HISTORY : The Historian And The Study Of The Past

Paper on Philosophy of History by Samson Adekola

The Human past is the subject matter of History. The past refers to events that occured before a given point in time in human history. The question thus arises, can a historian actually study the past? The answer to this question is embedded in the nature of the past.

The past as history is concerned is gone and can never be recalled. Once an event occurs it fades into oblivion never to be seen again. The past is therefore not like a laboratory specimen that can be brought out of the shelves to be examined and studied, thus the past itself cannot be studied by a historian.

Prof David Olusoga

Since the past itself has faded into oblivion and can never be studied it leaves behind fragmentary evidences or we could say “statements of events” for the historian to deal with. These evidences are pale reflections of the past and not the past itself and they can be in written or unwritten document which are the sources of history.

These statements of events or reflections of the past can not be equated with the past itself because they can be so skeletal, fragmentary and very inaccurate as they do not give the exact account of what really happened.

For example, the January 15, 1966 coup in Nigeria is an event that occurred many years ago. The actions that took place that day can never be recalled with total accuracy and so a contemporary historian who intends to write on this historical event will need to rely on the “statements of the past” and not the event (past ) itself.

Prof Toyin Falola

The impossibility to recall or study the past has made history to be somewhat Subjective and not as objective as it ought to be. It is subjective in the sense that since the actual past can not be brought back to be studied, it gives the historian a free pass to construct the past the way he or she seems fit. This particular issue has led to publications of various accounts of a single event.

An instance of this can be seen in the account stories of the collapse of the Old Oyo empire. Robin Law in his own understanding claims the collapse was as a result of the weakness of the Empire’s politics. J.A Atanda argues that the collapse was due to the over ambitious nature of the functionaries within the Oyo empire while Samuel Johnson in his book “The History Of The Yoruba’s” perceived the collapse as a result of their iniquities which resulted to them being punished by God.

These various accounts constructed by these scholars was greatly influenced by their own inherent personalities, beliefs and principles and they brought it to bear on their analysis of the past.

This subjective nature of history can therefore be said to be as a result of the possibility of a historian to study the past itself but the statements about the past.

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