History’s Limitations

An essential limitation of history is that, while it is almost entirely concerned with elucidating and analyzing the lives of people through the ages, it is constrained by the sheer enormity of the task into dealing with those people in bulk.

Outside the privileged genre of biography, the historian’s cast of characters generally resembles the dramatis personae of a Shakespearean play, with a few major characters (often royal) nicely fleshed out with dialogue and perhaps even a soliloquy, a handful of minor characters adding colour, and then the whole rest of the troope relegated to the last line of “Lords, Ladies, Officers, Soldiers, Sailors, Messengers, and other Attendants.” Add in “Peasants, Knights, and Priests”, and you essentially have the makings of a medieval history.

No one historian can capture the lives and doings and motivations of each of the thousands or millions of people within his or her selected place and time. Often the best the historian can do is to flesh out a few key characters and then capture the rest into groupings which can convey the most amount of significant information about their constituents as possible.

Which is why history can never claim to fully reproduce the past, at least not in anything close to entirety, and why all histories will by definition be informed by theory and selectivity in a manner that does sometimes resemble the blind men from the old tale investigating an elephant, each concluding the animal resembles that part of itself available to their own inspection.

The difference is, of course, that in history, blind men will sometimes talk.


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