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TOK ESSAY

Prescribed title no. 5


The historians task is to understand the past; the human
scientist, by contrast, is looking to change the future. To what
extent is this true in these areas of knowledge?

January 19
th
2014
Momina Amjad
Candidate Number: 0022233-0028
Word Count: 1598

Candidate Name: Momina Amjad Candidate Number: 0022233-0028
5. The historians task is to understand the past; the human scientist, by contrast, is looking to
change the future. To what extent is this true in these areas of knowledge??

1

The quotation in the essay title presents the historian as someone concerned only with
humanitys past and, contrastingly, describes the human scientist as the torch bearer of change
for the future. This is an exaggeration of the assumptions in the title, nevertheless I have used it
to start building my main argument for the essay: these two disciplines are not quite
antithetical, and actually contain many similarities. To what extent is the historian only
responsible for understanding the past and the human scientist concerned with changing the
future? Is there an overlap between the two areas of knowledge and is it necessary to have the
knowledge of one to complete the other? These are the two knowledge issues that will be
analyzed in depth in my essay by comparing and contrasting the methodologies and aims of
history and the human sciences.
Firstly, we have to consider what history is. History is an area of knowledge that relies
on a combination of fact and interpretation. Every historian is a product of their cultural
paradigm and their method involves the selection of facts based on their perception which
becomes inherently subjective and reflective of said paradigm
1
. Interpretation is retrospective
and biased because it arises based on the intent of the historian, and if it is a part of the
dominant narrative, it will be synchronized with the prevailing values of his or her society. The
era of the historian espouses different norms than the era of the events, and furthermore, the
audience may belong in a yet another era. Histories have traditionally been associated with the
people in power, the victors and the conquerors; however many histories now re-examine and
re-evaluate events from the perspective of the marginalized class. Postcolonial studies and
gender studies have examples of such histories that aim to deconstruct and revise traditional

1
Bastian, Sue, Vivek R Bammi and Craig C Howard. Theory of knowledge. Harlow, Essex: Pearson, 2008. p216. Print
Candidate Name: Momina Amjad Candidate Number: 0022233-0028
5. The historians task is to understand the past; the human scientist, by contrast, is looking to
change the future. To what extent is this true in these areas of knowledge??

2

history by challenging the starting point and context of the facts. This dynamic and fluid nature
of history, and imposition of the historians hierarchies of significance on events
2
was what
British historian E. H. Carr was referring to when he said My first answerto the question
What is history? is that it is a continuous interaction between the historian and his facts, an
unending dialogue between the present and the past.
3

To illustrate these points further, I will use the example of the 1971 war between East
Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and West Pakistan, which led to the creation of the independent
state of Bangladesh. The war resulted in the deaths of about 500,000 people
4
. There was also
genocidal rape by the Pakistani military. However, this matter is completely whitewashed in
Pakistani textbooks. I am a Pakistani and I remember my middle school history textbook
devoting only a page to this war, calling it a great loss for Pakistan and citing Indian conspiracies
and the role of Hindu teachers as causes; not the fact that the East Pakistanis had been
marginalized consistently and had their cultural identity ignored
5
. There is a mention of the
Pakistani soldiers that died, but no mention whatsoever of the genocide. This concealment of
facts for nationalistic purposes is a recurring aspect of a lot of history textbooks. It
demonstrates the impact of historians deliberate selection or deselection of facts based on
their paradigm. Surprisingly, the Bengali textbooks have also been vague about the death toll,

2
Munslow, Alan. "What is History? | Reviews in History." History.ac.uk, 1997. Web. 14 Jan 2014.
http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/41a
3
Carr, Edward Hallett. What is history? New York: Vintage, 1961. Print
4
Dummett, Mark. "Bangladesh war: The article that changed history." Published 16th Dec 2011. Web. 14 Jan 2014
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-16207201
5
"Library of Congress Country Studies." Memory.loc.gov, 1988. Web. 14 Jan 2014. http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-
bin/query/r?frd/cstdy:@field(DOCID+bd0139)

Candidate Name: Momina Amjad Candidate Number: 0022233-0028
5. The historians task is to understand the past; the human scientist, by contrast, is looking to
change the future. To what extent is this true in these areas of knowledge??

