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Historiography, Definitions, Nature and Scope of History

Paominlen Kipgen

Before getting into Historiography, it is important to know what history is. History is a Greek
word which means enquiry, research, exploration or information. According to Polybius and
Thucydides ‘history is a story of things worthy of being remembered’. Sir Francis Bacon
defines history as ‘a discipline that makes men wise’. Rousseau regards history as ‘the art of
choosing from among many lies that one which most resembles the truth’. According to
Henry Johnson ‘History in the broader sense is everything that ever happened, and we have to
limit our understanding and study those events that are very significant and have left behind a
deep impression on man’. Professor Maitland says ‘what men have done and said, above all
what they have thought – that is history’. To Renier ‘History is the story of men living in
societies, a new concept in which group actively, collective response to creative thoughts and
sociability and the will to serve the interests of all, gains greater prominence. ‘History is the
record and explanation of moral values’ says Lecky. Carlyle holds the view that ‘history is
nothing but the biography of great men and that it is a record of human accomplishment,
particularly of great souls’. Seeley says ‘history is past politics, and present politics is future
history’. Lord Acton – ‘History is the unfolding story of human freedom’. A.L. Rowse said
‘history is essentially the record of the life of men in societies in their geographical and their
physical environment’. And Ernest Bernheim gave the most significant definition, he says
‘History is a science that investigates and presents in their context of psycho-physical
causality the facts determined by space and time of the evolution of men in their individual as
well as typical and collective activity as social beings.’1

Historiography can be defined as ‘the art of writing history’, ‘history of history’, or ‘history
of historical writings’.2 It is the study of the history and methodology of the discipline of
history. Furay and Salevouris define historiography as “the study of the way history has been
and is written — the history of historical writing...”3 It is the study of the methodology
of historians in developing history as an academic discipline, and by extension is anybody of

B. Sheik Ali, History: Its Theory and Method (Delhi: MacMillan India Ltd., 1978), 3-7.
Muhammad Abrar Zahoor and Fakhar Bilal, “Marxist Historiography: An Analytical Exposition of
Major Themes and Premises” Pakistan Journal of History and Culture, Vol. XXXIV/2 (2013), 29.
Historiography – Wikipedia.doc.pdf.

historical work on a particular subject.4 According to Thesaurus Dictionary “historiography is
the writing of history based on a critical analysis, evaluation, and selection of authentic
source materials and composition of these materials into a narrative subject to scholarly
method of criticism.” Collins English Dictionary defines it as “the narrative presentation of
history based on a critical examination, evaluation, and selection of material from primary
and secondary sources and subject to scholarly criteria.”5 According to Encyclopaedia
Britannica, “Historiography is the writing of history, especially the writing of history based
on the critical examination of sources, the selection of particular details from the authentic
materials in those sources, and the synthesis of those detail into a narrative that stands the test
of critical examination.”6


The nature of history is very complex. No one branch of history is more than a single glimpse
of a vast complex of phenomena. Aspects that are involved in the nature of history are: 7

 Few scholars think that history repeats itself, whereas other refutes this idea
vehemently. The truth is that both these ideas are partly true. History repeats itself in the
sense that things of the world are the same all the time but the ways are different every time.
Although historical events do not occur in the same order and in the same place, they have a
basic unity, and conform to a pattern which is easily discernible on closer study. Those who
oppose view that change is the law of nature, and even if apparently two events seem alike,
they are not really the same, for history is a record of unique, individualistic and remarkable
events. If historical events are repeated, the problem of growth, development and progress
would not arise. But the truth is that history neither repeats itself, nor is it totally free from the
basic unity of all its facts. Change appears to be the basic character of history indicating that
history does not repeat itself. A philosophical concept ‘no changelessness is permanent’ is
very true in history, and this proves that historical phenomena conform to a repetitive
process. History does not repeat itself in the sense that historical facts are not identical. It
repeats itself in the sense that similar facts do occur.
 All history is contemporary history. Croce is a strong advocate of this view, whereby
the past and the present are linked in one chain of common process. The modern thinker,

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historiography; accessed on 20th Oct, 2016.
http://www.dictionary.com/browse/historiography; accessed on 20th Oct, 2016.
https://www.britannica.com/topic/historiography; accessed on 20th Oct, 2016.
Ali, History: Its Theory and Method..., 11-19.

