be over-hyped. But it is awesome the way public record stuff is now more easily searchable and accessible, even if u sometimes have to pay for it.
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Re: Importance of Historical Evidence

Postby Vaniver » Mon Dec 15, 2008 4:48 pm UTC

I am reminded of yet another benefit of knowing history- you believe in human nature.
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Re: Importance of Historical Evidence

Postby Indon » Mon Dec 15, 2008 5:03 pm UTC

Vaniver wrote:I am reminded of yet another benefit of knowing history- you believe in human nature.


I'm inclined to think that 'believing in human nature' - thinking that certain behaviors and patterns are inherent to individuals - is likely to be a universal human trait (also, is that statement ironic?). I suspect that knowing history more accurately gives you a more accurate picture of said human nature, though.
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Re: Importance of Historical Evidence

Postby SpiderMonkey » Mon Dec 15, 2008 5:18 pm UTC

The problem with 'knowing history' is that history is heavily edited. Historians take a whole pile of events, cherry pick them and order them in such a way as to support their views, and then present them as a great lesson that all must learn or suffer the consequences.

[snip]

This can also be seen in the media - historians rarely appear on TV to discuss with someone who differs with them, they appear alone in programs where they can present their version of events without objection. For example, a recent UK television series called The Ascent of Money (clearly a cheap attempt to cash in on the fame of The Ascent of Man) presented a laughably whitewashed history of Milton Friedman's economic theories, completely skipping over their utter failure under Thatcher and claiming that poor Chileans benefited from the Pinochet regime.

Vaniver wrote:I am reminded of yet another benefit of knowing history- you believe in human nature.


When events are carefully molded to fit somebodies ideology, it can seem as if there is some constant 'human nature' running through history and that knowing this can guide us in the present day. Problem is, there is absolutely no truth to this. People differ in their behavior across cultures, times and circumstances. Believing there is a 'human nature' guiding us all dismisses practically the entire human race as having no free will, and is usually just a pseudo-scientific rationalization for trampling on individual freedom (because after all, to the advocate of human nature there are no true individuals. Our destinies are biochemically ordained before birth).

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Re: Importance of Historical Evidence

Postby Vaniver » Mon Dec 15, 2008 5:24 pm UTC

SpiderMonkey wrote:Problem is, there is absolutely no truth to this.
Saying it does not make it so.
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Re: Importance of Historical Evidence

Postby SpiderMonkey » Mon Dec 15, 2008 5:33 pm UTC

Vaniver wrote:
SpiderMonkey wrote:Problem is, there is absolutely no truth to this.
Saying it does not make it so.


I like how you ignored how I went on to explain how there is no truth to it.

I have elaborated before on how 'human nature' is a fallacy. Tarring the entire human race with one brush dismisses their free will, the element which makes them human in the first place, as nothing more than an illusion. You consider yourself and those close to you as being thinking beings, but beyond that see a herd of unthinking animals. Any world view that treats your position as special (i.e. only you and yours are 'true' people) is clearly unscientific.

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Re: Importance of Historical Evidence

Postby Azrael » Mon Dec 15, 2008 5:52 pm UTC

SpiderMonkey, you need to reassess your tone if you wish to continue posting in this section.


Both of you: Stop cross-contaminating threads with simultaneous discussions of the same material. Do not further debate human nature here.

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Re: Importance of Historical Evidence

Postby The Great Hippo » Mon Dec 15, 2008 9:35 pm UTC

Responding to trollish behavior is not Serious Business.

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On a more serious note, I actually get this a lot; people don't think history is important because it's a subjective quagmire. All fields (beyond hard science) are subjective quagmires, but history gets this smack in particular because it's too factual to be a humanity yet too flimsy to be a science.

I claimed history is the most comprehensive case study in existence, and that it informs the present; I must also (begrudgingly! With great begrudging-iness!) admit that, like any case-study, it can be twisted to provide the answer you'd like. History with a non-historical agenda is the nemesis of any true historian; at all times, we find ourselves surrounded by those who want to hijack history for the purposes of selling something--politics, morality, ethics, or even their smelly gym socks ("they're historicalicious!").

