In school, college or university, when we study the subject called ‘History’, it is common to hear people use the terms ‘history’ and ‘the past’ interchangeably, as if the two mean the same thing. In fact, when we talk about the past or history when we are not in class, most people certainly do use the terms as synonyms.
However, when undertaking History as part of your studies, these terms are used to mean two different things. It is important to know the difference so that you can use them correctly in your assessment pieces.
To help you understand the difference between ‘the past’ and ‘history’, I will talk about them separately and explain how they relate to one another.
By the end, I hope that you will feel confident when using the two terms in future.
What is ‘the past’?
When we use the term ‘the past’, we mean all of the things that have ever happened since the beginning of time until the present. In other words, it is everything that has occurred before this exact moment: every person, society, event, and idea that existed before now, is part of ‘the past’.
Unfortunately, we only know about ‘the past’ based upon what has survived to the present. Sadly, almost everything from the past has disappeared forever and only fragments of evidence that it ever existed remain.
Think about the billions of people that have ever lived and how we will never know anything about them, or their lives, because nothing about them remains. Similarly, think about the countless weapons, tools, houses, clothes, and ideas that must have been made over the millennia, and how most of them crumbled, rusted, fragmented, and disappeared in just a few weeks, years, and centuries after they were made.
‘The past’, as a term, refers to all of these things, even if they no longer exist.
What is ‘history’?
In contrast, the term ‘history’ refers to how someone has tried to reconstruct ‘the past’ in a way that we can understand. Most of the time, ‘history’ is when a professional historian writes a book to explain what a society, culture, person, or event might have been like, based upon the evidence that remains.
The most common ways that historians construct a history is to present it in the form of a story, which we call a ‘narrative’. Stories are easily understandable for most people, and presents the past in a chronological way, from beginning to end, taking you on a journey through the highlights of the narrative.
However, all historians admit that their histories are incomplete, because they have had to fill in a lot of the gaps in their story, since we don’t have all the evidence we would like from the past in order to write a complete story.
However, historians don’t simply ‘make up’ the gaps in the past. Instead, they spend years on dedicated research, trying to find out as much as possible to make an educated guess about different aspects of the past. Ultimately, every historian admits that their story is only their best conclusions about what is most likely, based upon the evidence we have.
As a result of the need to ‘fill the gaps’ in order to construct a narrative about the past, historians are open to hearing about how other historians attempts at writing history. If another historian can provide a better version of history, they are willing to change their minds. This is why we say that there is multiple ‘histories’ about the past: every historian has their own interpretation about the past that is open to revision and correction.
How are ‘the past’ and ‘history’ related?
Now that you know the difference between the past (everything that happened before now) and history (a historian’s attempt to tell the story of the past), let's look at how they relate to each other.
‘The past’ is completed and can never be changed, but ‘history’ is the ongoing discussion of trying to explain the past and is open to change and revision.
‘History’ relies upon what we know about ‘the past’, and this is dependent on the evidence available. You cannot write a history that is not based upon evidence.
I hope that the difference between these two terms is now much clearer to you and that you’re able to use them more effectively in your own writing.