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Difference Between Historians and Scientists

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  • Yong Jia Bu

Theory of Knowledge

History and the Human Sciences: Stepping Stones through Time

Title #5: “The historian’s task is to understand the past, the human scientist, by contrast, is looking to change the future.” To what extent is this true in these areas of knowledge?

History and the human sciences are considered two different areas of knowledge, but are common in that both are concerned with human existence and interactions. To say that “[t]he historian’s task is to understand the past, the human scientist, by contrast, is looking to change the future” suggests a method of distinguishing between these two areas of knowledge based on the time frame relevant to each, and the purposes for which each area obtains knowledge: history focuses on analysis of past events, their causes and implications, while human sciences, such as geography and psychology, seek more to find patterns in human activity in order to predict and change the future. Subjects such as geopolitics and evolutionary anthropology can, however, bridge the time gap between history and the human sciences, and cause the purposes of knowledge in these two areas to overlap as well. In these particular subjects, understanding the past and changing the future are not necessarily divergent purposes, but purposes which can work hand in hand to allow a knower to acquire and make use of knowledge.

The quotation in the topic of this paper suggests that history is an area of knowledge which places a greater emphasis on understanding the past than on using the acquired knowledge to achieve goals or to alter the trajectory of future events. One reason why this attitude toward history might exist is that out of the vast collection of past events studied in this discipline, the majority of subjects are believed to be too distant in the past or too far removed from the concerns of today’s society to be of significant influence to the future. While this claim is likely not true, as knowledge is almost always pursued because it has value and applications, this belief indirectly reveals the expectations of a credible historian to record and interpret historical knowledge in the most accurate form possible, and that he or she is not motivated to influence the present or future by putting forth historical information that supports personal agendas. A credible historian is therefore someone who uncovers and makes sense of the past for the sake of understanding what has come before. A credible historian recognizes that the knowledge gained his or her studies can be relevant to or have value in the present and future, but does not attempt to control how the knowledge may become influential to society. When I researched the topic of whether Louis Riel, a Canadian politician and rebel during the late 1800’s, should have been sentenced to death for treason, my goal was to gain a better understanding of who Riel was and the circumstances surrounding his death, and then to evaluate the events based on the information I had gathered. In presenting my findings, I needed to show that the conclusions I came to had been achieved through consistent and impartial treatment of historical evidence, and that although my findings may eventually challenge or disprove other positions, the focus on my research was to better understand historical events rather than to promote what I believed to be true. While I cannot consider myself a credible historian, I believe that those who can would go through a similar process in their studies, in which the historian investigates, makes sense of, and communicates his or her findings without actively aiming to change the future. In this way, a historian’s main concern is to understand the past, despite awareness of the potential implications that their pursuit and refinement of historical knowledge can have on the future.

In some cases, although events may have occurred centuries ago, their consequences can continue to affect the lives of people for a long time, and the way that historians interpret evidence surrounding such events can significantly influence the decisions made by individuals or even entire nations. Society may actively pursue historical knowledge in order to solve problems concerning the future. The establishment of political boundaries, though it may fall within field of geopolitics and therefore the human sciences, is closely tied to and influenced by historical land claims and records of settlement. In the Senkaku or Diaoyu Islands dispute, Japan, China, and Taiwan all claim to have sovereignty over a set of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea based on historical records and proceedings (Drifte 11). The Chinese claim is based on documents from the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries that describe ownership of the islands by Taiwan, which China also claims to be part of its own country. Disputes also revolve around the Treaty of Shimonoseki of 1895, which ceded islands under Chinese control to Japan but did not specifically mention the Senkaku or Diaoyu Islands (Drifte 12). The understanding of historical events and interpretation of historical documents thus play an important role in shaping the political future, as they are used by governments and international organizations to negotiate territorial boundaries. This field exemplifies how the historian’s role is to look equally toward understanding the past and changing the future.

In comparison to history, the human sciences are associated with a more present-to-future time frame. Human scientists recognize the importance of understanding the past observations and studies that their knowledge is based upon, but it is the application of existing knowledge to new situations and problems that is the purpose at the centre of the human sciences. One goal of a human geographer may be to predict the volume and direction of human migration to and from a nation, so that this information can be used to help shape a nation’s future migration policies and perhaps prevent demographic changes not desired by the nation. To do this, the geographer would need to have background knowledge such as the theory of push and pull factors of migration, which consists of “laws of migration” developed by Ernest George Ravenstein in 1885, and modified by later geographers. Ravenstein’s theory outlines general patterns in the movement of people from one place to another, such as that “[m]igrants proceeding long distances generally go by preference to one of the great centres of commerce or industry” (Corbett), and while Ravenstein and later contributors must have based their conclusions on studies of specific migratory cases, the statements within the theory do not include details regarding the specific past occurrences that the theory is derived from. The principles of migration listed in this theory act as a condensed body of knowledge that can be learned and applied to current conditions to make predictions about migration trends in the future, which can subsequently prompt actions to avert undesired outcomes. As extensive understanding of the origins of current theories does not necessarily improve the effectiveness of their use, it is not considered essential that human scientists focus their time on understanding past developments which led to the formation of current theories. Rather, human scientists are encouraged to look toward changing the future by readily using the latest complication of knowledge in their field.

There are also disciplines which, although considered human sciences, are very concerned with understanding the past. Evolutionary anthropologists seek both to investigate the origins of human beings, as well as to change future scientific paradigms based on new discoveries. In 2013, anthropologists working in southern Georgia excavated 1.8 million-year-old skulls of human ancestors which “ha[ve] forced scientists to rethink the story of early human evolution” (Sample), because the existence of these early humans in Europe at the same time as the existence of early humans in Africa undermines the widely accepted theory that humans evolved from species that originated in Africa. Regardless of whether this discovery leads to a new evolutionary theory, it illustrates how in one way, the purpose of knowledge in evolutionary anthropology is to seek understanding of the past as historians would—by investigating the collective origins and past of the human species—while in another way, the evolutionary anthropologist also seeks to change the future of the discipline by challenging the accepted theories and paradigms of today. Understanding the past and changing the future can thus be equally important objectives in the advancement of the human sciences.

When a knower strives to change the future, he or she often realizes the need to understand the past in order to better predict the outcomes and consequences of his or her actions. Conversely, in attempting to understand the past, a knower may be motivated to modify existing approaches toward knowledge to change the future. Subjects within history and the human sciences may lean closer to either the purpose of understanding the past or the purpose of changing the future, but are likely some combination of the two. As history and the human sciences are thus difficult to distinguish on the basis of time frame and purpose of knowledge, additional consideration of their differences in methodologies or sources of evidence may aid in clarifying the differences between the natures of these two areas of knowledge.

Word count: 1479

Works Cited

Corbett, John. “Ernest George Raventstein: The Laws of Migration, 1885.” Centre for Spatially

Integrated Social Science. University of California, Santa Barbara, 2011. Web.

26 Nov. 2013.

Drifte, Reinhard. The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands Territorial Dispute between Japan and China:

between the Materialization of the “China Threat” and Japan “Reversing the Outcome

of World War II”? The Research Unit on International Security and Cooperation

(UNISCI), May 2013. PDF file.

Sample, Ian. “Skull of Homo Erectus Throws Story of Human Evolution into Disarray.” The

Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 17 Oct. 2013. Web. 24 Nov. 2013.


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