This is why I said it is crucial to understand precisely what master a historian serves. You cannot get anything useful out of a historian before you know what their agenda is. Some historians want to beat you over the head with Atlas Shrugged, others want to sell you on Marx. Some just really, genuinely love history (pay attention to those, they tend to be the best).

SpiderMonkey wrote:The problem with 'knowing history' is that history is heavily edited. Historians take a whole pile of events, cherry pick them and order them in such a way as to support their views, and then present them as a great lesson that all must learn or suffer the consequences.


Okay that is just silly. Not only is selection bias a problem in any field outside of the hard sciences, but what you're complaining about amounts to "I hate it when people look at history from their own perspective!". Are you asking that history be objective? Because we tried that a century or so ago, and it really sucked.

It's not like historians are being sneaky about this. They're terribly upfront about what their view is. They put it right at the front of their books ("Hello! I am a feminist historian. I will now analyze this event from a feminist's point of view."). Accusing them of being guilty of some sort of intellectual dishonesty is the equivalent of accusing a literary critic of the same thing ("Hello! I am a feminist critic. I will now analyze this book from a feminist's point of view.").

SpiderMonkey wrote:This can also be seen in the media - historians rarely appear on TV to discuss with someone who differs with them, they appear alone in programs where they can present their version of events without objection.


Uh... I all ready pointed to a pretty visceral debate that was raging throughout all sorts of media--Goldhagen's view on German antisemitism and its links to the Holocaust versus Browning's view. If you want a clear illustration of a public debate over history, look no farther than the newspapers.

If your complaint is that historians with contrary opinions don't appear on documentaries which aim for a specific conclusion, maybe you should talk to the people making the documentaries.

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Re: Importance of Historical Evidence

Postby Pez Dispens3r » Tue Dec 16, 2008 4:10 am UTC

SpiderMonkey wrote:The problem with 'knowing history' is that history is heavily edited. Historians take a whole pile of events, cherry pick them and order them in such a way as to support their views, and then present them as a great lesson that all must learn or suffer the consequences.


Being accused of cherry picking your sources is something no historian wants to get accused of when they get peer reveiwed, so they tend not to do it.
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Re: Importance of Historical Evidence

Postby 1hitcombo » Fri Dec 19, 2008 4:29 am UTC

The Great Hippo wrote:Are you asking that history be objective? Because we tried that a century or so ago, and it really sucked.


Out of curiosity, what are you referring to here?

My view on "history with personal agenda" is similar to my view on the news (which is in a sense, history, because it already happened). Ideally everyone would witness everything and know everything, and thus be able to make their own decisions on these objective facts. However, that's probably never going to be the case and we need a means to compress the information in presentable means.

Therefore, we make due with subjectivity and filtering that goes on with any sort of media. Despite that there are a lot of spins and manipulation of the facts, the condensation of knowledge that history and pretty much any field allows for is a fair trade for its drawbacks, which is mostly remedied through maintaining accountability. Also, an information base with more opinions (especially contentious ones) allows for more of the facts to be presented and thus allow for at least a pseudo-objective decision on people's part about history.

And on the OPs question, the little details support the big ones. So, yes?

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Re: Importance of Historical Evidence

Postby The Great Hippo » Fri Dec 19, 2008 8:20 am UTC

1hitcombo wrote:
The Great Hippo wrote:Are you asking that history be objective? Because we tried that a century or so ago, and it really sucked.


Out of curiosity, what are you referring to here?


Ranke's run on history.

Basic summary: History is wholly and utterly objective; it is not a historian's duty to interpret it or analyze it. Instead, historians should preserve sources, write completely factual (and utterly dry) accounts of what happened, and then shove it all in a box. Slap a label with the period and sector that this history covers, stick it on a shelf, and leave it be for the rest of time.

Mind you, Ranke ain't a bad guy, and I appreciate his desire to strive for objectivity; it's just a stupid way to handle history. It turns it into a sterile landscape of facts and numbers, devoid of passion. He wanted to build an absolute irrefutable wall of history, a sort of 'foundation' of accepted facts, and work from there... But there are never any accepted facts in history. It's all a house of cards, and sooner or later someone's going to walk over and knock them down.


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