Aristotle and the Obstacle of Uncertainty in Teaching History

Feb 09, 2017 | Posted by Nicholas DiDonato


History has never been more difficult to teach. Ours is an age where seeing is believing: if it’s not on video, it is questionable. Indeed, braggarts on Facebook are commonly challenged with “pics or it didn’t happen.” To win our consent, we demand the highest level of visual proof. Yet, the first photograph was not taken until 1814, leaving the historian in the awkward position of being unable to prove what “really” happened to modern students. The problem worsens when students read Herodotus’s interesting (for lack of a better word) accounts of phoenixes, magic, and urine that restores sight. As students are about to dismiss Herodotus as worthless, Aristotle provides an important reminder.

Aristotle writes: “Our discussion will be adequate if it has as much clearness as the subject-matter admits, for precision is not to be sought for alike in all discussions, any more than in all the products of the crafts” (Nic. Ethics I.3). In context, Aristotle is reflecting upon the nature of ethics, but his principle of seeking the degree of “clearness” as a discipline allows applies more generally.

Applied to history, one might be tempted simply to conclude that since primary sources (such as Herodotus) have a monopoly on many past events, the precision that should be sought is no more or less than what we have. If Herodotus is all we have, then our discussion is adequate because this is as much clearness as history admits.

While true, the above omits a foundational question: what is history? Only once answered, can one determine how much clearness history admits, and how one might teach history. If “history” is defined as “facts of the past,” then the above is still a bit of an embarrassment. Yes, Herodotus is all we have for certain events, but in terms of giving us just the “facts,” he falls quite short. Even by Aristotle’s restriction of allowing only as much clearness as a subject-matter admits, history as a subject certainly allows for more clearness than that of Herodotus, arguably leaving him in low regard precisely because of historical standards.

Another (admittedly too broad, bleeding into historiography) way to define history is as “the art of critically examining primary sources.” Rather than passively reading Herodotus, students now must actively read him, constantly interrogating him with historical standards in mind. Primary sources—especially those like Herodotus—are key to developing the kind of critical thinking needed in history. Students learn to do exactly what professional historians do: argue, based on primary sources, what really happened. Instead of falling into a clean fact/fiction dichotomy, history enters a world where arguments determine what should be believed. It is indeed an art. Returning to Aristotle, the degree of “clearness,” then, revolves around the soundness of historical arguments. Students of history are less dependent on people like Herodotus and more dependent on their ability to reason.

Tempting as it is to believe, argumentation does not suddenly disappear for historians post-1814. Photographs not only vary in quality, but can create optical illusions or be intentionally altered. The same applies for videos. People have viewed videos of the Kennedy assassination and the collapse of the Twin Towers and have on their own come away arguing whether there were conspiracies behind these events. In an era where people can instantly post photos and videos to the Internet, the historian’s critical eye is needed now more than ever. History may change; the methods of studying it have not.



© Nicholas C. DiDonato

Topics: Teaching History, History, Aristotle