(Based on a paper written for Dr. Mark Fissel in HIST 3001, January 2005.)
John R. Shirley
Is recorded history literature? It is indisputable that, being written, history is indeed literature, but by this definition, everything written, in every scientific field must also be literature. With this in mind, one can go on to question whether written history is a scientific literature, and the answer to this takes but a moment to realize: just as there is junk “science”, so there is also junk history, and the sole determinant between authentic and unsubstantiatable written history must be the methods utilized in gathering and processing the data used.
History- in the sense of things that have happened before this instant- is like a board game. Geology provides the game board, as well as some of the pieces. Geology dictates through soil what crops can be grown, as well as providing or withholding areas flat and high or low enough to grow those crops. Geology further dictates what metals are in a region, whether an area has clay suitable for pottery, or if there is limestone or rock for building. Biology through its heirs of zoology and botany determines what flora will flourish, and what animals do or can live in a region, when combined with meteorology. All these sciences create the board on which history is played, the game pieces with which it is played, and dictates the rules for play.
After the fact, it may be easy for those outside a situation to wonder, “what happened?” It is literally impossible to know accurately what a person is thinking. Motives, therefore, can never be determined with as much precision as some other questions, but in any given historical situation, a solid grounding in the sciences affecting the region will enable a process of determining what resources were available to any player. A simple definition of anthropology could be the study of what people do. Archaeology can be defined as a part of anthropology, or it can be considered its own science. In either case, it can be simply defined as the study of what people did- and left behind to prove it. It is the task of the historian to take the natural sciences, and using archaeology and written history, unite them with the social science of anthropology to create a seamless picture of what has previously transpired. It then falls to the reader to determine whether the picture drawn is scientifically crafted, or just rhetoric.
Science is concerned with both observable fact and repeatability. Observable fact is much appreciated, but by virtue of its documentation of events that have already happened, exact repeatability is impossible for historical records. By careful utilization of science, the historian can eliminate the impossible, and discover the plausible, to extrapolate the likely. Combining scientific aids with discerning research and an open mind, the historian can create a body of work that, if not strictly science, is far removed from fiction.