R.G. Collingwood, too subscribes to this idea through his philosophy that history is nothing
but the re-enactment of past experience and that the subject matter of history is reflective.
Thucydides said that all historical facts are related to one another in some rational and
permanent manner. If this were to be true, we have to accept the linear view of history that
the entire march of history is one continuous whole: what is ancient is also modern and what
is modern is also ancient. Also, according to Croce all history is one supreme spirit which is
indivisible, but has four different aspects – art, ethics, logic and economic. Since all event in
history are motivated either by reason which is logic, or by necessity which is economic, or
through love and morality which is ethics, or through the creation of things beautiful which is
art, we may say philosophically that the genesis of all events in history is through the same
process; in other words all history is contemporary history.
 History is an unending dialogue between the present and the past. This is a view held
by E.H. Carr. According to him history without a problem to solve or a fresh idea to display
is a bare chronicle, a sort of catalogue of events lacking in soul and spirit. What gives history
real life is the mental activity of the historian who poses a series of questions and gets and
answer. Since the past is an unexplored region waiting to be discovered, the only tool with
which a historian can reconstruct the past is his reflective ability which forms an image of his
mind through close discussion or dialogue with the subject.
 Is value-judgements desirable in history or not. According to Lord Acton, value-
judgement is not only desirable but also an essential part of a historian’s work. Evaluation,
assessment and verdict are all very vital ingredients of a good historical work. Hegel, Comte,
Spengler and a host of other philosopher’s elevated history to a very high rank of philosophy.
To them if all doors to interpretations, explanations, inferences and evaluation are closed to a
historian, history would become a dull as dead wood. History does teach us that good have
been rewarded, and evil have been chastised. There is no harm in saying this and making
comment on it. A historian would be failing in his duty if he is indifferent in drawing proper
conclusions. However, thinkers like Ranke and Bury do not approve of this activity but wish
to reduce history to a mere faithful representation of the facts. They feel that the job of a
historian is merely to reconstruct the past, to represent the facts in their naked form and to
serve the historical dish undressed.
 History is coloured by the current ideas of a country or age. The Greek emphasised
the rational interpretation of history, the Romans gave a political twist to it, the church
historians made God live in history, the Germans made it more philosophical, the Marxists
more materialistic, the French more socialistic and the British more imperialistic. The Arab

view, the Chinese view and the Indian view of history are all different. The historiography of
the Enlightenment era, Romanticist era, Positivist era and scientific era are all different. The
nature of history varies according to the prevailing philosophy of the time, and even from
historian to historian. A historian’s outlook on society will have an impact on his writing.
 History is an interpretation of the past with the intention of predicting the future. It
has becomes a prophecy in reverse, demonstrating the past as a meaningful preparation for
the future. Since historical occurrences take place in time and space, the nature of which
being one of causal connection and as its motivating force is the same human nature, it
should be possible to make a fair guess of what is in the womb of history.
 Finally, historical forces are considered to be linear by some and cyclical by others.
Those who hold the linear view of history think it to be a straight line from an unknown past
passing through the known present to the unknown future. According to this view there is
close continuity in history, forward thrust in its movement, never reversing its course, and
making progress as it goes. Those who hold the cyclical view of history think that history
moves in a circle. There is a starting point, and then the upward movement until it reaches the
peak then the downward movement sets in until it touches the lowest point where it
disappears. The process starts all over again, and hence the cyclical view conforms to the
organic view of birth, growth, maturity, decline, downfall and disintegration.


