“You have reckoned that history ought to judge the past and to instruct the contemporary world as to the future. The present attempt does not yield to that high office. It will merely tell how it really was. “
– Leopold von Ranke
“History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon.”
– Napoleon Bonaparte
History is less a science or an art than it is a craft; and like most craftsmen, historians have favored techniques that they tend to pass on to their students, rather than formulas. Moreover, what differentiates good history from bad is, to an extent, a matter of opinion. Even (or especially) among professional historians, there can be heated dispute on this point. Truly great history, though, tends to be like obscenity – we all recognize it when we see it.
In part, historians are like detectives because there is no substitute for a rigorous examination of archival sources with the intention of bringing something new about your subject to light. Finding the overlooked document is a coup but being an archive rat is not enough. To be useful to the larger society requires effectively communicating a meaningful analysis.
When historians produce great interpretations of historical events, narratives that have generational staying power, they begin with an implicit historicity, or at least an overarching theme, to act as a guide. Connecting small events to the largest picture gives a work of history great explanatory power, which is why that in 500 years from now, odds are that people will still be reading Gibbon, Herodotus and Thucydides but historians from the 20th century may be entirely forgotten (as the modern, doctorate-wielding, historical profession is only little over a century old, our best historians probably have yet to be born).
One of the great questions is whether to view history in a linear or cyclical fashion. Many of the ancients, like Polybius, tended to see history as a recurring pattern. This not as common today, though some historians, like the Vietnam era specialist David Kaiser, have embraced cyclicalism, an attractive concept intellectually, because it offers the hope of anticipating future events while mitigating the moral responsibility of causation. It is hard to make headway against the zeitgeist, after all.
Linear paradigms in history, while offering a tidy, chronological sequence that is familiar to anyone who, as a child, was required to draw a timeline in school, present their own analytical problems. On an ideological level, the view of history as unidirectional “progress” tends to breed a spirit of determinism that inclines the historian to ignore contrary evidence. Much has been made about leftist MESA scholars in academia who were blind to the rise of Islamism before 9/11; much the same could be said of conservative scholars in the West who ignored the potential barbarism of Fascism and National Socialism. It is possible for history to move backwards, metaphorically speaking. Or backwards and forwards at the same time, as in the case of the Nazis, who championed both atavistic racialism and modern technology.
The second problem with a rigidly linear approach, is that it is tempting to ascribe causation to prior events that are merely correlative in sequence but are weakly connected in substance.This fallacy appears glaringly among conspiracy theorists who offer seemingly impressive but isolated, data points that purport to show that “FDR knew about Pearl Harbor” or “the CIA killed Kennedy“. This tendency can easily affect legitimate works of history, if to a lesser degree though the process of robust, merciless and at times, gleeful, criticism that historians hurl at one another’s writings helps to keep this error in check.
Framing history is an analytical tool and like carpenters, historians are best served using a variety of tools instead approaching all historical questions with nothing but a hammer.