ISSUE-128

Claim: Though often considered an objective pursuit, learning about the historical past requires creativity.

Reason: Because we can never know the past directly, we must reconstruct it by imaginatively interpreting historical accounts, documents, and artifacts.


Write a response in which you discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with the claim and the reason on which the claim is based.


How do we learn about the past? Some argue that because we could never directly probe into the past, we can only reconstruct it by imaginatively interpreting historical accounts, documents, as well as artifacts. As a result, creativity actually becomes an essential requirement for learning about the past, even though such efforts are often considered to be an objective pursuit. In my opinion, I largely agree with the lines of reasoning above, although I find problems with the claim that the past cannot be directly known and the unsubstantiated assumption that pursuit of learning about history is an objective endeavor.


To begin with, let’s look at the statement that one needs imagination to interpret the past because it is impossible to know the past directly, which I cannot fully agree with. From my own point of view, the history itself can actually be directly known, as there are abundant historical documents that faithfully record what exactly happened in the past. For instance, the assassination of President John F. Kennendy was broadcast live in front of the American public so any future historian interested in this event will have direct access to such important archives. Even for some events in the very remote past, there can still be documents on what happened, both recorded in artifacts and in nature. The origin of agriculture for instance is believed to happen around 13,000 years ago beginning in the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East. This is based on evidence of the remains of agricultural equipment discovered from modern-day Syria and Iraq dating back to that period as well as on fossil record showing the emergence of domesticated crops. Therefore, it is not reasonable to claim that the historical past can never be directly known.


That being said, even though we can directly know the past events, what remains unclear is people’s motivation and what is in their mind. Still, let’s take the case of JFK as an example. Although his assassination is clearly documented, even to this day it is still not clear why the alleged assassin committed such a crime. This mystery is compounded by fact that the suspect was murdered soon afterwards, forcing people to rely on imagination to infer his motivation. Hence, even though the past can be known directly, understanding what is behind the historical facts requires imaginative capacities. Similarly, even though we can deduce from a wide range of evidence the timing of when agriculture started, one has to speculate the reason why people switched from the lifestyle of hunter gathers into that of farmers.


As a result, I by and large agree with the claim that learning about the past require creativity. In the discussion above we used the example of JFK’s tragic assassination, which occurred fairly recently. For such an event with detailed documentation and extensive investigations, we still need to creatively interpret some of its elements, so it is not surprising that for events occurring in the more distant past with little or no direct archiving, imagination becomes critical. The movement of human beings out of Africa is another example. Here, there was no written record of why our ancestors decided to migrate and all we can rely on is environmental and genetic records. Then in order to reconstruct the sequence of events that ultimately led to the settlement of human beings in all continents but Antarctica, one has to creatively infer from the limited information.


However, before concluding my argument, I need to point out one more issue within the original claim. That is, learning about the history is thought to be objective, which is not the case. To understand the reason, we must go back to the fundamentals on how history is learned. We understand history based on our interpretation of the archives. While it is true that historical documents and artifacts are objective, the interpretation on them is very much subjective. As a result, there could be different views on the same object. For example, the width of tree rings is often used by historians to infer past climate and its connection to the rise and fall of civilizations. However, whether it reflects temperature or precipitation (or a combination of the two) is still under dispute, highlighting the subjective nature of learning about the past.


To sum up, because historical documents are either sparse or do not record people’s inner thinking, learning about the past does require certain level of imagination and creativity. That said, it is still possible to know the past directly, and in the meantime, learning about the past is highly subjective.


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