What is history? For me, the discipline of history cannot be defined simply by its object of study – the past is, after all, studied in a wide variety of subjects including English Literature, geography and music. The physicists who recently made a breakthrough in studying the universe are also studying the past. History, I would suggest, can better be defined by the questions it asks of the past, and the means by which it goes about answering them, as I argued in this blog post last year.
I tend to think about this quite a lot, but I was recently challenged on two occasions to decide whether something counted as history. Two weeks ago, following the ongoing coverage of the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, the BBC held a debate on whether or not Britain was right to go to war in 1914. Last week, in a meeting about assessing history in primary schools, I found myself discussing whether ‘Was Charles I a good king?’ counted as a historical question. In both of these cases I would answer in the negative. These are not historical questions, but rather moral questions explored using examples from the past.
So what is the difference? Historical questions can, I think, be summarised fairly neatly as the following:
- Why did something happen?
- What were the consequences of something?
- How and in what ways did things change?
- What lines of continuity persisted across time?
- How similar were people at a particular time?
In addition, we might add historiographical or methodological questions to these:
- Does the evidence support a particular conclusion?
- How and why has the past been interpreted differently?
The vast majority of historical questions do, I think, fall within these categories. Answering the following questions would, on this model, all count as history.
- Why did the English Civil War begin in 1642? (causes)
- How was Europe changed by the French Revolution? (consequences)
- To what extent did England change after the Norman Conquest? (change – notice how this is different to the previous question)
- How stable was the power of the Church in the middle ages? (continuity)
- Were ordinary Germans complicit in the Holocaust? (similarity and difference)
As I glance through the pages of the history books on my shelves at home, these are, almost invariably, the kinds of questions that historians answer. Some will instantly note that I have not given the question ‘what happened?’ This, for me, is an important distinction that I have written about before. Knowing what happened and when – in short, having a grip on chronology – is a vital, necessary condition of doing history. In constructing accounts of the past and calling upon chronology, however, we address the kinds of questions I have outlined above, often in intricate ways.
My knowledge of moral philosophy is weaker than my knowledge of history, but I would suggest that moral questions are about what is right, what ought to be done and whether or not someone, or something, is good. As Hume famously taught us, these questions cannot be answered empirically for it is not possible to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. Numerous approaches to answering moral questions have of course been developed. For those with religious beliefs, divine revelation provides moral guidance. Kant’s categorical imperative is similarly universal, demanding that we act towards someone else only if would treat all people in the same way. Utilitarians argue that we should act in ways which cause the greatest good, or the least harm. Virtue ethicists start by asking what the purpose of something or someone is, and then define how good that person is by the extent to which they succeed in achieving that end.
All of these approaches could be used to answer the questions:
- What Charles I a good king?
- Was it right to go to war in 1914?
In doing so, however, we have to draw on moral arguments. We might, for example, define what the purpose of a king is, and then set out to determine whether or not Charles I was successful in pursuing those ends. Alternatively, we might ask whether war in 1914 was the least bad choice that could have been made (further complicated by the fact that we do actually know what happened). Importantly, however, we are seeking here to answer these questions using the tools of moral philosophy, and not of history. In this sense, the past becomes a stage on which to rehearse moral arguments.
These are, however, not historical problems. It would be a bit like asking ‘How did Krakatoa erupt in 1883?’ and claiming this to be a historical rather than a geological and physical question. We can, of course, ask historical questions about this bit of the past: what were the consequences (for humans) of the explosion of Krakatoa? Similarly, we might ask whether people in the 1640s believed Charles I to be a good king. This is a question about similarity and difference. Alternatively, we might ask what Germany’s role was in bringing abut the First World War, an important causal question. These questions, however, are quite distinct from those about whether or not someone was ‘good’ and whether something was ‘right’.
I should point out here that I have no problem with using past examples to explore moral arguments. Indeed, in school, I think it is absolutely right that in an appropriate lesson (my local school calls it ‘philosophy, religion and ethics’) pupils might well consider the question ‘Was Britain right to go to war in 1914?’ It matters to me, however, that they can see why this is a moral question, and not a historical question. Take your pick, Marx, Hitler or Mao: there have been too many times in the past when a moral argument about how society ought to be has been surreptitiously advanced under the auspices of history.
 This maxim has unsurprisingly been challenged, though I think the general thrust of it is correct.