Over the past five odd decades the face of History as a discipline has undergone amazing transformations. During the 18th, 19th and much of the 20th century, History, much like other science and social science disciplines, was dominated by the Positivist or Marxist paradigm which had posited an objective reality out there amenable to recovery through incremental knowledge of facts which would ultimately reveal the truth. Ranke’s famous dictum captures this paradigm pithily: History tells us as it really happened. The embedded certitude of the existence of a singular, unambiguous Truth and its recovery was premised here, emulating the methods of natural sciences. ‘Scientific History’ was the elevating phrase used by its practitioners. It also had a clearly European provenance.
Over the decades the realisation grew that unlike the facts of the natural sciences which are given and immutable, social ‘facts’ resulting from human action are malleable. History as a social science does not have the luxury of a single Truth, but diverse truths, open to a variety of interpretations. The Positivist/Marxist certitude began to give way to ambiguities in the last quarter of the twentieth century, which in turn opened up elusive areas of study, beyond the hard facts of battles, coronations, depositions and trade figures. Evolving codes of human behaviour imbibed through daily lived experience, moral dimensions inherent in religions, mythologies and cultures, changing images of the past, including origin myths, and changing perceptions of time and space, and much more called out to the historian for attention. All of these led to not one but several directions.
Questioning Eurocentric history
One direction that opened up was questioning the Eurocentric history of the world. For ages the assumption that the West was the driver of the universe we inhabit was a given, that the ‘modern’ world was what the West had made it and it got reflected in the view of the past globally. That ‘Globalisation’ and ‘Modernity’ were given to humanity by the West was taken for granted. Today, in the past few decades, both have been severely problematised and both are sometimes getting traced as far as we can go back in history around the world. In lieu of a Eurocentric history, the consensus among professional historians all around is that the world we inhabit was made up of contributions from all societies, civilisations and cultures throughout the past, whether in the arena of crops, techniques, astronomy, mathematics, philosophy, ideas, cultural mores, whatever.