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The Reliability of Knowledge in History


June 9, 2016 by leohowu

A prominent aspect of the International Baccalaureate History course is the notion that all history is skewed, and that as historians, we must be aware that the study of history isn’t the study of cold facts, that it is an interpretation of the past. Being taught about the limitation of historical records has proved to be view changing for me, as I’ve found myself aware of a myriad of conflicting facts in different historical records. For example, while reviewing the AP World History guide by the Princeton Review, I came across many instances where facts were presented as ‘set in stone’, when in fact they were highly disputed in academic circles. The issue has puzzled me – if all historical records are to some extent skewed, then what is the use of studying historical records? From this idea, I derived the following knowledge question – To what extent is knowledge in history reliable?

In order to discuss the reliability of historical knowledge, one must first define the relationship between memory and history. Memory, as a way of knowing (WoK), may be defined as the “ability of the mind to store and recall past sensations, thoughts, and knowledge.” Memory plays a large role in the area of knowing (AoK) of history, because most if not all of history is derived from the memories of those who experienced such an event (primary sources) and those that studied these records and wrote about them (secondary sources). The collective memory of people undoubtedly plays a major part in the shaping of a shared body of knowledge in this AoK; for example, the shared knowledge of the United States’ policy of segregation comes from the collective memories of those that lived during the 1960s.

In the context of this relationship, historical interpretations may certainly be unreliable due to the limitations of memory. Primary sources are the eyewitness testimonies of people, which were present at the event under study. The memories that people acquire from witnessing events are not perfect; video recordings of the course of events that the character involved; in fact, they are mere constructions of what the person witnessed. The selective nature of memory means that we subconsciously pick up certain points of significance that we encounter, and then ‘fill in the blanks’. Thus, no matter how ‘authentic’ a source is said to be, or no matter how undeniable an event is said to be, there is undoubtedly an element of unreliability.

Moreover, knowledge, which is possessed in our memory, is passed on from one person to another through the medium of language, a WoK. This holds true for all types of historical knowledge. Just as oral history is highly subject to manipulation because of its spoken nature, so is academic history. Regardless of whether a historical fact was recorded through a prestigious university, or through the oral teachings of a tribal elder, all forms of historical knowledge require language, and because of this, historical events may be presented in ways that may influence the way in which the audience interprets. The aspect of our personal knowledge that we learn from the AoK of history is dependent upon the language in which it is presented in, and so in this regard, historical knowledge may be unreliable. The study of historiography is a clear example; depending on which school of thought is studied, students will most certainly construct different personal views about a single event in history.

The use of language as a way to communicate historical knowledge also diminishes the latter’s reliability because language is vulnerable to changes in other WoKs, such as emotion and memory. In many instances where a historical perspective is sponsored by the people and the government – such as the view in China of the Nanjing Massacre – the strong emotions of anger, sadness, and vengeance play a large role in the way the historical knowledge is transmitted. The language used to portray the Nanjing Massacre is thus affected by such emotions, and as a result, the collective and personal knowledge of the massacre in China is molded in ways to vilify the Japanese. As for changes in memory affecting language, the cheena vala (“Chinese fishing nets”) fishing devices of Kochi, India are an example. According to local oral tradition, Zhenghe, a Chinese sailor, taught these devices to the fishermen centuries ago, and so they were named after the Chinese sailors. Thus, this ‘memory’ was passed from generation to generation to the present day, becoming part of the collective knowledge of Kochi locals. However, recent research has proven that Zhenge never diffused this technology to Kochi, and that it was in fact the Portuguese that brought the technology from Canton, China. This example exemplifies how oral history’s reliance on language makes it unreliable, as false information may be diffused due to a gradual change in memory.

Knowledge in the discipline of history must constantly be “taken with a grain of salt”, because it is in its essence a construction based on memory, language, and many other WoKs. The vulnerability of these WoKs to changes may indeed deem knowledge in this discipline as unreliable. The unreliable aspect of history does not necessarily stipulate that historical knowledge is absolutely unreliable; it is indeed important that we study history, as it the very reason that creates unreliability in history, creates a sense of identity by shaping our collective knowledge.





1 comment »

  1. yukidaru says:

    I agree to your point that the use of language weakens the reliability of historical facts. We as a historian, need to examine the source and information that we see. Who wrote it? What is the purpose? What it the message. By reading your post, I found out how helpful our IB History course is in order to gain the historical knowledge in a more reliable way. I like the connection that you make with the language and memory working as a barrier for the right facts to be passed down to the next. We need to be able to see through the sources, and be able to examine the different use of language. So I guess the reliability of historical knowledge depends on how we interpret the sources and information for ourself?

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