historical method


  • An author’s trustworthiness in the main may establish a background probability for the consideration of each statement, but each piece of evidence extracted must be weighed

  • Secondary sources, primary sources and material evidence such as that derived from archaeology may all be drawn on, and the historian’s skill lies in identifying these sources,
    evaluating their relative authority, and combining their testimony appropriately in order to construct an accurate and reliable picture of past events and environments.

  • When two sources disagree and there is no other means of evaluation, then historians take the source which seems to accord best with common sense.

  • Subsequent descriptions of historical method, outlined below, have attempted to overcome the credulity built into the first step formulated by the nineteenth century historiographers
    by stating principles not merely by which different reports can be harmonized but instead by which a statement found in a source may be considered to be unreliable or reliable as it stands on its own.

  • However, majority does not rule; even if most sources relate events in one way, that version will not prevail unless it passes the test of critical textual analysis.

  • Satisfactory answers to the second and third questions may provide the historian with the whole or the gist of the primary testimony upon which the secondary witness may be
    his only means of knowledge.

  • Louis Gottschalk adds an additional consideration: “Even when the fact in question may not be well-known, certain kinds of statements are both incidental and probable to such
    a degree that error or falsehood seems unlikely.

  • The tradition must report a public event of importance, such as would necessarily be known directly to a great number of persons.

  • The statement, together with other statements already held to be true, must imply yet other statements describing present, observable data.

  • R. J. Shafer on external criticism: “It sometimes is said that its function is negative, merely saving us from using false evidence; whereas internal criticism has the positive
    function of telling us how to use authenticated evidence.

  • • The closer a source is to the event which it purports to describe, the more one can trust it to give an accurate historical description of what actually happened.

  • Though historians agree in very general and basic principles, in practice “specific canons of historical proof are neither widely observed nor generally agreed upon” among
    professional historians.

  • Eyewitnesses are, in general, to be preferred especially in circumstances where the ordinary observer could have accurately reported what transpired and, more specifically,
    when they deal with facts known by most contemporaries.

  • The hypothesis must be less ad hoc than any other incompatible hypothesis about the same subject; that is, it must include fewer new suppositions about the past which are
    not already implied to some extent by existing beliefs.

  • The source whose account can be confirmed by reference to outside authorities in some of its parts can be trusted in its entirety if it is impossible similarly to confirm
    the entire text.

  • The critical spirit must have been sufficiently developed while the tradition lasted, and the necessary means of critical investigation must have been at hand.

  • “[15] Oral tradition[edit] Gilbert Garraghan (1946) maintains that oral tradition may be accepted if it satisfies either two “broad conditions” or six “particular conditions”,
    as follows:[16] 1.

  • It involves things like if an author wrote something themselves, if other sources attribute authorship to the source, agreement of independent manuscript copies on the content
    of a source.

  • It must exceed other incompatible hypotheses about the same subject by so much, in characteristics 2 to 6, that there is little chance of an incompatible hypothesis, after
    further investigation, soon exceeding it in these respects.

  • Insofar as this ‘original’ source is an accurate report of primary testimony, he tests its credibility as he would that of the primary testimony itself.”

  • “[4] Noting that few documents are accepted as completely reliable, Louis Gottschalk sets down the general rule, “for each particular of a document the process of establishing
    credibility should be separately undertaken regardless of the general credibility of the author”.

  • The hypothesis must be of greater explanatory power than any other incompatible hypothesis about the same subject; that is, it must make the observation statements it implies
    more probable than any other.

  • [14] Gottschalk says that a historian may sometimes use hearsay evidence when no primary texts are available.

  • When two sources disagree on a particular point, the historian will prefer the source with most “authority”—that is the source created by the expert or by the eyewitness.

  • McCullagh sums up, “if the scope and strength of an explanation are very great, so that it explains a large number and variety of facts, many more than any competing explanation,
    then it is likely to be true”.

  • Critical-minded persons who would surely have challenged the tradition – had they considered it false – must have made no such challenge.

  • The tradition must have been generally believed, at least for a definite period of time.

  • Core principles for determining reliability[edit] The following core principles of source criticism were formulated by two Scandinavian historians, Olden-Jørgensen (1998)
    and Thurén Torsten (1997):[6] • Human sources may be relics such as a fingerprint; or narratives such as a statement or a letter.

  • How well could the author observe the thing he reports?