3

but for a different set of nationalistic reasons
6
. There is now an academic movement in Pakistan
that strives to change the curricula in school textbooks in order for them to be more
representative of the historical truth- which demonstrates how the changing values of a society
can influence historical narratives.
The counter argument to the aforementioned points about history arises when one only
considers the facts themselves, without any interpretation. If in the example above, the
Pakistani textbooks honestly mentioned the Bengali genocide, and spoke only of the dates and
the timeline of the war, it would be considered to be more objective, and indeed, true. But
what is a historical fact without context? In my opinion, reducing human loss to a statistic
trivializes the very tragedy that took place. Interpretation can allow for a condemnation of the
injustices committed and a sense of regret, and can act as a learning exercise for the society to
not repeat these mistakes. Therefore, history is not merely an understanding of the past but a
constant work in progress; a discourse between the past, the present, and possibly even the
future.
The human sciences study individuals as a component of their societies. There is a
plurality of disciplines within the human sciences and each have their distinctive methods
which can be hard to summarize. Even within one discipline such as sociology, there are a
number of different approaches and schools of thought. On one hand, there are positivist
sociologists that prefer a more objective and quantitative data based research and on the

6
"What do school books in Bangladesh and Pakistan say about 1971 war? - South Asia Citizens Web." Sacw.net,
2010. Web. 11 Dec 2013. http://www.sacw.net/article1767.html
.


Candidate Name: Momina Amjad Candidate Number: 0022233-0028
5. The historians task is to understand the past; the human scientist, by contrast, is looking to
change the future. To what extent is this true in these areas of knowledge??

4

other, the interpretivist school of thought believes that this kind of objectivity is neither
possible nor desirable because the most relevant feature of a social action is that it is
purposeful and it is of utmost importance to analyze its cause
7
. The latter is more similar to the
historical method with the exception that the focus is not on the event but on the human being
that caused it. The methodology is sometimes problematic because many assumptions in the
human sciences cannot be sustained outside the theory. For instance, it is impossible to
generalize and categorize human beings and assumptions such as Human beings are rational
creatures are untrue because emotions have been shown to wield an enormous impact on
behavior. So far we have discussed only some of the methods in human sciences that are based
on empirical research. The human scientist makes predictions about the future according to the
patterns observed, but he or she does not necessarily aim to change it. This is where this links
into the Knowledge Issue.
I am going to use mile Durkheims
8
investigation of suicide as an example here.
Durkheim looked for common elements in suicide cases such as unemployment, age, gender,
post-traumatic stress, etc. He gathered extensive data and found many explanations as to what
led to high suicide rates in one region and lower rates in another. He did not look at the cause
from the individuals perspective, and offered no explicit steps for changing the suicide rate of a
society in the future. Although change may have been implied in his research, he was not

7
Bastian, Sue, Vivek R Bammi and Craig C Howard. Theory of knowledge. Harlow, Essex: Pearson, 2008. p198-201.
Print
8
mile Durkheim(1858-1917) French sociologist widely regarded as one of the founding fathers of modern
sociology, specifically of the naturalist or objectivist approach.
Candidate Name: Momina Amjad Candidate Number: 0022233-0028
5. The historians task is to understand the past; the human scientist, by contrast, is looking to
change the future. To what extent is this true in these areas of knowledge??

