The mistakes of historians

In 1377 the Tunisian Arab historian Ibn Khaldun listed seven mistakes made by contemporary scholars, and then he made the same mistakes.

Ibn Khaldun
Reda Kerbouche, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Ibn Khaldun is a giant of Islamic philosophy and one of the founders of academic fields such as sociology and economics. His 1377 CE book Muqaddimah, among many other contributions to modern thought, was one of the first to properly examine the study of history – not just history, but how we think and write about history (in other words, historiography).

This is the 700th post on this site, and more than a third of my posts relate to human history. For each one I try to do some proper fact-checking to ensure that they are representing events as accurately as possible, but they can only be as accurate as the sources allow – and as accurate as my imperfect understanding can represent. The preliminary remarks in the Muqaddimah list these and other limitations: Ibn Khaldun’s famous “mistakes of historians.”

The first historian sin is partisanship – not examining information critically but just accepting all that reinforces one’s prejudices:

If the soul is impartial in receiving information, it devotes to that information the share of critical investigation the information deserves, and its truth or untruth thus becomes clear. However, if the soul is infected with partisanship for a particular opinion or sect, it accepts without a moment’s hesitation the information that is agreeable to it. Prejudice and partisanship obscure the critical faculty and preclude critical investigation.

Muqaddimah – Preliminary remarks

If you’re thinking that this argues for something like the scientific method – or at least an appropriately critical lens – to be applied to the study of history, you’d be very much correct. He was one of the first to suggest this.

Mistakes #2 and #4 relate to trusting your sources too much; they are, after all, only human! Mistakes #3 and #5 are about missing the context and significance of the events you write about. Mistake #6 is succumbing to the influence of the powerful: trying to impress your benefactor or enhance their status rather than pursuing the truth of the matter. Mistake #7 is a big one: in order to understand historical events, you have to understand how history operates – how civilisations rise and fall, the conditions under which history unfolds.

Ibn Khaldun illustrates these mistakes with a surgical refutation of a popular legend of the time: that Alexander the Great dove to the bottom of the ocean in a wooden submersible in order to draw pictures of the monsters that dwelt therein. The idea was to create identical effigies of the monsters (jinn) and erect them around his city as a kind of supernatural scarecrow. Ibn Khaldun’s evidence against the historical veracity of this legend was threefold:

  • Rulers don’t take risks like this, because his empire would have been overthrown while he was down there.
  • The monsters of the deep (jinn) do not have a fixed appearance, so drawing pictures of them would be pointless.
  • If anyone went underwater in this fashion they would suffocate immediately from corruption of the air.

This last one is funny to me, because Ibn Khaldun cites the discredited belief that human health is tied to the balance of the humours:

Were one to go down deep into the water, even in a box, one would have too little air for natural breathing. Because of that, one’s spirit would quickly become hot. Such a man would lack the cold air necessary to maintain a well-balanced humor of the lung and the vital spirit. He would perish on the spot.

Muqaddimah – Preliminary remarks

Humourism is a theory that relied on Ancient Greek sources rather than direct evidence and has since been consigned to the junk-heap of history. So, Ibn Khaldun cites a discredited source in order to discredit another source, and demonstrate how we should be careful about trusting our sources. Oops.

Also worth noting, this passage seems to describe a diving bell – which was actually used by the Ancient Greeks 1700 years before Ibn Khaldun wrote those words. Double oops.

(Ibn Khaldun, for all his positive contributions to world thought, also had some pretty reprehensible things to say about the residents of Sub-Saharan Africa, equally unbound from truth. So… he’s a mixed bag.)

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