Historiography is the study of historical writing. It’s the process of historians studying the works of other historians to understand not what happened but how people saw the events as, or soon after they happened.
The big question in historiography is not the details of the event, but how people around the event thought, and to what extent they were influenced by their home nation-states. The implications around determinism and how we learn from the mistakes of our ancestors are profound, and it’s worth exploring how the process of historiography, and the study of history in general can benefit us today.
Historiography is the study of humanity observing itself.
Imagine if all of humanity was one organism. Historiographers in this organism would be our capacity to self reflect and observe our growth over time. They’d be our sense of spirituality.
Like philosophy, history gets a bad rap. Philosophy is about meaning. It’s about unifying the torrents of data that we’re inundated with, and parsing it into meaningful world-views which give our actions direction and weight.
In this respect, I firmly believe philosophy is a science. It isn’t a clean science like physics. Where eternal, consistent laws appear to exist — if only we could figure them out.
In philosophy we’re the atoms and understanding their interactions is messy because we’re messy. Because we’re not indifferent, consistent atoms. We’re complex, and we don’t fully understand ourselves, and this makes variable isolation and systemized scientific study challenging.
Like philosophy, history is often misunderstood. History is commonly seen as studying the past, so we don’t repeat our mistakes in the present. There’s some merit to that definition.
But it falls apart once we observe that the present really isn’t like the past. New exponential technologies, AI, globalization — perhaps we’re too different from the humans of “history” to learn much from their actions.
I prefer the following definition of history. (I’m paraphrasing Yuval Noah Harari from Sapiens with this following piece. Buy the excellent book if you want more like it.)
Charting the Seas of Time and Humanity
13.7 billion years ago, the Big Banged and our universe was formed. The fundamental features of this event, and it’s underlying rules came to be known as physics.
300,000 years later, matter began forming into more complex structures, called atoms, which sometimes coalesced into molecules. The interactions of these new structures is known as chemistry.
About 10 billion years later, on a rock floating near a star — certain molecules began to form and evolve into complex structures known as organisms. The study of these organisms became known as biology.
Then about 70,000 years ago — certain descendents of these primeval organisms began forming complex social structures. Like organisms, these social structures evolved and mutated over time into new and exotic forms, forms we call civilizations. The study of these social structures over time is known as history.
History is messy because it’s a derivative of every other science.
It has the most variables to contend with, which makes understanding true cause-and-effect very challenging. The question — is whether like physics, our cultures follow consistent rules over time i.e. the rise and fall of dynasties, or Marx theory of cultural evolution past capitalism.
These are theories, but the key here is whether it’s possible for a theory to be “correct” in the same sense as Einstein’s E=MC2 is “correct”.
My theory is that cultures do follow rules. While change over time may appear to be random or haphazard and not follow patterns. If you zoom far enough out, the logical fault-lines show up.
Civilizations rise and fall constantly and most of them don’t show up in our history books (which ones are absent may vary by region i.e. The Silla Kingdom in the Koreas?).
In terms of biology, each of these civilizations can be seen as an experiment in culture, where some go extinct while others prosper. As with species — 99.9% of cultures that have ever existed are extinct, and most (again like with species) failed quickly and left little-to-no trace.
Our current Western culture will definitely leave a trace, but it’s simply another experiment in how humans can organize themselves through a common story to try and meet our collective needs more effectively.
Before I close off with how history relates to innovation, I want you to consider how remarkable it is that you can go up to some random person throughout the West, and share an almost identical understanding of the world with them immediately.
Sure you may disagree about which political party should be in power, or on some other small details of modern life. But the big things; the existence of law, ethical codes, the use of money, property, the structure of families. Our individual deviation from the common myth is really, quite small.
To summarize thus far — history is the science of studying ourselves as we experiment, evolve and change, and historiography is a neat sub-field of history in which historians study ancient historians to understand their viewpoints and philosophies as they relate to the events they experienced.
Why Historians Make the Best Innovators
Innovation is the creation of new products (things) or services (outcomes) that better meet some need than existing alternatives.
As Eric Von Hippel observed — innovation is primarily done by people solving their own problems.
This can result in fascinating products like the skateboard — originally made from taking the wheels off rollers skates and attaching them to a wooden board.
However systemic innovation, innovation that solves complex problems that go beyond individuals and impact society — is beyond most individual users.
While we’re all users of culture, it’s the historians that are on the cutting edge of understanding culture and therefore are the ones most likely to invent new solutions to age old, or more modern problems.
Historians see society as one of many implementations, and like an engineer study how to manipulate different pieces to create different reactions. They turn complex systems into complicated, but understandable ones.
Historians make sense of the world, and put it terms of facts and figure i.e. data which can be understood as telling a story. Historians are innovators because they’re experts on people, and experts on change, and innovation is just controlled change.
So, my recommendation is — if you want to change the world. Speak with someone who understands what it is you’re changing.
In conclusion, I want to say that my argument here is not specifically about historians. I just like them, and thought they made a good case. My point is that true systemic innovation requires diversity, and it seems like most people I’ve spoken with who are trying to innovate — are doing so with a nearly identical group of people.
You need the perspectives people from different cultural, professional, and idealogical backgrounds bring to create groundbreaking products, services, or solutions.
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Andrew is a design graduate student in Toronto who writes about leadership, design, and startups. Visit his blog Lead Boldly for exclusive content. Or say hey on Quora | Instagram | FaceBook | Twitter | LinkedIn.