Thoughts on interpreting history: “fill-in history” and the need for meaning

In a conversation recently, I said something interesting:

I said that, it seems to me, that to be a good historian you need to be able to say and do several things:

  • You must be able to say “we simply don’t know” and leave it at that.  In other words, you must be able to accept that there are no answers.  Though this may sound easy my observation is that this is very hard for many people to do.
  • You must be a person that is able to understand that “speculation” is speculation that that is all it is . . . it is not fact.  That is to say, you must understand that any “speculation” is not definite.  Many people, I’ve found, tend to confuse speculation with fact to the point that any speculation is considered fact.
  • You must be able to understand that a lot of history (even firsthand accounts) consists of “opinions”, “different points of view”, and “different perspectives” which, by their nature, are not definite.  For example, they may be true from one angle but not another.  Just because a chronicler says this or that happened for this or that reason does not mean that it did . . . it may only be true from his perspective.
  • You must understand that some things are assumed to be true because there’s nothing else to rely on.  In other words, do to lack of information there is a tendency to make any explanation true when, in actuality, they really have no basis.  This often creates ‘assumed truth’ that may not, in actuality, be true at all.
  • You must understand that historical interpretation is often based on what you accept as true.  What you accept as true may not be what another accepts as true giving a totally different explanation.  This tends to lead to different interpretations of history based on ones philosophy (such as the Communist interpretation of history or Capitalistic interpretation or Christian, etc.).

A good historian, in my opinion, should be aware of these things.  Unfortunately, many people find these hard to actually put into practice.   This makes it so that people tend to “fill-in” gaps in history, giving vague explanations, assumed explanations, etc., in which there is no concrete validity.  I speak of this as “fill-in history”.  I tend to feel that most history is nothing but “fill-in history”, created, made up, or assumed to be true to fill in gaps we simply don’t know.  In other words, I tend to view that most history is not founded on concrete truths.  In fact, I tend to view that historical interpretation is more a lesson in the fact that we need to have things ‘make sense’ and give things a meaning, than in “actual facts”.  In this way, we are actually seeking ‘meaningful history’, not ‘factual history’.  Personally, I believe this is the primary purpose of history.  To be frank, history, really, is nothing but a form of storytelling with all the pomp, exaggeration, and distortion that it requires to tell a good story.  In many ways, the best historical interpretation is the one that is told the best.

Because of this, history tends to not be ‘factual history’.  In fact, if we were to, say, get the history books and erase all the material that is not founded on concrete facts, we’d end up erasing most of the book.  On a closer look we’d find that most historical interpretation entails a lot of:

  • Speculation
  • Guessing
  • Assumption
  • Fitting, altering, twisting, and distorting to fit a particular philosophy.

This means that a lot of history is basically “made up”.  In this way, most of history is really myth, in actuality.  As I said above, what we really want is ‘meaningful history’, that makes sense to us . . . that’s what its really about.

A lot of ‘meaningful history’ is based in several themes, I’ve found:

  • On who we are.  History is interpreted in the light of defining and delineating our identity.  Often, this is done in the context of race, culture, religion, or politics.  It helps to delineate where we come from, where things (such as tradition and custom) come from, our people, and eventual who we are as people.  This often makes historical interpretation very personal and, subsequently, entails many deep feelings.
  • On what humanity is.  History is interpreted in the light of reflecting the nature of humanity and its traits.  This seems more prevalent in recent decades.  History is used to create ‘patterns of behavior’, examples of human traits, and such.
  • As a respect for the people of the past.  In this sense, history is often used to glorify the past generations, honoring what they did.  Though this means well, it often tends to paint the people of the past as saints.
  • As a description of events.  History becomes nothing but a ‘mechanical description’ of what happened.

In creating ‘meaningful history’ we tend to “cut out” aspects of history that does not help that historical interpretation.  Most of history, frankly, is boring, dull, and mundane.  As a result, we tend to disregard it.  Other aspects don’t fit into our ‘meaningful history’ interpretation and also tends to be disregarded.  And still other aspects of history are so “bad” that we don’t even want to accept it at all.  Stuff, such as this, tends to create “fill-in history”.

I’ve always felt that, in historical interpretation, we should be aware of a number of things, such as:

  • Accept the need for ‘meaningful history’ and that this is what we are tending to do.  What use is history without meaning?  This is the need we are trying to fulfill.
  • We should look, carefully, at what our intentions are and how we are intending to create a ‘meaningful history’.  We should be aware if our motive is to discover who we are, or the traits of humanity, for example.
  • We should be aware that our intentions will tend to alter our interpretation of things to fit our purpose.  This, in my opinion, seems almost unavoidable.
  • Accept the limitations of historical interpretation.  As I said above, a lot of history is speculation, unknown, opinion, etc. which does not constitute ‘fact’.  We should be aware of this fact.
  • We should try to avoid the creation of “fill-in history”. 

In this way, we are really trying to create an honest ‘meaningful history’ that is limited by our intentions and the limits of historical interpretation.  In other words, we are not creating an ‘ultimate interpretation’, as if trying to make historical interpretation into something like a science.  Instead, we should see our interpretation of history (or any, for that matter) as a specific type of interpretation and that it is not the only one.  In other words, we should see any interpretation of history as limited and that the important thing is its meaning to the person In many ways, “the meaning is everything”.   


Copyright by Mike Michelsen

This entry was posted in Education, learning, and over education, Historical stuff and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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