It is no secret that history, by definition, is the study of past events. Therefore, it would be no surprise that a historian’s job would also consist of studying and analyzing the past. Nonetheless, should that automatically conclude that all historian efforts are only present to make sense of the past without having any purpose for the modern day or the future? Consequently, does a human scientist focus only on changing the future without considering various factors from the past or the present. The statement mentioned above can only be true to some extent as historians do not only look to understand the past and human scientists do not only look to change the future. Historians, despite the fact, that, by name, they are the “experts of the past” they still acknowledge present events to conclude their findings. As humans, it is quite impossible to fully “know” history.
As generations come and go, knowledge is passed down and new discoveries are made. Thus, the history that is now considered shared knowledge is a result of human speculation. For example, Egyptologists like Howard Carter and John Romer, dedicate their careers to understand this ancient civilization. They do this by not only studying the past but by analysing the present to make connections through human behaviour. This is exactly why the assumption, that historians only study the past, is a faulty statement.
This can also answer the question, to what extent can the use of reason bring us closer to the truth in history? As it is obvious that reasoning plays a major role in what we understand of the past. Jorma Kalela, a Finnish historian, wrote the book ‘Making History: The Historian and the Uses of the Past’ discussing the nature of historical research. In his writing, he stresses on the point, that in many cases, history is a result of human construction. He says ‘.
..the impossibility of mastering another person’s thinking does not prevent the historian from attempting to reach out to that other person’s concept of reality and discourse. Still less does it hinder the scholar from reconstructing the circumstances in which that person lived.” On the other hand, this statement is to some extent still correct.
As many modern historians focus only on the evident past of which, does not require speculation, but the studying of found evidence. For example, historians who study World War II, possess all the evidence required to understand the event to its fullest. Records and writings from the time are fully available for one to study, and survivors and eye-witnesses are still alive to tell the story. This does not mean that ancient civilizations, and such, do not hold records and artefacts that can help unscramble the past, but that more “recent” history is easier to assess as it is, in many ways, similar to modern day. As centuries come and go, human behaviour and social realities change to adapt to a specific era. This is why trying to understand something from centuries ago by pure human connection is an unreliable method, as human behaviour could have been totally different at the time. There are, therefore, many instances in which history is solely about understanding the past without regarding or connecting to the present or the future. For example, as I was learning about Nazi Germany in my IB history course, we talked a lot about Hitler’s “rise to evil”, essentially, his journey to becoming one of the most remembered dictators of all time.
As we were studying and unpacking this time period, we focused only on the events that have occurred at the time without really discussing why or how we can use our knowledge of these events to solve or prevent any conflicts, such as these, from occurring once again. So, does our interpretation of knowledge from the past allow us to reliably predict the future? In many ways, no, as history is always repeating itself. George Bernard Shaw said, “If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must man be of learning from experience.
” Humans are constantly making the same mistakes without learning from their past experiences. However, Sydney J. Harris once said, ” History repeats itself, but in such cunning disguise that we never detect the resemblance until the damage is done.” He argues that even though mankind keeps repeating the same mistake, we are not aware of it until it is too late.
So is it truly the incapability of mankind to learn from experience, or is it the unawareness of the mistake that justifies history’s repetition of itself? This point proves that as history is studied, it can also very likely “predict” in many ways what might happen in the future through further analyzation. Making it not only a study of the past and present but also the future. The last part of the statement suggests that the human scientist, in contrast to the historian, only looks to change the future.
Which is again only true to some extent. If changing the future, is the aim of the human sciences, what is it about its nature that allows this to happen? The human sciences focus on understanding humans in general, based on their behaviour, their interactions and their history. Human scientists study human behaviour over time periods to predict what might happen in the future. This happens through the experimentation and the observation of humans in different situations. This can help identify many patterns and consistencies in the human mind. Because the world “revolves” around human activity, understanding the nature of humans can help with the development of societies and the prediction of the future. As human scientists essentially study themselves, the nature of this science is what allows it to change the future.
That is why in many ways the human sciences do look to change the future. For example, Sigmund Freud, an Austrian psychologist, who studied neurology and has developed many theories about the human brain, is most famous for his discovery of psychoanalysis, a clinical method for treating psychopathy, that has changed the world of psychological treatments today. His curiosity and devotion to this topic and his urge to change the future is what led to this discovery. Nevertheless, when it comes to the human sciences, a largely posed question is, are the human sciences adequate to fully understand an individual? If human science is the study of humans by none other than humans themselves, can it be a useful way of knowing? It is impossible to have a generic code that can be applied to all of mankind as every person is unique in their own way.
And no matter how hard, scientists try to reveal the secrets of human behaviour it will never be 100% accurate. That is why human sciences are not adequate to fully allow us to understand humans, but, for the most part, they allow us to slowly discover the mysteries of the human life and to some extent still understand as much as we can. This is why human scientists’ efforts are seen to change the future because every little discovery that is made can help develop or prevent various things in the future. Although I do agree that the human sciences largely aim to change the future, they still do in some ways look to change the present. Economics, for example, is a human science that deals with the production and the consumption of wealth. In many ways, economists prioritize their focus on changing the present. John Maynard Keynes, for example, was a very successful economist who participated in the finalization of the credit terms between Britain and the allies at the end of World War I.
By doing this, Keynes was trying to handle the “present” situation at the time. In conclusion, after measuring the merits and otherwise of the statement, “The historian’s task is to understand the past; the human scientist, by contrast, is looking to change the future,” it is clear to say that the statement can only be true to some extent as there are always two sides to every story. It is true that historians strive to understand the past, however, they do so by, in many cases, also studying the present and sometimes the future. In contrast, it is clear that a human scientist seeks to change the future, but still, sometimes, looks to change the present as well.