The scope of history

May 21, 2023

Categorising history as science or art remains a polarising debate

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istory is generally considered close to humanities and relatively remote to sciences. It is generally held that history does not qualify to be considered a science. It is included among the social sciences, of which it is considered the least scientific.

While politics and economics departments are labelled as ‘political sciences’ and ‘economic sciences’, the history departments are rarely labelled as ‘department of historical sciences.’ The word science is taken from the Latin root word scire, i.e. to know and scientia, which means knowledge.

This knowledge is to be obtained by whatever methods are appropriate to a particular field of study. EH Carr’s legendary book What is History? contains a thought-provoking chapter, History, Science and Morality. Actually, the historical sciences such as astronomy, archaeology and evolutionary biology share many features. However, these features differ and hence set them apart from non-historical sciences such as physics, chemistry and molecular biology. This difference between historical and non-historical sciences can be understood in terms of differences in their causation, methodology, prediction and complexity.

History has been included in humanities and/ or social sciences depending on the understanding of history as a discipline in the relevant country.

In Pakistan, the discipline has its place among social sciences in accordance with the list prepared by Higher Education Commission. However, a glimpse of the websites of different universities shows that history is listed as a social science in some universities and among humanities in others.

When students are asked in examinations and oral interviews whether history is a science or an art, their answer usually verges on the two extremes.

The reason our students get baffled by this question is that history is not taught as a science or a social science in most of our colleges and universities. On the other hand, art is normally perceived by students as something akin to fine arts, which must include sketching, painting and graphics designing etc, which history of course lacks. Resultantly, the responses can be sarcastic or shocking.

A majority tries to establish that history is an art. Since history writing is an art, they say, the historian is an artist.

Carr argues that in every European language, except English, the equivalent word to ‘science’ includes history without hesitation.

Academia in technologically advanced countries, which include the United States and most of the Western European countries, include history among social sciences. Social sciences are sciences of the society. Social analysis is carried out to solve social problems. Social sciences may share some attributes with natural sciences and some with arts, and further with humanities. Sciences do not belong to a watertight monolithic category. Sciences can be categorised into physical, natural, earth, biological, rational/ logical sciences etc.

Modern academics have gone further to push the once-established watertight boundaries between various fields of knowledge. The contemporary trend favours interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary analysis.

This is because of the increasing realisation that creating barriers is detrimental to academic inquiry, and pushing the boundaries creates opportunities for various branches of knowledge to come closer and make strides in innovation, technological development and breakthroughs in research. An example in point is the genesis and development of bio-technology and bio-informatics. These disciplines are the result of interdisciplinary endeavours in biology and information technology. These fields have come up as a solution to many social problems. These solutions include the bio-informatics gadgets and studies in the field of genetics. Forensic sciences and institutions handling large data, such as the NADRA, often rely on cutting-edge technologies introduced by treading such paths.

History is a social science like economics, sociology and geography. It shares a large number of its attributes with various social sciences. However, its four unique attributes are causation, methodology, prediction and complexity. Historical sciences are concerned with chains of proximate and ultimate causes. In most of physics and chemistry, the concepts of ultimate cause, purpose or function are meaningless, yet they are essential to understanding living systems in general and human activities in particular.

An example in point is given by Jared Diamond, an American physiologist turned historian, in his book Guns, Germs and Steel. It is a really instructive one. He says that a European historian is not satisfied with describing the condition of Europe in both 1815 and 1918 as having just achieved peace after a protracted and costly pan-European war.

Understanding the contrasting chains of events leading up to the two peace treaties is essential to understanding why an even more costly pan-European war broke out again within a few decades of 1918 but not of 1815. On the other hand, chemists do not assign a purpose or a function to a collision of two gas molecules. Nor do they seek an ultimate cause for the collision.

Another significant difference between historical and non-historical sciences is prediction. In sciences like physics and chemistry, the actual test of one’s understanding of a system is whether or not one can predict its future behaviour. Consequently, physicists and chemists look down upon history and evolutionary biology because these fields of inquiry fail to make reliable predictions.

In historical sciences, it is easier to provide a posteriori explanation (for instance, why an asteroid impact on earth 66 million years ago may have wiped out dinosaurs but not many other species) but a priori explanations (for example, we would be uncertain which species would be driven to extinction if we did not have the actual past event to guide us) are more difficult.

As far as the attributes of such historical analyses are concerned, which complicate prediction, there can be different ways to explain them. For instance, human societies and dinosaurs are very complex phenomena and creatures characterised by a vast number of independent variables that impinge on one another. Resultantly, small changes at low levels can lead to big changes at higher levels.

The difficulties faced by historians in establishing cause-and-effect in the historical analyses of human societies are, by and large similar to the complications faced by astronomers, climatologists, ecologists, evolutionary biologists, geologists and palaeontologists. To varying degrees, each of these fields is beleaguered by the impossibility of performing replicated, controlled and experimental interventions, which are generally considered essentials of the scientific method. This complication is the result of the uniqueness of each system and the impossibility of formulating universal laws able to predict future behaviour.

Prediction in history is, as is the case in other historical sciences, feasible on the larger canvas of spatial and temporal scale. A historian can provide factors of asymmetries that made inevitable an overall outcome of the collision between American and Eurasian societies after nearly 13,000 years of separate developmental trajectories, but it might be difficult for them to predict the results of a close election.

The writer has PhD in history from Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. He heads the History Department at the University of Sargodha. He has worked as a research fellow at Royal Holloway College, University of London. He can be reached at He tweets AbrarZahoor1

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