Quotes on history

Quotes on history

These quotes on history will help you to explore its nature, form links with other WOKs and AOKs, and provide discussion points for TOK lessons. They will also support you as you address knowledge questions within your TOK essay and TOK presentation.

Consideration points

  1. What do the quotes suggest about the nature of history as an area of knowledge?
  2. What do they suggest about the purpose of history?
  3. Are the quotes consistent, or do they clash about the role it plays as an area of knowledge, and its relationship with others WOKs and AOKs?
  4. Can you think of other ways of knowing and areas of knowledge that these quotes relate to?
  5. How many of these thinkers are you familiar with? Research the ones you haven’t come across before – and, indeed, the ones you think you already know. Click on the names to take you to the corresponding Wikipedia article, although this should only be used as a starting point for your research.

Finally, how would you use the quotes to construct a typical IB Diploma TOK essay title? Look at , and see if you can compose something similar (and think about how you’d go about structuring it)

1. The nature and purpose of history

History is the sum total of things that could have been avoided.
Konrad Adenauer
People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.
James A. Baldwin
The past is malleable and flexible, changing as our recollection interprets and re-explains what has happened.
Peter Berger
History is an account, mostly false, of events, mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers, mostly knaves, and soldiers, mostly fools.
Ambrose Bierce
History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon.
Napoleon Bonaparte
The past actually happened but history is only what someone wrote down.
A. Whitney Brown
History, a distillation of rumour.
Thomas Carlyle
History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.
Winston Churchill
History is written by the victors.
Winston Churchill
History is a gallery of pictures in which there are few originals and many copies.
Alexis de Tocqueville
History is more or less bunk.
Henry Ford
History never looks like history when you are living through it.
John W. Gardner
History is the interpretation of the significance that the past has for us.
Johan Huizinga
Who has fully realized that history is not contained in thick books but lives in our very blood?
Carl Jung
We are not makers of history. We are made by history.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
History is the only true teacher, the revolution the best school for the proletariat.
Rosa Luxemburg
Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
George Santayana
The very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice.
Mark Twain
History is a race between education and catastrophe.
H. G. Wells

2. History and emotion

All humanity is passion; without passion, religion, history, novels, art would be ineffectual.
Honore de Balzac
If good history is dispassionate history, it must naturally wait until the passions of the period subside.
James Buchan
History and faith
To study history means submitting to chaos and nevertheless retaining faith in order and meaning.
Hermann Hesse

3. History and imagination

The past always seems somehow more golden, more serious, than the present. We tend to forget the partisanship of yesteryear, preferring to re-imagine our history as a sure and steady march toward greatness.
Jon Meacham
Imagination is always the fabric of social life and the dynamic of history. The influence of real needs and compulsions, of real interests and materials, is indirect because the crowd is never conscious of it.
Simone Weil

4. History and language

History does not merely touch on language, but takes place in it.
Theodor Adorno
In a sense, words are encyclopedias of ignorance because they freeze perceptions at one moment in history and then insist we continue to use these frozen perceptions when we should be doing better.
Edward de Bono
Language is an archaeological vehicle… the language we speak is a whole palimpsest of human effort and history.
Russell Hoban

5. History and memory

History takes time. History makes memory.
Gertrude Stein

6. History and reason

History is mostly guessing; the rest is prejudice.
Will Durant

7. History and the art

Poetry is finer and more philosophical than history; for poetry expresses the universal, and history only the particular.
History develops, art stands still.
E. M. Forster
Literature overtakes history, for literature gives you more than one life. It expands experience and opens new opportunities to readers.
Carlos Fuentes
It takes a great deal of history to produce a little literature.
Henry James
If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.
Rudyard Kipling
Historian: an unsuccessful novelist.
H. L. Mencken
Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history.
The artist’s job is to be a witness to his time in history.
Robert Rauschenberg

8. History and ethics

History books that contain no lies are extremely dull.
Anatole France
History is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.
Edward Gibbon
World history is a court of judgment.
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history.
Aldous Huxley
Thanks to television, for the first time the young are seeing history made before it is censored by their elders.
Margaret Mead

9. History and the human sciences

History is, strictly speaking, the study of questions; the study of answers belongs to anthropology and sociology.
W. H. Auden
You have to look at history as an evolution of society.
Jean Chretien
History is not everything, but it is a starting point. History is a clock that people use to tell their political and cultural time of day. It is a compass they use to find themselves on the map of human geography. It tells them where they are but, more importantly, what they must be.
John Henrik Clarke
Psychology keeps trying to vindicate human nature. History keeps undermining the effort.
Mason Cooley
Governments have never learned anything from history, or acted on principles deducted from it.
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
History offers us vicarious experience. It allows the youngest student to possess the ground equally with his elders; without a knowledge of history to give him a context for present events, he is at the mercy of every social misdiagnosis handed to him.
Hilary Mantel
History is a guide to navigation in perilous times. History is who we are and why we are the way we are.
David McCullough
Newspapers are the second hand of history. This hand, however, is usually not only of inferior metal to the other hands, it also seldom works properly.
Arthur Schopenhauer
History is Philosophy teaching by example.
History should be written as philosophy.

10. History and indigenous knowledge systems

We have our own history, our own language, our own culture. But our destiny is also tied up with the destinies of other people – history has made us all South Africans.
Mangosuthu Buthelezi

11. History and religious knowledge systems

God cannot alter the past, though historians can.
Samuel Butler
History is a vision of God’s creation on the move.
Arnold J. Toynbee

Cite this page as: Dunn, Michael. Quotes on history (11th September 2013). theoryofknowledge.net. http://www.theoryofknowledge.net/areas-of-knowledge/history/quotes-on-history/ Last accessed: 19th March 2018


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