Essay on What Counts as Evidence in a Historical Argument?
Number of words: 3228
The question “what counts as evidence, and what does not?”, in a historical argument is an extremely controversial issue for the historian. Historians are not only concerned with not wishing to appear unprofessional or incompetent by fellow scholars, but there is also the threat of legal action. An example of this occurred in 1985 in the case of the Institute for Historical Review, when due to their distinct failure to grasp the concept of what counted as evidence in a historical argument, the organisation faced ridicule and financial penalties.
Bloch points out that evidence is everything around us, this gives the idea that evidence that can be used in a historical argument is anything that the historian can sense around them. This includes everything he can hear, which falls under the category of oral history, such as interviews, tape recordings, radio etc. Everything a historian can see, being visual history, which encompasses the “new forms of source material” . Anything a historian can touch or create, like artefacts or any work of art, as well as the most traditional form of evidence for the historian, written history. It is through the exploration of the advantages and disadvantages of these various sources that I hope to be able to answer the question of, what counts as evidence in a historical argument?
The main argument against the use of oral history being used as historical evidence is because of the selective and subjective nature of the human memory. It is very difficult to take, and to use, what is said by persons during accounts or interviews when they themselves, may simply not be getting their facts right. For example, the Guardian Newspaper demonstrated how the human memory is not always reliable, when during an experiment 40% of subjects, recollected seeing CCTV images of the 07/07 bombings, which simply did not exist. Raphael Samuel makes the point, that generally it is only periods of “trial and tribulation” that stick in the human memory, or the more “eccentric” qualities of people . This supports my feeling that in oral history, extravagant events are more readily focused upon and those occurring in general day to day living, which are comparatively ignored. This would mean that unless significant events are the focus of the historian, it is very difficult to use a record as evidence in a historical argument. There are far too many gaps in the human memory, to make what an individual may recall, sufficiently accurate to be used as evidence.
However, a counter argument to the above is the fact that what isn’t said, and what is forgotten, can often be just as important to the historian as what is said. We see this in Luisa Passerini interviews. Of the 200 working class men interviewed, many had totally erased the memory of fascism under Mussolini, which provides evidence to the historian of the mentality of the people during that period, particularly concerning the idea of a collective memory. Even though the subjects of interviews can embellish the truth somewhat, or get facts wrong, it is still very important, as it gives a depth and understanding to the subject. Even through the tone of a voice or an accent, the historian can gather a whole range of information, for example, the “subjectivity of a social group or class”, as Alessandro Portelli suggests. Since George Evans book “Ask The Fellows Who Cut The Hay” , as well as Studs Turkels interviews, oral history has given not just the elite, but also the working class, the opportunity to give their perspective on day to day life, providing a valuable historical source.
The reason that written sources cannot be used as evidence is due not only to the author, but also to the reader of the text. There may be a hidden agenda as to why a text was written, such as the purpose being to deceive the recipient. This theory is supported by Richard J Evans, who particularly focuses on the “political” texts. Politicians may well be attempting to deceive their readers, so how can their texts are used as evidence, if what is on the page is simply not fact? The same is said for an autobiography, where the purpose of the creation of the text is for financial gain, or to give a biased perspective, therefore the truth may often be embellished. Authors of biographies also serve their own purpose and perspective. It is possible the author is either going to be in hero worship of their subject, or have a less than favourable view of them. It is also hard to trust figures and graphs, because they are completed by people. People can, and do, make mistakes, or change the emphasis of the data because they wish to prove a finding, which is why they are created in the first place. Another reason that written sources cannot be used as evidence is based on the historian using the source. I fully agree with the Historians Craft, in the sense that it is not enough just to read these documents, you also need the skills required to interpret the documents. If those skills are not possessed then your interpretation cannot be used as evidence. Holocaust deniers in particular, show a distinct lack of correct interpretation of written sources. Faurisson for example totally misinterpreted a speech, where suddenly the phrase “territories in the rear” was taken to mean “behind the front”, when he used it as evidence to support his own theories .
