History and Knowledge
by Mark English
From time to time over the past couple of years, I have expressed reservations about certain forms of history as constituting knowledge. My view can, I think, be very simply stated and defended. It involves distinguishing different kinds of narrative from one another.
The boundary lines in question are necessarily fuzzy. All the key concepts here – not just the concept of narrative, but of science, scholarship, knowledge, history and (crucially) interpretation – are, like most words, polysemous. That is, their actual meaning varies significantly and depends on the context of use.
Regarding such topics as the early universe or the formation and geological history of our planet or the origins and development of life, it is reasonable to believe that there is one true story towards which our scientific probings move (even though, like the limit of a mathematical series, the final goal will never be reached). Competing narratives in the sciences and certain strict forms of scholarship are totally unlike competing narratives involving moral and political values. The former can be objectively tested. The latter, in most cases, cannot. As a consequence, a convergence of views is evident in the sciences and some forms of scholarship, but not (normally) in respect of claims and narratives which are values-based.
No definitive story can be told about an individual person, much less about a group of people or a society. Value judgments necessarily come into play in these contexts, and the value frameworks of individuals inevitably differ.
This is how I put it in a previous piece:
Unless we postulate an all-seeing, all-judging God, there is no one true narrative about any person or sequence of social events we care to specify. For each case, there are countless possible narratives or variations of narratives which could be seen to fit the facts. Much of the variation is value-framework related. Different assumptions regarding moral priorities, for example, will produce different interpretations of events, and so different stories.
Personal and ideological narratives are an inevitable part of life, but they should always be seen as highly provisional. Science and reason and common sense can effectively identify false or pathological narratives, those that just don’t fit the facts or which incorporate values which are incompatible with social existence; but science and reason cannot adjudicate on most questions of value. Consequently we are left with a plethora of more or less plausible but incompatible narratives.
What, then, of academic or popular history? Well, for a start, historians are by no means agreed on the nature of their discipline or how it is best pursued. As an outsider, I can only make a few general and perhaps obvious points.
Much of the (mainly documentary) evidence upon which historical narratives are based is subject to multiple interpretations and so can lead to multiple plausible and often incompatible narratives. The fact that actual written histories are based on a selection of available sources compounds the problem.
It goes without saying that historians select and shape material according to their own priorities, interests, values and ideologies. This is especially evident in respect of political history and certain kinds of social history.
You also need to take into account the goals and motivations of historians and readers of history. I see a divide (though, in line with my introductory remarks, not a strict dichotomy) between those who are more interested in using historical narratives to explore or promote current preoccupations or ideas and those who wish to understand the past in its own terms.
In a sense, anyone who is serious about understanding how human history unfolded must become their own historian. One must access the evidence oneself. This may require a lot of study and preparation (language learning etc. and with regard to prehistory, training in the relevant sciences). Reading someone else’s account is no substitute for direct access to primary sources. And even selections of primary material can distort the past, as selection necessarily involves subjective judgments on the part of the editors as to what is important or characteristic of a particular place and time and what is not.
I mentioned interpretation above, but there exist very different kinds and levels of interpretation.
The history and the heritage of the influential 20th-century movement which popularized the use of the term ‘hermeneutics’ is the subject of intense and ongoing debate. For example, in 2016 the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy archived their entry on Hermeneutics (written in 2005), replacing it with an entirely new article. Their usual practice is to have existing articles revised. Clearly, the perspective of the 2016 author was quite incompatible with that of the previous authors.
I certainly don’t want to get involved in these controversies, but originally I was going to make the point (emphasized in the rejected entry and apparently disputed in the current one) that the movement in question had roots in Biblical scholarship and theology and that it draws on Hegelian and Romantic ideas. The theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher and Wilhelm Dilthey (who also had a background in theology) were key figures in its development.
Movements transcend their origins, of course, but the strong religious heritage of this particular tradition has arguably, in conjunction with other factors (such as certain political preoccupations), tended to push it in directions that are not entirely compatible with the view of science and knowledge which I am putting here.
Of course, even understanding the basic meaning of a word or sentence can be seen to involve interpretation. Whenever you hear sounds or see strings of letters not as mere noises or marks, but as meaningful elements in a symbolic system, you could be said to be interpreting them. This applies to historical inquiry as much as to any other context, though the challenges of interpreting even the basic meaning of old texts and inscriptions are often very great. Similar challenges apply in an archaeological context, when the meaning or significance (functional, religious, aesthetic, etc.) of an object is being assessed. There is a huge difference between interpretation in this basic sense – which in relation to historical inquiry involves simply trying to understand the evidence in its own terms (i.e. as it relates to the world of which it was a part) – and speculating about its wider significance. Trying to understand the evidence in its own terms and in the context of its time can be seen as a broadly scientific or rigorous scholarly process. Interpreting its broader significance – such as might be attempted in the context of religious or Marxist hermeneutics, say – represents a different kind of activity altogether.
Understanding the evidence which has come down to us from a particular time and place is a holistic process. You immerse yourself in the available material. Inevitably, this involves the creation of ad hoc narratives of one kind or another. I am not saying that these ways of thinking are wrong, but simply that we need to be aware of our natural tendency to generate narratives and of the danger, in the context of science and rigorous scholarship, of projecting stories we invent onto the world we are seeking to understand.
Many forms of inquiry into the past can be seen to participate in a broadly scientific quest for knowledge and understanding. Other forms of inquiry – especially the more freewheeling and rhetorical approaches to human history that are associated with politically-engaged or religiously- or metaphysically-driven grand narratives or other approaches that concern themselves in a central way with current problems and preoccupations – are not usefully seen as constituting an integral part of this quest.
Some logical positivists (Otto Neurath, for example) promoted the notion of the unity of science, but it was never satisfactorily formulated, especially in respect of the human and social sciences. The word ‘consilience’ has long been used to refer to a looser, more informal version of this general idea.
It seems to me very plausible to see various forms of rigorous inquiry – some historically oriented, some not, and each with its own evolving methodology – as contributing to the building of a shared knowledge base. On this view, the components of the knowledge base must be open to being tested in various ways and from various directions. Strong conclusions require a concordance of evidence from unrelated sources.
This understanding of consilience is, I think, quite in line with traditional usage and with the views of the 19th-century polymath William Whewell who coined the term. E.O. Wilson is also known for promoting the concept but he goes well beyond Whewell’s more modest claims.