Defining History


The termHistory” is used quite often but it is a word that cannot be easily defined. In a common usage, it is  equivalent to stories of legendary personalities; adventures of Gods and saints, the mythical and the real, and deeds of the legendary and fictitious heroes. But  history as one often social sciences deal with the humanity’s progress and development process from the beginning to the present day that continues in future also.thus, history, establishes a linkage to the activities and achievements of human beings in past, present and future. Hence, the study is essential to any country and any person to understand one’s own development process. 

What is historiograpghy?

  • Is the study of the methods of historians in developing history as an academic discipline (historical work on a particular subject).
  • Covers how historians have studied that topic using particular sources, techniques, and theoretical approaches.
  • historiography meant “the writing of history”, and 
  • historiographer meant “historian”.


In the beginning, subject matter of history was tradition but then history could be hardly distinguished from the rest stories. In the course, the factual narration of history of the life of historical personalities became a practice in historical writing.

Herodotus came forward with his History of the Perisan Wars in which the subject matter was a political event that greatly influenced the Greeks. He included only those events wherein he was fully satisfied with truth and he took great effort to sift the truth from untruth. Thus, history began to conceived  as a truthful narration of events of significant national importance. Herodotus was there fore, rightly called as the ‘father of History’.  Because he has used the correct identification or truthful location of past these events (theh phenomenon under investigation).

Thucydides: He wrote ‘The History of the Peloponnesian War’  marked next step in the march of history towards becoming science.He developed systematic knowledge to regard to past happening. He only presented authentic information about the war but also attempt to analyses cause and effect relationship i.e.,  he tried toanswer the “why” of these events.

From a long time, Thucydides‘The History of the Peloponnesian War’  became model of work for historians. But the evolution of history as a science was not complete even then. The perfection of science lies in its caoacity to i) illustrate the present and ii) predict the future with regard to the phenomenon under investigation.

History concerns itself with the past because of its relevance to the present, and “why’ of present happening is embedded in past happening. History is more interested in the present than past; though its subject matter belongs to the past, the focus of history is on the present.


Definition enlightens and limits the scope of the any subject or area of knowledge. The idea of history helpsin understanding the narure, objectives and uses, and contemporary relevance of history. Right from origin of the idea  of history in the ancient times till date, ther various various definitions and conceptions expressed by philosophers.

Greeks were the earlist to define history. Dionysius of Halicarssus (40-8BCE) said history is philosophy teaching by examples. In the sixth century BCE, the emergence of scientific history took place. Greeks, particularly the Ionians, laid the foundation of historical writing. The greek word “Istoria” meant learning or a collection of information obtained as the result of an enquirey. It passed from the Greeks to the Romans to other languages and assured widerimplications.

The latin “historia”, the rench ‘historire’ and the English ‘history’ originally meant  inquirey, investigation and research, and not  a record of data accumulated thereby-usual present day meaning of the term.

The German word “geschichite’ stood for event, the Arab word ‘Tarikh’ for dates and the Sanskrit word ‘Itihasa’ for history gives meaning of talk, legend an dtraditional accounts  of former events. These conceptions of history in different languages considered time factor, chronology and sequence of events as important and integral parts of history but these themselves do not constitute history. 

The Oxford Taliking Dictionary  defines history as the continuous methodical record of important or public events especially those connected with a particular country, individual etc.; and the branch of knowledge that deals with past events, the formal record or study of past events especially human beings.

There are various definitons or connections of history that convey the same meaning but the implications are fundamentally no so different. By nature, certain defintios are simple whilel others are complex. The defintions of history can be classified into there segments:

  1. History as a record of past events
  2. History as knowledge
  3.  History as science
  1. History as a record of past events

History is mainly concerned with past events or happening of humanity. The past historical facts are given a new anaylsis in the light of the current thought process. Hence, many philosophers of history defined history in terms of record or as a record of past events. These are as follows:

  • Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, viewed history as an account of the unchanging past. To him nature does cot change and all that originate with the same intentuions and motives differently in the degree of details and not in  their basic past events.
  • Polybius and Thucydides, the greek historians, said that “history is a story of things worthy of being remembered”. This suggests that signisficant, remarkable and unique events of human beings would figure in history. 
  • Findlay said that “history is any sequences of events traced in their relations’.
  • Renier considered ‘history as a study which is concerned with the human past’.
  • Buukhardt defined history asteh ‘record of what one age finds worthy of note in anotehr’.
  •  Clyde and Beers found history as the record of things thought said anad done’.
  • Seeely considered ‘history as past politics’.
  • G.R. Elton say that ‘history is concerned with all those human saying, thoughts, deeds and suffereings that occurred in the past and have left present deposit: and it deal with them from the point of view of happening change and the particular’.
  1.  History as knowledge

A grounp pf philosophers believed that historical facts and analysis provide knowledge to humanity. They considered that history is a story house of knowledge due to its coverage of multifacteted activities of humanity from time immemorial, enhancing learning experience of each generation.

  • Cicero held the view that ‘history isteh teacher of life’?
  • Sir Francis Bacon said that ‘histiry is a discipline that makes men wise’.
  • Travelyn felt that ‘historywas a house in which all subject dwelt’.
  • Sir Charles Firth considered. ‘history as a branch of learning to be studied for its own in addition to being a kindof knowledge which is useful to men in their daily life’.
  • Sir Walter Raleigh held the view that ‘the end and scope of history is to teach us by example ot times past such wisdom as many guide our desire and action’.
  1.  History as science

The impact of positivism that has elaborately by Ausguste Comte, recogniseing only positive facts and observable phenomenon and rejecting metaphysics and theism, also reflected  on the historical thought. Positivism believed that every intelligible proposition can be scientifically verified or fasified. The postivisms denied the distinction between nature and history and sought to bring them closer, and on this history is considered a science.

  • J,B. Bury said that ‘history is a science, no less and no more’.
  • Seignbos describe ‘history is essentially a science of reasoning since all historical knowledge is indirect. It is the historian who gives reasoning or interpreting to the historical facts on the basis of reasoning’.
  • R.G. Collingwood, the English historian. Says,’ every historian would agree, I think that history is a kind of research or inquiry. Science is finding things out and in that sense history is science’.

Negative definitions of History

A few philosophers expressed indifferent perception and negative attitude towards history. The harsh definitions of history described  it as a distorted picture of humanity misery full of wars and disorders. But in reality, history also consists of order and progress of humanity.

  • Rousseau regarded “history as the art of choosing from among many lies the one which most resembles the truth’
  •  Voltaire, the French philosophers,, is of the opinion that ‘history is but a picture of crimes and misfortunes’. He also observed ‘history is but a pack of tricks we play on the dead’.
  •  Henry Ford said ‘history is bunk”.
  • Hegel felt that ‘only lesson we learn from history is that it has no lessons to offer’.
  •  Gibbon was of the view that ‘history is little more than the crimes follies and misfortune of mankind’.

Contemporary Definitions of History

 E.H. Carr view that history is ‘the accumulated record of humanity’s achievements and failure and omissions, in short, the life humanity’.

He further says tat “History is a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the past and present.


Chakravarti, A., (2012). History, Historical thought and Historiography. New Delhi: Dorling Kindersley Pvt. Ltd, India

Sheikh Ali, B. (1978). History: Its Theory and Method. New Delhi; Macmillan India Limited.

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