But, despite the fact “with ink, anyone can write anything” , the written word is still a source that counts for evidence in a historical argument. Even if it shows the ulterior motives that the author may have had, this is still useful in the investigation of a particular topic. As historian Carr states, a historians’ fact is merely down to interpretation of what the historian chooses to use. Even if a document is totally biased and is full of mistruths, we still gather information from it, such as what was the rationale for the bias. This, in turn, can lead to more historical questions being raised. It is also essential that the written word can be seen as a viable source of evidence, as for a period of time, it was one of the only sources that could be used. John Vincents view that written sources are in a sense dying out is valid, but before technological advances, ink and paper were the only items that could be used to leave a record for future generations, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Discounting the written word is discounting thousands of years worth of evidence. Another reason that the written source is so important is that it often acts as a back up for the potential fallibility of other sources of evidence. Deborah Lipstadt expresses her fears that with the dying holocaust survivors being unable to tell their tale, that belief in the existence of the holocaust itself, will die with them. This is very untrue, as accounts can be put down on paper and preserved forever to safeguard the memory. We must put faith in the historians of the future, and believe that they will not falsify evidence in the way that David Irving did, but as Evans states, historians “bring their own pre-suppositions, their own beliefs and purposes”  to history, and because they realise the bias that can exist within the written word, they only use this information in a neutral and objective way, in order to bring out the truth of the past.
The world of archaeology and the study of artefacts can be seen as one of the purest forms of historical study and there are many arguments to suggest that it is not only a source of evidence in a historical argument, but the most useful type to the historian. If we are looking at history from beyond the period of around 200 years ago, generally only a select few were literate and able to formulate their ideas on paper, as Lisa Fawlk describes as the “wealthy, white males” . The less documented side of history, such as the conditions of the homeless in America, are able to be studied far more, by viewing the sites that the American homeless lived on. Through these sources we are able to divulge evidence on a far wider variety of subjects. Historians often argue that it is the unintentional history that people leave behind that can tell the most, as they “determine the underlying reality of our history” . Being within the confines of an excavated area, or holding an artefact made by a man hundreds of years before, has been described as “as close we will ever get to a time machine” . It is the only chance we will have to truly see through the eyes of the past. This surely shows it can be used as evidence in a historical argument.
In opposition, the problems that I have previously illustrated exist within this field of history as any other. There is still the ability to modify evidence, so that it is no longer reliable, and therefore means it cannot be used as evidence. Artefacts can simply be faked, such as the Phaistos Disc, declared fake by leading American scholars. If evidence can be faked so easily and fool so many, then who is to say that the majority of artifacts and excavations are legitimate? Not only this, but it could be argued that people in general, are not fit to use this type of source as evidence. We bring our own bias and thoughts, and our ability to “interpret what things mean in terms of life in the past”  may not therefore be accurate. Until there is a historian with no subjective thoughts or feelings on a subject, which is not possible given the human nature, then artifacts will always be something that cannot be used as evidence.
The same problem that exists within the use of artifacts, also exists within the use of visual evidence. Something like a picture, can have too much faith placed upon it. People expect that their eyes cannot be fooled, and what they see is therefore absolute proof. What must be considered, is that every picture has been framed in the way that it has, by the photographer, for a particular reason, and that it is not just a ‘fly on the wall’ view. This is also evident in films. For example, even Rosenstone, who worked with historical movies, stated that for various reasons they are not historically accurate. This shows that they cannot be used for evidence. Although, historians such as Richard J Evans infer that they do not naively believe everything they read. I also believe that this applies to what a historian sees. A picture from the past will still give a view of the past, it will still be like looking through the eyes of the past, but at the same time framing it through the eyes of someone with their own bias and reason for taking the photo, or creating the film. This shows that visual evidence can be used in a historical argument.
To conclude, I feel that anything can be used as evidence in a historical argument. Simply everything can be used by a historian if it becomes relevant to their argument. No matter what the type of source is, it can always be used in some instance; even the most bias document can be used to show something. But, although anything can be used in a historical argument as evidence, this does not mean the evidence can be created, suppressed, manipulated, distorted or transposed, as illustrated by the infamous David Irving trial, where he was accused of doing such acts. Evidence must be taken as what it is and ideas should be formulated around arguments, not an argument created and evidence manipulated, to try and fit the theory. An example of this would be what David Abraham did during his book “The Collapse of the Weimar Republic” . The world around us is comprised of millions of segments of historical evidence, it is our job as historians to neutrally view it, in the pursuit of knowledge and not to corrupt the evidence, as that will only hinder historical progress.
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 Munslow, Alun “Deconstructing history”Routlidge,Taylor and Francis Group ,(1997) ,p. 83
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 “Phaistos Disc Declared As Fake By Scholars”, Times Online <http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/visual_arts/article4318911.ece> (assessed 21st November 2009)
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Rosenstone, Robert, ‘History in Images/History in Words: Reflections on the Possibility of Really Putting History into Film‘, American Historical Review, 93 (1988), p 1173
 Evans, Richard, “In Defence Of History”, p.107
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 Evans, Richard, “In Defence Of History”, pp.116-124