Tomorrow I am introducing a philosophy group discussion on this question, and these are the notes I hope to read from to get discussion rolling. You are getting an exclusive preview - enjoy.
Can historians be objective and make a history that only contains the facts? Is The fact that the Battle Of Hastings took part in 1066 enough to constitute a statement of history?
Logical Empiricists including Bertrand Russell saw history as a collection of facts. They saw deductions or conclusions drawn from the fact base as the work of the sociologists and philosopher. and the historian as merely the collector and compiler of facts. The historian who interprets the evidence is trying to be a philosopher, which some philosophers resent.
Is history only written by the winners? Certainly not today. The Americans have certainly written a lot of soul and conscience searching books asking how they came to lose in Vietnam.
Is everything that happens history? A time traveller might change history by killing Hitler, but would he change history by stealing Hitler's teabags on the morning Hitler planned to invade Poland? The missing tea bags would be just as much a fact as the attack on Poland, but the historian sees one as relevant and not the other.
Historic facts are those points in time that changed society, minds, hearts, the course of invention. The historian selects and highlights the points that he or she considers to be important - and that selection process gives the facts their meaning and significance.
One problem of early histories is that that the major historians were very much of the same class and social groups as their subjects - Suetonius was never going to get so much data on the Twelve Caesars without privilege and proximity. He also tells us precious little of the Roman peasant classes, ordinary soldiers or slaves.
He was writing for a particular time and readership rather than for long term posterity. Much of The Twelve Caesars is little more than gossip worthy of Hello Magazine or the tabloid press. reading that Caligula married his own horse you can almost see the relish Suetonius gained from such sensationalism.
A more recent historian taking on the history of the Caesars has to rely on the vast amount of literature already presented - He has to be sure that his voice adds something fresh to the discussion, but given only a single four hundred page book to prepare, he has to be selective, succinct, censorious, and ruthless in his editing. The historian has decide as much on what to leave out as what to write.
Even primary source documents, such as actual letters by Churchill or Rasputin may only tell us what they thought, or wished us to see. They are not guaranteed to be true or accurate.
Many histories have vanished into secure vaults or without trace as later leaders see them as a threat to their own administrations. Gustav Stressmann's extensive study of the Weimar Republic was destroyed in every copy the Nazis could get hold of, though fortunately, copies were exported to other countries and the work was recovered after the war. A history is not just about its subject or its author, but about who reads it and learns to set their own standards by it too. History is not about the past as much as what it says to the present.
History is often propaganda for the present - Marxist historians from Marx himself onwards see history as the study of the class struggle. Marx took Hegel's philosophy of opposing forces creating the essence of life at the points where the light and darkness engage and applied it to history - to Marx the forces in opposition and conflict were not cosmic energies but rich and poor, bourgeoisie and proletarian. Marxists are not just writing history for the facts, but also for clues to how the proletariat were oppressed or overpowering their oppressors.
Marxists see the fall of capitalism as ultimately inevitable. The see history as determined - but can historic events be averted? ask most people why World War One happened and they will say it was due to the assassination of archduke Ferdinand, but the colonial competition and economic stresses m Europe meant the war was expected for some time before then. Ferdinand may well have had to see his people march to the front had he survived.
The Marxist view heralded in an interest in the impact of history on the ordinary man and groups in society - it spawned sociology and social history. The Industrial and political revolutions of the 18th century put ordinary people in mass transit and change - history was no longer just about kings and queens - it was about everyone.
Today the historian can't just write history. He has to decide whether it is popular history, social history, feminist history, Marxist history, etc.
Alternative history - The past is full of what if moments - the points at which things could have changed. Though we associate alternate history with the parallel worlds of science fiction from Philip K Dick's The Man In The High Castle to Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years Of Rice And Salt, historians themselves have made major speculations too. It was Blaize Pascal who suggested that if Cleopatra's nose had been just slightly more crooked, Mark Anthony would not have fallen in love with her.
The alternate history comes down to whether that major change would lead to other changes too, or if the rest of our history and culture would still continue as before, but in a strange new or ironic style. In Robert Harris's Fatherland for example, the Beatles still make their famous tour of Germany's Hamburg, even though Hitler has won the war. Pearl Harbour hasn't happened but the Holocaust has. A German policeman struggles to tell the Americans the truth about where the Jews have vanished to.
In The Man In The High Castle, a novelist has written his own alternate history of the war, one in which our actual history is the alternative one. In Ward Moore's Bring The Jubilee a time traveller interferes with the South's victory at Gettysberg to create our own historic line of events instead.
Just as with actual history, alternate and speculative history is about the here and now and the future as much as it is about the past.
How do we teach children about history? In my day we seemed to rush through the kings and queens and key dates, ruling houses, etc quickly. When we got to the Industrial Revolution we seemed to get lots of visits to mills and canals but it was an alternative to the parallel social revolutions the events parallelled.
Today most kids get history from Terry Deary's Horrible histories which are fun, but mostly trivia and juicy gory anecdotes - not a complete picture of events.
Other historians tend to be very dry and academic. David Starkey is very conservative, and sees his duty to Britain as saving its history from re-enactors - people like me who try to illustrate history in three dimensions.
So, is history about facts? Is it more about interpretation and analysis? Is the historian a philosopher? What can we learn from alternative history? How should we use knowledge of the past in the present?
Recommended reading - E H Carr - What Is History? 1961 Penguin Books