The author of this paper opines that the very question “is history a science or an art” is redundant. A scientist has to have a certain degree of creativity and imagination to be good at his or her work. For instance, in general terms, a zoologist has to understand organisms at the cellular level as well as have an understanding of their habits and needs to appreciate animal behavior. This not only requires scientific training but also a certain development of instincts and awareness, which in many ways makes the zoologist a keen observer of life, not unlike a literature professor or even a painter. Mathematicians and theoretical physicists, who are among the most sought after scientific body of people today, are best in their work when they have possess some creativity. In “humanities subjects” too, this kind of duality is found. Linguistics and phonetics are examples of this. Likewise, a historian not only studies the past but also delves into subjects, such as statistics and archeology, to excel in his or her field. Thus, history is decidedly a science as well as an art.
In his 1961 iconic book on the study of history, Edward Carr states that history is a “continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past” (35). This statement leads us to conclude that history can be viewed as a science—a science of deduction—as it deals with the interpretation and recording of facts. However, Carr’s emphasizes on the factual retelling of historical events, and he shows that events can often be misinterpreted, opinionated, or misunderstood by an historian. This shows that historians need to have special skills that require a unique sense of understanding. This sense enables them to sense the true zeitgeist of an era or an event and to remain privy to the thoughts of a historical person and the people around him or her. This would mean that history is also an art. Similarly, in their famed book on the subject of history, Davidson and Lytle stress on how the “the historian’s simple act of selection irrevocably separated ‘history’ from the ‘past’” (1). They show that the historian has to be an expert in collecting facts as well as interpreting them, and that history is not an “inert” collection of facts and information, but an ever alive and continuously changing and expanding body of knowledge (IX). In this paper we discuss this dual nature of history on the basis of the first three chapters of the books What is History? by Edward Hallett Carr and After the fact: The art of historical detection by James West Davidson and Mark H. Lytle.
Carr’s book is based on the lectures at the University of Cambridge by British historian G. M. Trevelyan between January and March, 1961 (Carr 1). While he did not completely advocate the idealistic views regarding historiography, he believed that the study of history, as shown in Trevelyan’s lectures, cannot be simply an impassive retelling of events of the past on the basis of the fact and data collection. He believed that history must be formed by maintaining a balance between both these approaches. In his own words, before perusing a history book, “study the historian before you begin to study the facts When you read a work of history, always listen out for the buzzing. If you can detect none, either you are tone deaf or your historian is a dull dog” (Carr 24). Hence, the dual nature of history is clearly established here. Davidson and Lytle begin their book by questioning the veracity of the historical records that state that slavery was the reason behind the economic boom in Virginia (1–20). They question John Smith’s authority and interests in recording the events that have led to this association with Virginia’s first economic boom. In the second chapter, they show how a historian’s work is complicated when certain events do not show the logical turn of consequences by revealing how the ill-famed Salem Witch Trials can be viewed from different points of view.
They state that under times of mental duress, people can behave in unusual ways and the manners in the “witches” and the other accused of Salem reacted could simply be a reaction to the enormity of the accusations (Davidson and Lytle 32). All this while, the true reason behind the whole event was the disagreement between the east and the west sides of the village or perhaps even, the selection of a new minister for the church (Davidson and Lytle 39). In the third chapter, Davidson and Lytle show how the “implications of the Declaration (of the American independence) have engaged the public over two centuries and will no doubt continue to do so” (64). Such example as have been mentioned above show that history cannot be categorized into such rigid definitions as the question suggests. Thus, the study of history is complex and requires an artist’s creativity and keen sense of understanding as well as a scientist’s logical and brilliant deduction prowess.
Davidson, James West and Lytle, Mark H. After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection. 3rd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1992. Print.
Carr, Edward Hallett. What is History? Calgary: Vintage, 1967. Print.