History a conversation with the past, using current words and ideas

There are some really excellent observations about the nature of history and inquiry (scientific or otherwise) packed into these few paragraphs from Lesslie Newbigin’s The Open Secret.

Modern scientific historiography involves asking such questions as the flowing about all the stories that are told: What is the source of the story? Does it come from eyewitnesses or at secondhand? What evidence is there about the credibility of those who saw, reported, or retold the story? What was their purpose in telling the story? To whom were they telling it? What interests and influences would likely to shape their telling? What collateral information do we have from other sources that bears on these events? For the asking of these and similar questions historians are continually sharpening their tools and accumulating and organizing more information bearing on the story.

[BUT!] all these tools are handled and this information is arranged by human beings, whose work is also shaped by the interests and influences of their time and place and culture. The directions in which they decide to probe, the questions they ask, the weight they give to different witnesses and different types of evidence, the analogies by means of which they try to understand the events and characters reported, the models by means of which they organize their material – all are shaped by the culture of which they are part, by the experiences, hopes, and fears of that part of the whole fabric of human society in which they have their place.

It is obviously as true of the world of the historian as it is of every kind of study that we can only understand anything by relating it to the experience we already have. The language we use, the models and analogies without which we cannot make sense of a mass of information, are all furnished by the experiences of our time and place. History has to be continually rewritten because, in the worlds of E.H. Carr, history is a continuing conversation between the present and the past. (p.84)