Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 84.djvu/494

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490
THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY

THE SCIENCE OF HISTORY
By Professor CLARENCE WALWORTH ALVORD
THE UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS

NAPOLEON'S cynical question, "What is history but a fiction agreed upon," suggests a criticism that nervous historians have always felt the need of answering; and much investigation and many speculations have been directed at the adverse critics in the hope of placing the popular science in that favored class where are found such unassailable sciences as chemistry and physics. The discussion of the proposition, "Is history a science?" depends so completely on the definition of the term "science" that one is tempted to take refuge with Mr. Freeman behind the old English equivalent, "knowledge." The failure to recognize the difference between the phenomena of history and those which interest the natural scientists and the disinclination to accept limitations not common to all sciences have always been the stumbling blocks for those theorists who would lead history along the path of objective certainty. History has its limitations and to ignore them is not the way to create a science; but rather we must state exactly what can and can not be known, so that we may escape the will-o'-the-wisp kind of sport, a pastime much favored by the speculative historian. It is, therefore, necessary to recognize the peculiarities of the phenomena, of the problem presented by them, and of the method which can be employed.

For the purposes of this paper the phenomena of history, the activities of feeling, thinking, willing men associated in some kind of a community for mutual protection and benefit, need not be dwelt upon, nor is a discussion of the well-known complexity of such phenomena demanded. Their most conspicuous characteristic is that they all belong to. the past. Whereas in other sciences the facts are open immediately to experiment or observation, the events of history are studied mediately through the reports of them, except in so far as actual remains have sporadically reached us. With a liberal interpretation, Mr. Froude is right in saying:

Historical facts are of two kinds, the veritable outward fact—whatever it was which took place in the order of things—and the account of it, which has been brought down to us by more or less competent persons. The first we must set aside altogether. The eternal register of human action is not open to inspection.

Yet the lack of faith in his witnesses, which is the conspicuous characteristic of the modern historian, is the safeguard against deception. We have passed far beyond the naïve credulity of the medieval