Terms for thinking historically

Agency (Or Human Agency): The capacity of human beings to act in a way that influences history (see also, determinism, inevitability).

American exceptionalism: America is an exceptional nation, a "city on a hill," unique and better than all other nations. During the 2012 presidential primaries conservative Republican candidates accused President Obama of not believing in American exceptionalism and trying to make the US more like Europe. Newt Gingrich even wrote a book about it: A Nation Like No Other: Why American Exceptionalism Matters. (Gingrich and Haley). Negative Exceptionalism: America is uniquely worse than other countries. (Loewen, 138).

Bias: "An uncontrolled form of interest. . . . Because 'bias' is used pejoratively, it is assumed that some workers are biased, others not. This is to think in black and white. Gaetano Salvemini put the situation better when he told his students: 'impartiality is a dream and honesty a duty. We cannot be impartial, but we can be intellectually honest.'" "Bias can be controlled, indeed suppressed, by a trained mind that is also self-aware" (Barzun and Graff, 154-55).

Chronological Ethnocentrism: James Loewen's term for the assumption underlying Whig history: "That our society and culture are better than past ones. . . [and that] we are smarter and more knowledgeable than past peoples." (Loewen, 113) After 33 years of working with the pre-modern, "primitive" people of New Guinea, Jared Diamond became convinced that they are "on average more intelligent, more alert, more expressive, and more interested in things and people around them than the average European or American is." He contends that modern civilizations are less conducive to the health and intellectual development of individuals than pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer societies (Diamond, Guns Germs and Steel, 20); and: (Diamond, "The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race").

Cognitive dissonance: A state of anxiety caused by contradictions between simultaneously held beliefs, ideas, and perceptions. Psychologists believe that people will usually seek to alleviate this anxiety by reducing dissonance, even if it means denying reality. It's important for historians and other scholars to be alert to this bias toward cognitive consonance in themselves and in the subjects they are studying.

Cognitive shortcuts: When we use previous experiences, shortcuts, templates, rules of thumb, stereotypes, and assumptions rather than the actual observed facts in a situation to arrive at a conclusion.

Confirmation bias: Our tendency to pay attention to evidence that supports our pre-existing belief and to discount evidence that contradicts it. As the bumper sticker says, "don't believe everything you think."

Context: The circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, document, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed.

Contextualize: To place something in its context.

Contingent: Not determined; dependent upon chance or factors and circumstances that are presently unknown (Encarta).

Determinism: The belief that human beings have no free will in the face of large implacable forces. Different varieties of determinism emphasize different forces, such as economic, geographic, and environmental. Jared Diamond's argument, that the fate of civilizations was determined by the geographical orientation of contents is an example of geographic determinism.

Dichotomous thinking: "Dichotomies or bifurcations or either-ors, whatever we call them, introduce abstractions on opposite sides of divides and suggest vast separations between their referents. The problem is, the absolute separations of traits usually do not exist in the world — even the world of experience — and the abstractions therefore typically do not apply. They accomplish little except to mislead and confuse our thinking." From Lost Generation Philosopher; see the discussion there of the free will/determinism dichotomy.

Epistemic humility: Being realistic about the level of certainty you can have about something and acknowledging what you don't know and what is even unknowable. Here, David Brooks accuses liberal reformers of having insufficient epistemic humility in devising social reforms. My students demonstrate insufficient epistemic humility (aka, modesty) when they write papers that fail to consider the complexity and ambiguity of the evidence, and assert their theses with an unwarranted degree of certainty. See PWG #4c.

False equivalence: "A logical fallacy where there appears to be a logical equivalence between two opposing arguments, but when in fact there is none. Journalists use a form of this logical fallacy when comparing two sides of a scientific debate in an attempt to provide a balance between a scientific and denialist point of view. However, there is no equivalence between the two sides, when one is supported by evidence, and the other side with little or no evidence, of which most is of low quality. In other words, in false equivalence, someone will state that the opposing arguments have a passing similarity in support, when, on close examination, there is large difference between the quality of evidence" (The Skeptical Raptor).

Hedging: What historians do to indicate their lack of certainty about a particular proposition. They use words like may or might; suggest, appear, seem; possibly, perhaps (Wineburg). Also, avoid using words like "believed" or "thought" when referring to something that someone said. You can never know if someone actually believes what they say. For more on uncertainty, read "History is a Mystery."

Historicism: The belief that natural laws beyond human control determine historical events (Encarta).

Historiography: The body of scholarship that has been written about any given topic. One of the first questions a researcher must ask is: what is the historiography of my topic? What have previous historians of this topic had to say about it?

Ideology: "The day-to-day vocabulary of prevailing economic and social relationships" (attributed to the American historian Barbara Fields). Or if you prefer Google: "a system of ideas and ideals, especially one that forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy."

Inevitability: Resist the temptation to assume that history had to unfold the way that it did. Read "The false inevitability of historical events: To take inevitable historical narratives at face value is to presume the historian as some sort of post-facto prophet rather than what she actually is: a mortician of human events," Livemint.com, April 27 2018.