History is no longer a branch of literature or politics or philosophy or any other discipline. It

has an independent status and its own whose main function is now to study society in its
aspects of promoting a culture, which constitutes knowledge, faith, belief, art, morals,
customs and any other capabilities or habits acquired by man as a member of society. History
is gradually assumed in three dimensions. Its main job is to narrate what happened, to discuss
how it happened and to analyse why it happened. It mainly has two functions to perform. One
is the collection of data and the other is the interpretation of the date to explain the
fundamental forces of history. The first part has to be objective and therefore scientific. The
second part is subjective and hence humanistic. Following are the scopes of History.

 The scope of history includes both human and nature. Though history excludes from
its scope the study of nature and confines its attention to the story of man’s evolution from
humble beginnings to complex achievements, nature also comes within the scope of history,

if it has anything to do with man. For, the rivers, hills, lakes, mountains and seas figure
greatly in history in the context of their shaping man’s destiny.
 The scope of history includes all activities of human. The historian must look beyond
government to people, beyond laws to legends, beyond religion to folklore and the arts, and
he must study every phenomenon, whether intellectual, political, social, philosophical,
material, moral or emotional relation to man in society. History has to consider all human
achievements in all their aspects such as science, technology, discoveries, inventions and
adventures. But primarily the social life of man, his political achievements, his cultural
attainments, his constitutional management and his economic endeavours form the main
scope of history, as it is through the medium of state and society that man finds his identity.
Further, it was always the great man who had become the centre of attraction even though the
common men were the one who played the vital role in assisting the great man to achieve
fame. Now, the common man and his life is attracting the attention of the historian, who had
so long neglected the study of this essential element.
 The scope of history includes the study of economic and social change which is
gaining greater prominence in recent year. In communist countries the entire orientation is on
Marxist-dialecticism. The labour movement, the class struggle, inland and international trade,
arts, crafts, industry, business, commerce, agriculture, peasant movement and so on are
receiving increasing attention. Likewise social reforms, caste and class distinctions, family
life, position of women, customs, manners, and way of life are exciting the interest of
 Anthropology has also excited the interest of the historians and much useful work has
been done in this field by scholars who have traced historically the customs and manners of
the aborigines; social stratification of small communities who are a little higher up than the
aborigines has been greatly facilitated b the availability of modern sophisticated techniques.
 Further the scope of history has been enlarged from objective empiricism to
historicism. Objective empiricism means the establishment of facts as they really were. It is
sometime like presenting a photographic copy of how things really existed in the past.
Historicism means tracing the growth and development of an event from its early stages. It is
like a genetic process which takes into account evolutionary trends and how progress has
been made from age to age.
 Finally, the scope of history was further widened when attempts were made
particularly in the USA to develop a new concept called ‘historical relativism’. This concept

was the by-product of the closer study of Freud and Einstein whose principles were applied to
historical growth and development.


Historian David McCullough has said, “We need history as much as we need bread or water
or love.”8 History is tremendously important in every aspect. For e.g. when consulting a
physician, it is crucial to have one’s medical history, in transacting business matters,
chronicling one’s financial history is essential; even in religion, especially in Christianity,
grace, faith, salvation, hope of eternal life, etc. depends upon history. Likewise in everyday
life, great lessons is being taught and learned from history. However, not just the story, but
more important is the way how history is written or the method used in presenting history.
Therefore, Historiography plays a vital role in writing history.


Bilal, Fakhar., Muhammad Abrar Zahoor. “Marxist Historiography: An Analytical

Exposition of Major Themes and Premises” Pakistan Journal of History and Culture,
Vol. XXXIV/2 (2013): 26-40.

Sheik Ali, B. History: Its Theory and Method. Delhi: MacMillan India Ltd., 1978.
Historiography – Wikipedia.doc.pdf.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historiography. Accessed on 20th October, 2016.
http://www.dictionary.com/browse/historiography. Accessed on 20th October, 2016.
https://www.britannica.com/topic/historiography. Accessed on 20th October, 2016.
https://www.christiancourier.com/articles/1332-nature-of-history-the. Accessed on 22nd
October, 2016.

https://www.christiancourier.com/articles/1332-nature-of-history-the; accessed on 22nd Oct, 2016.