5

motivated by changing the future itself, which is contrary to the assumption in the title of this
essay.
However this does not mean that no human scientist ever was concerned with changing
the future. In my study of Karl Marx
9
, I noted how as an economist, he identified many crises of
capitalism in his works such as Das Kapital and Grundrisse. He talked of the exploitation of
labor, the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie and the inevitable class struggle, and along with
Friedrich Engels developed an alternative based in a classless society- an alternative that is
intrinsically grounded in change and revolution. Marx has been one of the most influential
people in history who has caused change not only in theoretical thought but also inspired
events like the 1917 revolution in Russia. This counterclaim indeed fits the human scientist is
looking to change the future claim in the title.
At this point, I believe it is important to link this example with the second knowledge
issue that was concerned with the degree of overlap between history and the human sciences.
Although Marx was primarily a human scientist and a philosopher, much of the theory he
created was established due to an analysis of history. The Marxist dialectics divided history into
five periods; primitive communism, slavery, feudalism, capitalism and the final communism of
the future
10
. This historical interpretation formed the basis of Marxist thought, without which
there is not much of a justification or rationale for the economic or political Marxist theories.
Likewise, in the example of war between East Pakistan and West Pakistan, sociological analysis
is imperative in understanding the causes of war. East Pakistanis were disenfranchised and had

9
Karl Marx (1818-1883) German revolutionary, sociologist, historian, and economist
10
Bober, Mandell Morton. Karl Marx's interpretation of history. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1948. Print.
Candidate Name: Momina Amjad Candidate Number: 0022233-0028
5. The historians task is to understand the past; the human scientist, by contrast, is looking to
change the future. To what extent is this true in these areas of knowledge??

6

very little opportunities; their cultural and linguistic identity was ignored and their resources
were exploited. Only with this understanding is it possible to comprehend the Bengali calls for
self-determination. Thus it is clear that history and human sciences overlap not only in their
methodologies (use of sense perception, selection, degrees of objectivity and interpretation of
data) but also in their outcomes. Historical knowledge and human sciences complement each
other and can even be considered as component parts of one area of knowledge.
The implications of this are far-reaching. If history and the human sciences are taught in
an integrated curriculum, it might be easier for people to understand not only that a war
resulting in enormous loss of life happened, but also why the war had started. Reflecting
critically on history and the human sciences may allow a society to prevent future conflicts. It
also leads to an improved comprehension of human behavior and edges closer to the truth.
In conclusion, a historian is not limited to the understanding of the past and a human
scientist is not required to change the future, although there have been instances where
human scientists have attempted change. In effect, both of these areas of knowledge work
across all verb tenses- the past, the present and the future- and are greatly enhanced when
they are utilized in unison; allowing for a more comprehensive understanding of knowledge in
their disciplines.
Word Count: 1598 words
Bibliography
Bastian, Sue, Vivek R Bammi and Craig C Howard. Theory of knowledge. Harlow, Essex: Pearson,
2008. Print.
Bober, Mandell Morton. Karl Marx's interpretation of history. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press,
1948. Print.
Carr, Edward Hallett. What is history? New York: Vintage, 1961. Print.
Dummett, Mark. "Bangladesh war: The article that changed history." 16th December. 2011.
Web. 14 Jan 2014. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-16207201
Durkheim, mile. "Emile Durkheim (French social scientist)." Encyclopedia Britannica, 2013.
Web. 12 Dec 2013. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/174299/Emile-Durkheim
Hussain, Misha and Huma Imtiaz. "What do school books in Bangladesh and Pakistan say about
1971 war?" 18 December. 2010. Web. 12 Dec 2013.
http://www.sacw.net/article1767.html
Marx, Karl. "Karl Marx (German philosopher)." Encyclopedia Britannica, 2013. Web. 12 Dec
2013. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/367265/Karl-Marx
Munslow, Alan. "What is History? | Reviews in History." History.ac.uk, 1997. Web. 14 Jan 2014.
http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/41a
Unknown. "Library of Congress Country Studies." Memory.loc.gov, 1988. Web. 14 Jan 2014.
http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?frd/cstdy:@field(DOCID+bd0139)