Roles Of Language And History In History Essay
‘History is all about memorizing and pouring out the facts during examinations,’ said a student who took History paper in his O-level. This is perhaps why most students dislike History. But do they even understand what History actually is? Just ask around in the school and many would tell you that History is anything that had happened. Well, I threw a grand party in conjunction with my birthday yesterday. So, is my birthday party considered a History? If I were to answer this question before I learnt Theory of Knowledge (TOK) in IB, I would confidently say, ‘Yes, it is’. However, now that I have an insight of TOK, my point of view has changed. History is defined as the selection of facts and the processing of these facts into a meaningful interpretation of the past  . So, because my birthday party has not been selected by a historian and it probably never will be unless I become the Prime Minister of Malaysia one day, it is obvious that my birthday party is not part of History; it is merely a celebration to indicate that I had entered a new chapter in my life and that my age is increasing!
As a reader, we always think that a historian’s job is very simple. But in fact, historians have to go through a long process in order to write History. They have to apply the four ways of knowing throughout the process, namely sense perception, emotion, language as well as reason and logic. Each way of knowing has different importance, depending on its contribution towards the development in that area of knowledge. In this essay, I am going to discuss on the roles of language and reason in History. Before I proceed further, let me first define language and reason. Language is a tool for thought and communication. It can either work with precision or gives ambiguity. Unlike language, reason is very certain and because of this, it is believed to be the medium in knowledge acquisition. A quote from George Boole, “That language is an instrument of human reason, and not merely a medium for the expression of thought, is a truth generally admitted” indicates that language and reason are strongly interconnected; reasoning cannot be done without language.
Writing history can be likened to building a house, with the facts being the building material.  Like in Natural Sciences, historians have to record and identify the information which can be obtained from primary works such as letters, artifacts, cave paintings and eyewitness accounts or from secondary works which is the interpretation of other historians. No matter where the facts originate from, language plays the greatest role in acquiring historical knowledge. Without language, this knowledge could not exist. If a historian were to possess all the information on a historical event, but he could not understand the language of the source, do you think he can create a History on that event? This could be analogous to presenting a luxurious car to a four-month-old baby. So long as the language concerned is not mastered, the information cannot be translated from one form to another. But there is another downfall of language to be pondered upon. Even if the historian understand that particular language very well, it is not necessary that he would have the same understanding as the creator of the document. This is because language is very ambiguous and one simple word can have many different meanings. For example, ‘The wreck of USS Arizona which remains at the Pearl Harbor took 1170 men with her  . Do the men here refer to the crew who are made up of men only or to the mankind, which encompasses women as well? The statement is very straightforward but yet, the interpretation is disputable. This proves that the ambiguity of language can be a barrier to historical knowledge.
Since historical events are intertwined in causes and effects, the historians from different studies have to communicate their knowledge to put the missing pieces of puzzles together to form a larger picture of the past. Hence, reason is used to acquire historical knowledge and language is needed in reason because one must think in words when considering critical concepts and making connections between different sources. This was being said by Benjamin Lee Whorf, “Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about.” It is believed that we have no idea of what we are thinking about if we cannot put our thought in words. Being had to deal with a mass of sources, the historians have to decide and select what is important to be included in his work. However, the selections of evidence are not random. Instead, they have to meet certain standards to enhance the certainty of the historians’ conclusions. But since History involves human, who are often unpredictable, historians have to use their imagination to interpret the facts and then reconstruct the past from there. The problem that arises here is that History has to be based on the historians’ interpretation, influenced by the languages that they used, which often leads to biasness because of the difference in culture and personal beliefs. Asking a Malay historian and a Japanese historian about Malaya Attack would result in slightly different answers. Despite this, historians can overcome the problem by collecting as many primary sources as possible and induce a conclusion through reasoning. Admittedly, the gap between different interpretations is narrowed down with increasing information.
Similar to language, without reason as a way of knowing, historians would not gain historical knowledge except for the collected raw information. If a historian were to discover a sharp stone but was unable to reason, he would probably see it as a sharp object only when in reality the sharp stone was of great importance to the caveman. The historian may simply presume that all stones are sharp without knowing the usage of the stone which acted as a weapon for protection and also to cut meat into pieces during that era. Besides that, reason is extremely important in making generalizations and devising theory. In order to do so, historians use their experiences as well as empirical knowledge and make conclusion out of the given information. But despite the fact that inductive reasoning can be a strong support for a conclusion, this however is not a guarantee. One example is the generalization of ‘Japanese soldiers are cruel.’ The Nanking war survivors would say that Japanese soldiers invaded their country and kill and rape as they like. But that was ages ago and it does not mean that the current Japanese soldiers are also cruel. This is therefore seen as a weakness of reason as the conclusion may not actually be true following the untruth premises. There might be some exceptions but by classifying them as the Japs, their image has been tarnished. In this case, the establishment of different categories has bewitched one’s intelligence, causing them to look at the Japanese soldiers negatively although in reality, they have the same soft nature as any other human beings.
In contrast to reason, the application of other ways of knowing such as perception and emotion has led to subjectivity in History, which further creates uncertainties about the historical knowledge. Because of this, reason is more important in historians’ work as the knowledge is not distorted by what is perceived and felt but instead, it is based solely on rationality and logical thinking. Reason can be very persuasive, provided that nothing is lost during the translation process. The certainty and consistency of reason make it suitable to be used for establishment of objective knowledge. Also, historians use reason to form premises with their past experiences. Then, they would make conclusions based on both premises. If premise one states that Jewish people were murdered in mass number by the Nazis during World War II while premise two states that Anne Frank was a Jewish, hence, it can be concluded that Anne Frank was murdered by the Nazis during World War II. These facts are the building blocks for History, just like concrete steels being the foundations for buildings. Nevertheless, historians must be very careful with reasoning for the knowledge that developed from a false premise will be false too. Referring to the example above, the conclusion is untrue although the argument is valid because Anne Frank was not murdered by the Nazis but she died of typus.
After investigating the role of language and reason in History, I realized that the evaluation of reason would be of no use to anyone but me if language is not used along. In other words, reason will only be useful and certain if language can deliver its conclusions. Although the probability for historians to achieve the same level of certainty as scientists is almost zero, they can still be confident about their conclusions by conveying clear and accurate reconstruction of the past with the usage of language. Both language and reason are used so widely regardless of their strengths and flaws, that there would be only little progress in the establishment of knowledge should they not being used. I believe the certainty that reason has and the communication brought about by language, as their respective strengths, would outweigh the fallacies and bewitchment that may arise from their use. But still, the final conclusion must be tested with other ways and areas of knowing before they can be trusted completely.
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