Historical Thought

Historical Thought & Education in Modern Turkey, X. International Congress on History, Turkish Historical Society, 1986

 “The Sphinx must solve her own riddle.”

W. Emerson: Essays


What is history but an experience of humanity! Yet what is the use of experience, if one does not learn anything from it? It is useful, only so far, if we have the intellectual capacity to learn something from that experience. We have only a partial experience of history; that is, we know what happens in our age. “If the whole of history is in one man”, said Emerson once, “it is all to be explained from individual experience… We as we read must become Greeks, Romans, Turks, priest and king, martyr and executioner, must fasten these images to some reality in our secret experience, or we shall see nothing, learn nothing, keep nothing”.We learn the past experience of humanity from recorded history; that is, the historical experience, is not our own life-experience: it is the experience of mankind as we hear or read; and as the facts of our world show, we can not be wise enough to learn from other people’s experiences. The problem is that we can not learn from our own experiences either, from the facts of our age, without considering the historical developments prior to this “status quo”. What will learn the future generations of humanity from this would-be history, from the facts of our time? According to this perspective of history, humanity is like a child who can not grasp the real meaning which lies behind the facts.

In the First World War, great empires vanished; Ottoman Empire had also gone; we were forced to defend every part of our country against invaders; after a bitter struggle with Greeks, we have gained independence; and we have established a republican state: consequently, great cultural revolutions have come into existence in Turkey. Then we have adopted a nationalistic view of history; and since then, Turkish historians, influenced by Western historical thought of nineteenth-century, were forced to grasp the meaning of history with a Rankean understanding of methodology. Even though, we are forced to think seriously about these great historical revolutions, I think, Turkish historical thought has some romantic and naive elements which have to be considered again: The nineteenth century fetishism of facts was completed and justified by a fetishism of historical documents, in Turkish historical thought, as en effect of that Rankean methodology. Certainly, L. Von Ranke was a great historian of nineteenth century; and the idea of an objective history which depends on facts (as recorded in historical documents) seems natural for his age. But we can not go back to nineteenth century. As E.H. Carr says:

“When Ranke in the 1830s, in legitimate protest against moralizing history, remarked that the task of the historian ‘simply to show how it really was’ (wie es eigentlich gewesen), this not very profound aphorism had an astonishing success. Three generations of German, British, and even French historians marched into battle untoning the magıc words ‘Wie es eigentlich gewesen’ like an incantation – designed, like most incantations, to save them from the tiresome obligation to think for themselves. The Positivists, anxious to stake out their claim for history as a science, contributed the weight of their influence to this cult of facts.”

But we need a different interpretation of history; “as the world change rapidly and we are taken aback astounded, we need this, desparately at the present-time; since we need a new orientation”.Yet, there is no serious discussion on the methodological problems of history in Turkey. For instance, the problem of historicism which appeared in Germany after the first World War, or the problem of alienation (and de-alienation) which has been an object of passionate discussion since 1930s, had no appeal to the Turkish historans at all.

This is why, I have written a book entitled “Methodology and History” (not published yet), and as I have noted in its introduction, “though some writers use the term ‘methodology’ as a more impressive –sounding synonim for method; methodology means in the narrowest sense, the study or description of the methods used in some activity; and in a wider sense, it includes a general investigation of the aims, concepts, and the principles of reasoning of the discipline”. In this sense, we have to abandon our blind confidence for the apprenticeship of history; learning history from the facts of history is not as easy as it seems: it may end as a “scissors-and-paste” documentarism. We need a new methodological orientation for history. There are some method books (written by Turkish historians) for teaching practical means and the technical use of facts, but not the discussion of those technical means; because, I think, nobody wants to discuss such matters. This is because that kind of study needs a new philosophy of history which could enable us to make a critical approach towards methodological problems. But without undertaking such a difficult study, we can not escape from some naive conclusions of “historical objectivism”. Typical historians tend to ignore “critical philosophy of history” (methodology); so comes off the result that, I think, an epistemological naiveness on the nature of history, pervades all historical writings. Let me illustrate one point of difficulty in this connection, “the historical relativism” of the views of historians:

“St Augustine looked at history from the point of view of the early Christian; Tillamont, from that of a seventeenth-century Frehman; Gibbon, from that of an eighteenth-century Englishman; Mommsen, from that of a nineteenth-century German. There is no point in asking which was the right point of view. Each was the only one possible for the man who adopted it.”

Is history “a child’s box of letters with which we can spell anyword we please”?I think, it is time to consider, more seriously, our way of reasoning, use of facts, concepts and aims of historical thouht. For instance, what about the genetical explanation, used in historical reasoning? Is it a sufficient way of explanation or not? These are passionately discussed matters in our era: We can not act as a deaf and blind man while we are face to face with these matters. It is the time, to study methodological problems of history and tho teach them at the departments of history.

Another reason for the reconsideration of methodology, arises from the fact that, the scientific image of the world has greatly changed since nineteenth-century. Nowadays, everbody knows that our sensory organs do not give us an accurate picture of the world. We naturaly make a distinction between time and space, but it is an illusion. There are grave philosophical implications of quantum mechanics-and we have a new conception of “space-time” according to Einstein’s theory of relativity. Since time and space are basic concepts of human intellect, we have to change our minds; and with a new orientation, we have to change other concepts of reasoning also, towards building a new philosophy of the nature. We have come to a different idea of nature due to the scientific developments: Ages-old facts are not facts anymore!

Our world of ideas can not remain as the same “old ideas” either: This is something we may try! It is an obligation not only for philosophers, but also for historians; it may never be completed since these ideas are in a process which is changing for ever and ever; consequently, the judgements of reason can not have an “atemporal character” (our worldview also, has the temporal character of a historical relativism). We are living in a period of history, characterized by great changes; the transition has not been over yet: History must solve its own riddle…

Accordingly, our educational means must also undergo changes. We know the value of an expert’s knowledge, but I am afraid, we forget the culture. There is much more and much more ignoramus specialists in this age comparing with Middle Ages. As A. N. Whitehead says:

“Culture is activity of thought, and receptiveness to beauty and humane feeling. Scraps of information have nothing to do with it. A merely well-informed man is the most useless bore on God’s earth. What we should aim at producing is men who possess both culture and expert knowledge in some special direction. Their expert knowledge will give them the ground to start from, and their culture will lead them as deep as philosophy and as high as art.”

It seems that there are some possibilities for solving this paradox of “increasing ignorance with increasing expert knowledge”. Computers and Databases, provided that we will soon see more technical developments in these fields (such as artificial intelligence and increasing capacity of micro-chips), may provide some assistance: expanded databases, as everyman’s library for every branch of knowledge, could supply easily accessible information, as well as an artificial intelligence could analyze and discern that data for us. One of the most charmful aspects of it is that it will save us from authoritarian educational means. Perhaps only then, students of history will learn “not-to-trust” to the authorities of books or masters; but to use their own brains…



  1. R.W.Emerson, Essays, “History”, London 1947, p.8.
  2. E. H. Carr,. What is History?, Penguin Books, 1982, p. 9.
  3. Ş. Uçar, “Patterns and Trends in History”, Selçuk Üniv., Edebiyat Dergisi, sayı 3, p. 157-194.
  4. E. H. Carr, What in History?, p. 26, quoted from R. Colingwood.
  5. Ibid, quoted from A. Froude.
  6. A. N. Whitehead. The Aims of Education, New York, 1958, p. 13.