Peter Smith

Publications, Lectures and Other Stuff

Moojan Momen on the Study of History

I found this interesting:

This is a useful transcript of Dr Momen’s video prepared by Paula Bidwell, dated 19 March 2013.


Welcome to the Understanding Baha’i History course at the Wilmette Institute.

I thought it would be useful to make this short video as an introduction to the course — … to speak a little bit about what the course is about and what history is about.

Most people think that history is about recording the past, about discovering the past, telling the story of what happened, but this isn’t really what historians mean by history.

Telling the story of what happened in the past, is exactly that, it’s story telling or to give it a more formal title, the writing of chronicles. This isn’t what historians, or rather academic historians, mean by history — [it is] not the modern meaning of the word “history”.

The study of history that we will be looking at in this course, is not about telling what happened in the past, but really that of trying to understand why it happened that way and not some other way. What are the forces that impact upon human beings and that determine the course of events.

Every human being has lots of choices open to them and … this study of history is about why certain people chose one pathway rather than another. And also it’s about interrogating the sources of history and trying to understand why they recorded events in one way, when another history records exactly the same events in a totally different way.

And we can understand that particular aspect by looking at, say, an episode of an accident between a bus and a car that happens on the High Street. Within twenty minutes the police are there and they’re interrogating the witnesses. One witness says; “Oh, I saw what happened.  The car just swerved straight in front of the bus. It’s all the car driver’s fault.”

Another witness says: “I saw what happened, a bicyclist that was riding along the side of the road suddenly did a wobble and the car had to swerve in order to avoid hitting the bicycle and so it wasn’t the car driver’s fault at all.”

And a third witness comes forward and says: “I saw what happened, there was a man on the side of the road and he was waving to the bus driver and the bus driver got distracted and that’s why the accident happened. The bus driver wasn’t paying attention, it was his fault.”

… Of course these accounts of the story are not even including the two accounts of the bus driver and the car driver who themselves have viewpoints on what happened. And we can expect those viewpoints to perhaps be prejudiced. But even three independent observers can have different stories to tell about what happened.

So, if that’s the situation with an event where you’re recording what happened only twenty minutes later, you can imagine what the situation is when we [are] dealing with chronicles that were written many years after the event – sometimes old people remembering what happened in their youth. So what chance have we really when that’s the case – when it’s not twenty minutes but whole lifetime away that they are recording the events? What chance do we have when the history isn’t even recorded by an eyewitness, but rather is recorded by someone who is recording what he has heard from other people – or perhaps even what one generation has heard from a previous generation about events that happened? What chance do we have when we know that the chronicle writer is prejudiced because they are the court historian? It’s their job to make the king look good and so we know that the court source is biased.

So this is what I mean by interrogating the sources. It means recognizing … that every human being has some prejudices that influence what that person chooses to recall. Every human being is influenced by the culture in which they grew up. The culture creates in the mind certain presuppositions about reality and so in one culture women may be of no account, in another culture it may be that black people are of no account, and it may be that in a third culture it’s the poor, the working classes who are not seen, who are not visible, if you like. And since the histories and chronicles and memoirs are usually written by people from the elite classes, from the upper classes, from the educated classes, very often these other groups of people would be either ethnic minorities, the poor people, who simply are not seen, not considered important, they’re not worth the writer’s while to record anything about them and so they become, in effect, invisible.

What I want to do next is to look at four or five what you might call underlying ideas, in the writing of history these days – in the modern writing of history.

The first of these is an idea that was, I can’t say it was originated by, but it was first put down in a detailed and a structured formulation by two sociologists Berger and Luckmann, who wrote a book called The Social Construction of Reality. The idea behind this book is that reality is not something that’s out there and that we all agree about in an objective way. Reality is what we as a group of human beings come together in our society, in our culture, and we agree that this is reality, and then all of our arts, sciences, education programs, history writing, literature, everything then cements that picture of reality so that we regard it as being absolute reality, as being the way things are, as being the self-evident truth, as being common-sense…  And the point about this is, of course, that another group of people … on the other side of the world may come to different conclusions about reality and see reality in a different way.

