The Definition of History

If I am understanding The Idea of History by R.G. Collingwood in the slightest, then history is not how it is defined in the dictionary (as provided in the link1). Given by the dictionary, the history is merely “the chronological record of significant events” or things that have happened in the past. In laymans’ terms, perhaps.

The conclusion to two hundred grueling pages of philosophical thought on history, as documented from Herodotus and Thucydides, up through Kant, Marx and Toynbee, and to Croce and Bergson, is that history cannot exist in the future as it deals explicitly with events that have happened already,3 but neither is history simply the past. History is all of human experience to date, recreated and relived in the mind of the contemporary historian. Each experience is unique and individual, but arranged temporally they create one continuous and complete experience.4

The object of the historian is not to observe the past as there can be no such thing as empirical history (and any such claim is not recording history, but rather current developments). A historian for certain events may have empirical evidence for some of their work, but once they are regarding it through historical lenses they, too, are reliving the events.

Further, there is no such thing as an objective observer of history. Because history is alive in the mind of the historian and those who study his (or her) work, there will be inevitable judgments and evaluations, but then that is the literal job of the historian. Instead they are to become their subject, relive with the best information possible and then examine why and how events came to pass. Knowledge of cultures, events, people, and the like supplement and enrich this realization, but do not replace it. In this way Anthropology, natural sciences, psychology, philosophy, archeology and other disciplines supplement history, but are intrinsically different.


1 I would have provided the OED definition, but a subscription is required, so I figured Merriam-Webster would suffice.2
2 Getting information on how to do footnotes in html might be the single most dangerous thing that I have done recently. I *love* footnotes.
3 This was a response partly to idealists such as Marx and friends who saw the logical conclusion of history as some future utopia.
4 Beyond that it was not the term used, I shy away from the word ‘present’ on the grounds that what is the present this moment will, in the next, be the past, whereas ‘contemporary’ implies a sameness in present time that continues on with the individual.

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