By Tamil Bookshelf
History is the study of the human past as it is described in the written documents left by human beings. The past, with all its decisions completed, its participants dead and its history told, is what the general public perceives as the immutable bedrock on which we historians and archaeologists stand. But as purveyors of the past, we recognize that the bedrock is really quicksand, that bits of the story are yet untold, and that what has been told comes tainted by the conditions of what we are today.
In their work, historians have always recognised that primary sources, as well as containing many kinds of imperfection, also contain many types and many layers of evidence, even if they have tended not to make explicit statements about this. The crucial, though never absolutely rigid, distinction is between the "witting" testimony and the "unwitting". "Witting" means "deliberate" or " intentional"; " unwitting" means "unaware" or "unintentional". "Testimony" means "evidence". Thus, "witting testimony" is the deliberate or intentional message of a document or other source; the "unwitting testimony" is the unintentional evidence (about, for example, the attitudes and values of the author, or about the "culture" to which he/she belongs) that it also contains. Actually, it is the writer, creator, or creators of the document or source who is, or are, intentional or unintentional, not the testimony itself, so these phrases are examples of a figure of speech, the transferred epithet, where the adjective, which strictly speaking should be applied to a person, is transferred to what the person produced - the phrase is all the more effective for that. An understanding of the nature of unwitting testimony, often the most valuable evidence for a historian, might have guarded against the fashion for invoking anthropology and postmodernist theory. No one is more familiar than the historian with the problems of language to be encountered in primary sources, which abound in obscure technical terms, words and phrases which have changed their meanings over the centuries, attitudes and concepts which no longer exist today, and may be scarcely expressible in the language of today.
Never forget the importance of history. To know nothing of what happened before you took your place on earth, is to remain a child for ever and ever. It is the true office of history to represent the events themselves, together with the counsels, and to leave the observations and conclusions thereupon to the liberty and faculty of every man's judgment.