A second point that I wanted to talk about was the idea that truth is established, not on the basis of facts, but by rhetoric, by the rhetorical ability of one person to persuade others of their truth, of the way they see the truth. And it’s not, in fact, about facts, much as scientists and others would like to think that it’s facts that determined the outcome. It isn’t about facts, it’s about the rhetorical ability of one person to put their vision of the truth across, their ability to marshal the facts in such a way as proves their view of truth.  And another person may have an equally good set of facts, an equally convincing argument, but because they don’t put their view across as well, their view does not become regarded as the truth. (This view can be found in relation to the history of science in Thomas Kuhn’s book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions)

A third idea which is somewhat related to that second idea is the idea that history is always from a particular viewpoint. This written about by Hayden White in a book called Tropics of Discourse, for example; about how you can have tropes of history, in other words that there are various styles or ways of writing history. And you can have for example a Marxist view of history, a feminist view of history, and so on. These are just ways of looking at the facts and creating a story out of the facts. But what Hayden White is saying, is that all history is like this. It’s not that “those Marxists distorted history”. All history is written within a trope, within a framework, within a particular viewpoint.

And the fourth idea which again comes out of these preceding ideas that I’ve spoken about and this was written about – there’s no systematic book about it – but a writer called Benedetto Croce has written about this as a philosopher of history: that’s the idea that all history is in fact contemporary history. What that means is, that if you look at a particular history, you can tell more about the time, about the contemporary world in which that historian wrote, than about the period of history about which they were writing. So for example, if you look at Victorians writing about ancient Rome you can tell great deal about Victorian society; what their concerns were, what they regarded as important, what their viewpoints they took on the world. And so you can tell a great deal about the Victorian world from reading what is purportedly a history of Rome.

And that brings me on to the idea that history is both powerful and dangerous. And we can see this from the fact that any worthwhile revolutionary, any good totalitarian regime, always tries to control history. Why is that?  Because if you want, if a revolutionary wants, people to start thinking about themselves in a different way, wants to point to forward in a different direction in the future, the best way of doing this is to change their view about their past.

So when for example a communist revolution comes to power in a country they change the history books, they rewrite history, so that it’s no longer a history of the great kings and rulers of that country and their exploits. But it’s about the struggle of the workers and how the struggle gradually builds up to the revolution which has just occurred. And once people see their past differently, once they see it in this new light, once they see themselves as having come from this direction, then it’s very easy for the revolutionary to point them forward to their future, to the future that he wants and the future direction that he wants them to go. Because they’ve seen their past in a different way, they can see the future in a different way.

So that’s what I mean when I say that history is both powerful and dangerous and all revolutionary and totalitarian regimes always try to control history even down to rewriting the school history books.

And the last question I want to just briefly examine is the question of what is a historical fact. Because out there, there are millions of facts about the past and what is it that makes some of those historical facts. Well briefly, you can say that a fact becomes a historical fact when a historian chooses it and uses it. And the reason, by and large, that the historian picks out certain facts and uses it in their history, is because it illuminates their theoretical framework, and the viewpoint that they’re trying to make, their analysis.

So historians are not just neutral in looking at the facts and picking facts. They pick the facts that suit their analysis that enlighten their presentation of what they regard as being the correct analysis of the facts. They pluck out of all of these millions of facts that are out there, those facts that, as it were, support their viewpoint. And that is all anyone can do, one can’t actually access all of the facts out there. Partly because we as human beings are ourselves prejudiced and we simply don’t see and recognize some of the facts out there.

And we can see this quite clearly if we look at history writing in the last hundred, hundred and fifty years. In the nineteenth century, historians basically wrote in what you might call the “great men’s school of history”, whereby they considered the deeds and actions of great men as being the pivotal facts of history and so they concentrated on those and they wrote about those. And  other groups such as working class and women and so on, were just ignored, they weren’t seen. The facts were there about them, but the historians chose not to use those facts and they chose to use the biographies of the great men as what they wrote their history about.

If we go then on into the twentieth century we have Marx emerging and all of a sudden workers become important, an analysis of what workers do becomes important, and all of a sudden a  whole set of other facts that were always out there are picked up and used in the history books. They become historical facts. And as you go through the twentieth century you see other movements of writing history. You see women’s history emerging, you see black history emerging, you see various other ethnic and other minorities bringing out their history, bringing forth the facts from their history and making those the central focus of history writing.

Well these are some of the things that, if you like, are the ways that historians operate and we’ll, I hope, be looking not so much at these themselves, but using these ideas in the course of going through the units that comprise the Understanding Baha’i History course. We can only look at them very briefly and perhaps a little bit superficially but the aim of the course is to encourage you to go away from the course and to pursue this and perhaps even to do some history yourselves, to do some analytical history or perhaps just to do some recording of history,  chronicling of events and so forth. And I hope that that will be the result of the course. But anyway, for now, thank you and I hope you enjoy the course and gain some benefit from it.

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This entry was posted on March 20, 2013 by in Social Theory and tagged , .
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