Keith Jenkins – Re-thinking History.

Jenkins is quick to establish that History is not, as most commonly thought, the past but rather it is the study of it. There are many differences between the two besides their definitions. Firstly, there were millions of people in the past, yet there are only few in History. This is linked to the idea of historical significance and the role of the historian in writing History. The past is something that can never be relieved; immediately causing problems for the historian. He must use interpretation to invent meanings, however this cannot be checked against the narrative for truth. Instead, accuracy is judged by comparison to the work of other historians. This leads us to realise that there is no fundamentally correct version of History, but rather just variations. Another contrast is that those in the past did not have the pressures which we in the present do – for example, the historian must deal with scholarly pressures such as deadlines whilst working. Hindsight gives the historian more knowledge but is also yet another example of the disparity between the past and the study of it ( History ).The strongest link between the two is that ” the past is contingent upon the present. ” Now we move on from the past and instead focus on History; both its meaning and purpose. Historians aim to be objective in their work and therefore adopt a certain methodology to try and prevent subjectivity. However, Jenkins notes that History is a personal construct and therefore will always include personal bias. Also, it is written by the dominant perspective again meaning some aspects remain unknown. A commonly asked question is ” who is History for? ” Jenkins establishes that texts are read in different ways and suggests that construction is to please yourself.

Jenkins discusses the idea of truth. He proposes that the aim of historical study is to gain true knowledge. However, it is argued that this is unachievable due to the role of interpretation. As mentioned before, there is no narrative to check against for truth and therefore, although historians have a desire for certainty, they cannot achieve it. Even the most detailed discrimination between rival accounts of the same phenomenon would not discover truth because both would be equally credible in terms of accuracy. Jenkins also notes that truth is always created and never found. This leads us to question the meaning of truth and indeed what is its purpose? The answer is that truth acts as a censor and exercise control. It is vital for all historians to aim to discover to truth, regardless of how difficult that may be. Science is truth and knowledge whereas art is interpretation. Which is History more closely related to? The answer to this is complex, although Jenkins concluded by naming History a Semi-Science. It does rely intensely on interpretation and rhetoric, although it does use real historical pasts.

Historians are not concerned with discrete facts because they serve no purpose. It is therefore up to them to decide which facts are significant and this choice is controlled by the meanings the historians give to their facts. Due to the already established intensive role of interpretation in History, Jenkins says that it is important to study what actually happened rather than what historians have said. This leads us to question the role of secondary sources in History and whether they offer any truth to those studying. However, History, as previously discusses, is not the past, it is just a historians work. So, surely we should be most focussed on the secondary sources rather than the primary. A balanced historian aims to be objective in his work. This effectively means, viewing things from the centre. Yet Jenkins argues that there is no centre in History because of the inevitable role of bias. It is something that is used in opposition to being unbiased. Historians play a major role in the writing of History because facts cannot speak for themselves and therefore rely on the historians to give them meaning. This means that everything is bias because it all comes from someone’s point of view who would have been inclined to write in a certain way. This again links to truth because one persons bias is another’s truth – we have already established that truth is created.

Empathy is important in History. Historians try to get the perspective of the people of the past in order to understand their behaviour. Jenkins states that they need to get out of the present and into the past. However, this is difficult due to the pressures that are faced in the present. Those who read History hope to reach historical figures indirectly through the historian. This again emphasizes the importance of the historians relationship with the past, in that they need to provide it to their readers. Jenkins suggests that all history is the history of mind. If this is correct then we must empathise with the historian to understand the mind-set he was in whilst writing. Overall, it is impossible to the into another’s mind and therefore, historians must rationally calculate past behaviour with knowledge of things such as human nature. This will allow them to fill in the gaps – however given the differences between the past and present, how accurate can their guessing be?

Sources and evidence are most commonly associated with History, Jenkins discusses their role in his book. Primary sources are traces of the past. Past traces are not evidence because they do not have an explanation. Their sole purpose is  to document what happened not why. Historians created evidence when they study sources and analyse meanings and evaluate their purposes. E.H Carr argues that the past only becomes evidence when it is used to support an argument. This makes sense as the sole purpose of evidence is to substantiate the historians opinion and it is selected to do so. However, some historians argue that evidence speaks for itself. This would lessen the effect of bias and indeed make objectivity much more achievable. Ultimately, the role of the historian in making History is irrefutable, without him there is only the past and no History. Jenkins summarises in sayings that the past occurred and traces remain. However, it is down to the historian to order and make sense of them. The evidence does not speak for itself.

Rethinking History asks ” how do you answer a question on causality?”. There are infinite answers because most historians have different interpretations of events which are all equally valid – there is no single correct answer. It is instead more important to establish how much weight the causes have. How much did each cause effect the consequence and how did they all interact to produce the known outcome? These are two questions which historians must be able to answer in order to make their interpretation acceptable. It is difficult to know how far to look back when studying causality. Arguably, events that happened way before 1914 shaped the societies which brought about WW1. However, does this mean that they caused the war? No. Historians can categorise their causes into long and short term to ensure they cover the necessary time period. Jenkins asks whether History is just the study of cause and effect. Do we strive to understand why bad things happened to prevent the reoccurrence and indeed, how to make the best outcomes most likely? I think causality does have play a major role in History – it is one of the most important things historians are concerned with.


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