  • • If a number of independent sources contain the same message, the credibility of the message is strongly increased.

  • Criteria of Authenticity[edit] Historians sometimes have to deal with deciding what is genuine and what is not in a source.

  • The tradition should be supported by an unbroken series of witnesses, reaching from the immediate and first reporter of the fact to the living mediate witness from whom we
    take it up, or to the one who was the first to commit it to writing.

  • In such cases the secondary source is the historian’s ‘original’ source, in the sense of being the ‘origin’ of his knowledge.

  • • If it can be demonstrated that the witness or source has no direct interest in creating bias then the credibility of the message is increased.


Works Cited

[‘1. Fischer, David Hackett (1970). Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought. New York: Harper Perennial. p. 62. ISBN 9780061315459. Historians are likely to agree in principle, but not in practice. Specific canons of historical
proof are neither widely observed nor generally agreed upon.
2. ^ McCullagh, C. Behan (2000). “Bias in Historical Description, Interpretation, and Explanation”. History and Theory. 39 (1): 47. doi:10.1111/0018-2656.00112. ISSN 0018-2656. JSTOR 2677997.
W. B. Gallie argued that some concepts in history are “essentially contested,” namely “religion,” “art,” “science,” “democracy,” and “social justice.” These are concepts for which “there is no one use of any of them which can be set up as its generally
accepted and therefore correct or standard use. When historians write the history of these subjects, they must choose an interpretation of the subject to guide them. For instance, in deciding what Art is, historians can choose between “configurationist
theories, theories of aesthetic contemplation and response .. ., theories of art as expression, theories emphasizing traditional artistic aims and standards, and communication theories.
3. ^ Gilbert J. Garraghan and Jean Delanglez A Guide to Historical
Method p. 168, 1946
4. ^ A Guide to Historical Method, p. 118, 1974
5. ^ Howell, Martha & Prevenier, Walter(2001). From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0-8014-8560-6.
6. ^ Thurén,
Torsten. (1997). Källkritik. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell.
7. ^ Gilbert J. Garraghan and Jean Delanglez A Guide to Historical Method p. 174, “Criteria of Authenticity” 1946
8. ^ A Guide to Historical Method, p. 25-26, 1974
9. ^ Howell, Martha
& Prevenier, Walter(2001). From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0-8014-8560-6. p. 56-59
10. ^ Gilbert J. Garraghan and Jean Delanglez A Guide to Historical Method p. 174-177, 1946
11. ^
Gilbert J. Garraghan and Jean Delanglez A Guide to Historical Method p. 177-184, 1946
12. ^ A Guide to Historical Method, pp. 157–158, 1974
13. ^ Understanding History, p. 163
14. ^ A Guide to Historical Method, p. 292, 1946
15. ^ Understanding
History, 165-66
16. ^ A Guide to Historical Method, 261–262, 1946)
17. ^ See J. Vansina, De la tradition orale. Essai de méthode historique, in translation as Oral Tradition as History, as well as A. B. Lord’s study of Slavic bards in The Singer
of Tales. Note also the Icelandic sagas, such as that by Snorri Sturlason in the 13th century, and K. E. Bailey, “Informed Controlled Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels”, Asia Journal of Theology [1991], 34–54. Compare Walter J. Ong, Orality
and Literacy.
18. ^ Gottschalk,A Guide to Historical Method, 169, 1950)
19. ^ Justifying Historical Descriptions, p. 19, 1984
20. ^ Justifying Historical Descriptions, p. 26, 1984
21. ^ Justifying Historical Descriptions, 48, 1984
22. ^
Justifying Historical Descriptions, p. 47, 1984
23. ^ Justifying Historical Descriptions, p. v85, 1984
2. Gilbert J. Garraghan, A Guide to Historical Method, Fordham University Press: New York (1946). ISBN 0-8371-7132-6
3. Louis Gottschalk,
Understanding History: A Primer of Historical Method, Alfred A. Knopf: New York (1950). ISBN 0-394-30215-X.
4. Martha Howell and Walter Prevenier, From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods, Cornell University Press: Ithaca (2001).
ISBN 0-8014-8560-6.
5. C. Behan McCullagh, Justifying Historical Descriptions, Cambridge University Press: New York (1984). ISBN 0-521-31830-0.
6. R. J. Shafer, A Guide to Historical Method, The Dorsey Press: Illinois (1974). ISBN 0-534-10825-3.

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