Theory of Knowledge in History: The Challenge of Source Material

Session 1: Sources

[student worksheet | teacher notes]

Introduction: Why and How is History Produced?

  • “History” is not “What happened in the past” or even “The surviving evidence of what happened in the past”.
  • It means “What historians choose to interpret from the surviving evidence of the past”
  • To reduce this to a formula, we might say:
  • Sources + Historians = Histories
  • So it is important to consider what the nature of the surviving evidence is, and how historians then choose to select and present it.
  • In these three TOK sessions, I therefore investigate three ways in which we gain a “knowledge” of History:
    • Session 1. The Sources: What are the limitations of the surviving evidence?
    • Session 2. The Historians: What are the limitations of the historians using that evidence?
    • Session 3. The Histories: What, therefore, are the limitations of the histories produced?

The Historians and their Sources

  • The first way in which we gain knowledge of the past is through historical evidence (“sources”). Two questions raise themselves:
    • How can we extract knowledge from the sources? (issues of quality and quantity)
    • How useful is the knowledge that we extract in this way? (issues of comprehensibility and the ‘language gap’)