What is the nature of questions that can be answered by historical sources and methods?

  • Pay attention to the qualities of sources that inspire the nature of valid historical questions.
  • Pay attention to the qualities of methods that inspire the nature of valid historical questions.

Are there third fonts for the nature of valid historical questions?

  • 1
    Argh, I wish you haven't posted all these questions and answers in such short time. The vote fraud script that runs daily isn't exceptionally smart, if people don't take care to space out their votes on your posts, the script will reverse them.
    – yannis
    Commented May 29, 2013 at 4:23
  • If they are any good, I suspect that they'll be upvoted slowly over a long time :). Historiography doesn't have the same kind of allure that, say, mid-Twentieth Century military history has. Commented May 29, 2013 at 5:13
  • This should be migrated on meta.
    – user2237
    Commented May 29, 2013 at 17:34
  • @SamuelRussell - you'd be surprised. I'm tempted to bulk vote
    – DVK
    Commented May 29, 2013 at 21:00
  • what is third fonts? meaning criteria? i don't think i understand the question.
    – franklin
    Commented Jul 28, 2013 at 15:36

1 Answer 1


Historical sources and methods are targeted at answering contextual questions about the meaning and nature of human behaviour and experience over time on the basis of the documentary record of the past.

Questions must be timely: they must deal with change and continuity. They must deal with the situation in time.

Questions must deal with the documentary record of the past: history is fundamentally a textual pursuit. Even when historians construct, for example, wage-price series in economic history they are reliant upon the textual records of the past. This question can become problematic when the documentary records of the past are recent in origin (for example: evidence supplied by archaeologists).

Questions must deal in human practices and behaviours: while we can observe evidence for climatologists or botanists from the documentary record of the past, these activities then become biology or ecology. History itself is concerned with the human world of meanings and experiences. Many things which may not appear to initially be human meaning or experience (boat construction) actually are: the science, craft and practice of building boats is an intensely social and meaning driven endeavour.

Questions must deal in context and meaning: Historians typically answer questions about meaning, rather than volume. While answers may be available for questions such as "How many soldiers were in a division in Germany?" a historian will seek to answer, "Why did Germans choose a certain divisional structure?" As such, many things that people wish to know about the past cannot be answered by historians, as the questions are not meaningful or contextual: a practice may be an irrelevancy, or the sources may not record the practice in a way (or at all) that allows it to be contextualised.

This is because historians deal with the documentary record of the past, which tends to be documents that people cared about preserving (or did not seek to deliberately destroy). These records tend to be about the meaning of human social practices. Additionally, as historians read meaning from texts, the methods of reading meaning produce limitations on the answerable questions. The use of empathy or historical economic statistics reduce the number of produceable meanings.

Thirdly, this is because mostly people want meaning and context questions about the past. "What was it like to be...?" rather than "How many nails in a hob nailed boot on average in 14th century Florence?" and the funding agencies support the former but not the latter question.

  • Can you explain the bit about empathy, please? Commented May 30, 2013 at 7:15
  • Historical empathy, as an element of a reading method: to imagine the set of values and meanings that the ancients themselves felt about their world, rather than to impose anachronistic value judgements. Is that clearer? I was gesturing at two major ways of reading meanings from texts used by historians. Commented May 30, 2013 at 7:57
  • I know what you mean by empathy, what confuses me is "reduce the number of produceable meanings" - is this reduction a good thing or a bad thing? It's not clear from your text. And what do historic economic statistics are doing in the same sentence as empathy (I think I have a faint notion of this, actually: do you mean that we can understand old events better by attuning ourselves to the economic context, just the same way we can attune ourselves to the moral/emotional context, via empathy?) Commented May 30, 2013 at 9:03
  • Noel Butlin, an economic historian, constructed a number of wage-price series for Australia. Such a reading of data restricts the stories we can tell about the past: Australia was always urban, farming was always dominated by big capital. More: Noel's reading doesn't answer questions about the West Wyalong sheep dip's use in April 1850. Reading Nagy's New Course with empathy restricts the number of Readings. Nagy is not a nationalist, or even an anti-Stalinist. He's a strange kind of bolshevik—but nor can we answer if he preferred brown or black shoes, nor can we suggest he was Horthyte Commented May 30, 2013 at 21:34

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