Intellectual honesty: Wikipedia cites four signs of intellectual honesty: "One's personal beliefs do not interfere with the pursuit of truth; relevant facts and information are not purposefully omitted even when such things may contradict one's hypothesis; facts are presented in an unbiased manner, and not twisted to give misleading impressions or to support one view over another; references are acknowledged where possible, and plagiarism is avoided." History is not the only discipline in which this quality is important. Sam Harris says that "The core of science is not a mathematical modeling--it is intellectual honesty. It is a willingness to have our certainties about the world constrained by good evidence and good argument." Read about the 10 signs of intellectual honesty and dishonesty at this website.

Interest: A historian's tendency of mind, hypotheses, and intentions. "We may say without implying any blame that his interest will determine his discoveries, his selection, his pattern-making, and his exposition. This is unavoidable in all products of mind. . . . The dividing line between the good and bad kinds of interest is usually drawn through the point where interest begins to spoil the product. It is then called Bias" (Barzun and Graff, 154).

Mentalité: An outlook, set of thought processes, values, and beliefs shared by members of a community (Merriam Webster). See also: world view, weltanschauung, zeitgeist.

Monograph: A work of history on a narrow topic, say, black newspapers during World War I, based largely on original research in primary sources.

Motivated Reasoning: "People tend to interpret information with an eye toward reinforcing their preexisting views. If we believe something about the world, we are more likely to passively accept as truth any information that confirms our beliefs, and actively dismiss information that doesn't" (Keohane).

Overview: A work of history on a broad topic, derived mostly from secondary sources. Chronological overviews, like the Oxford History of the United States, encompass many different themes within a range of dates. Thematic overviews cover a narrower theme (for example, the history of the American family), usually over a longer period of time.

Polemic: A passionate, strongly worded, and often controversial argument against or, less often, in favor of somebody or something. Sam Wineburg uses this term in a different way, saying that every text has a polemic or the intention to accomplish some goal, to get the reader to act. Every text is a "speech act," "a social instrument skillfully crafted to achieve a social end" (Wineburg, 69).

Presentism: A form of bias which historians can never fully escape. "Viewing the past through the lens of the present" (Wineburg, 19). We tend to use our frame of reference to interpret what we see, and thus our view of the past is often colored too heavily by our experience of the present. To compensate for this tendency, historians often remind themselves that "the past is a foreign country." While this view is helpful, Wineburg cautions that the past is not totally unfamiliar—it is not another planet. We can recognize common humanity up to a point (Wineburg, 12). Still, historians need to be ever on guard against the ways that presentism distorts our view of the past: "Notions from the present about the past can sneak in without scholars realizing it" (Loewen, 109).

Research: "The systematic investigation into the study of materials and sources in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions [emphasis added]." (From the Oxford Dictionary of English).

Subtext: The hidden or latent meanings in a document. Subtexts can reveal the intended purposes, goals and intentions of the author, or unconscious assumptions, world view, and beliefs.

Synthesis: A work of history derived from a wide variety of secondary sources, usually on a broad topic (see Overview and Monograph).

Verstehende: A German word meaning empathic understanding; being able to put yourself into someone else's shoes (Loewen, 87); in English, "understand." From Wikipedia: "understanding the meaning of action from the actor's point of view. It is entering into the shoes of the other, and adopting this research stance requires treating the actor as a subject, rather than an object of your observations. It also implies that unlike objects in the natural world human actors are not simply the product of the pulls and pushes of external forces. Individuals are seen to create the world by organizing their own understanding of it and giving it meaning. To do research on actors without taking into account the meanings they attribute to their actions or environment is to treat them like objects" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Verstehen).

Warrant: "A statement that connects a reason to a claim." It explains the relevance of your evidence (Booth, 152).

Whig history: "Any portrayal of the past that makes the present seem foreordained and natural" (Loewen, 113). See also, Presentism and Historicism. The whole point of studying history, according to the Whigs, is to understand how we got to this exalted point of development—the present. All of history has been leading up to the creation of where we are now. The suffering and maybe even atrocities of previous generations are just bumps on the road leading to a worthy destination (Butterfield).

Works Cited:

Barzun, Jacques, and Henry Franklin Graff. The Modern Researcher. Thomson/Wadsworth, 2004.

Booth, Wayne C. et al., The Craft of Research, 3d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Butterfield, Herbert. The Whig Interpretation of History. W. W. Norton & Co., 1965.

Diamond, Jared. M. "The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race." Discover Magazine, May 1987, pp. 64-66.

Diamond, Jared M. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. W. W. Norton & Co., 1997.

Gingrich, Newt, and Vince Haley. A Nation Like No Other: Why American Exceptionalism Matters. Washington, D.C.; New York: Regnery Pub.; Distributed to the trade by Perseus Distribution, 2011.

Keohane, Joe. "How Facts Backfire." Boston.com 11 July 2010. Web. 25 July 2012.

Loewen, James W. Teaching What Really Happened: How to Avoid the Tyranny of Textbooks and Get Students Excited About Doing History. Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 2009.

Wineburg, Samuel S. Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past. Temple University Press, 2001.