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.

91 Comments »

  1. Mark: You will get no argument from me, re: history. I have a history degree as well as a philosophy degree, and I have always very much resisted efforts to “scientize” the discipline. Same goes for political science, which is being taken over by game-theorists. And these are ongoing struggles, with the scientizers enjoying the upper hand, something that I don’t see changing anytime soon.

    The trouble I have is with your characterization of science and of knowledge and of “rigor,” all of which strike me as highly naive (in the descriptive sense). The sciences, especially today, suffer tremendously from bias in the selection of evidence and in recent years, many sciences — like climate science, pediatric and adolescent medicine and psychiatry, and others — have become overtly politicized, with activists actually partly determining the course of research. (Witness the recent suppression of a study done by a professor at Brown on adolescent transgender identification and social contagion). With regard to rigor, the concept strikes me as entirely topic neutral, as it has to do with the thoroughness and care with which an investigation is pursued, not its subject matter. Put another way, there are very rigorous theologians and very sloppy medical researchers.

    It is interesting to me that on the subject of history, you have such a clear, self-aware view, while with regard to science you seem to lapse into what seems to me a rather credulous, even romanticized one.

    Like

    • It seems that in science even though it can become politicized at times, there are “objective” findings. If someone is playing with the data in studies of transgender children, that is fairly easy to discover and correct.

      On the other hand, historians of good faith are still arguing about the causes of the Peloponnesian Wars. Is there a way to discover the “objective” causes of those wars? Obviously, we can discard some explanations as ridiculous: they were not started by Martians, etc.

      Let’s take the causes of the Cold War. Some will say that the Cold War was the inevitable result or almost inevitable result of two mutually exclusive missionary ideologies, communism and the Western concept of freedom. Others will say that it was the inevitable result of a clash of geopolitical interests between two super-powers, each of which used ideologies as a pretext to justify their geopolitical interests. Some will blame it on Stalin’s Machiavellian foreign polices, while others will blame it on Truman’s Machiavellian foreign polices. Some will say all of the above, but differ on what weight they assign to each factor. Others will say none of the above. Everyone is working in good faith with the same data and I don’t see how we can reach a final “objective” truth, although once again we can rule out some ridiculous explanations such as, say, astrology.

      Really, I don’t fully understand my partner’s psychology, so can I really understand Stalin’s or Truman’s or Churchill’s?

      Liked by 1 person

    • Dan

      I think s.wallerstein makes some good points.

      “The trouble I have is with your characterization of science and of knowledge and of “rigor,” all of which strike me as highly naive (in the descriptive sense). The sciences, especially today, suffer tremendously from bias in the selection of evidence and in recent years, many sciences — like climate science, pediatric and adolescent medicine and psychiatry, and others — have become overtly politicized, with activists actually partly determining the course of research. (Witness the recent suppression of a study done by a professor at Brown on adolescent transgender identification and social contagion).”

      I am entirely aware of the politicization of many areas of science. To the extent that it occurs, it leads to bad science.

      “With regard to rigor, the concept strikes me as entirely topic neutral, as it has to do with the thoroughness and care with which an investigation is pursued, not its subject matter. Put another way, there are very rigorous theologians and very sloppy medical researchers.”

      I am using it in the phrase “rigorous scholarship” to characterize certain types of scholarship — those which are science-like in their goals, methods and general outlook (as opposed to those which are more freewheeling). The goal of such scholarship is to build a body of shared knowledge and if it works you see convergence over time. Think of historical linguistics or textual criticism, for example.

      Literary criticism and theology, for example, are not like this. They are not forms of rigorous scholarship in the sense in which I am using the term.

      Can the concept of rigor be applied more generally? Of course. To the *practice* of literary criticism or theology? Yes. Within the context of any discipline some work is sloppy, some more rigorous, etc..

      But literary criticism does not aspire to science-like goals. It is a different kind of activity.

      Theology (at least traditionally) *does* aspire to science-like goals (knowledge-building, etc.). But from my perspective, it is a failed science. It’s no good to me, that’s for sure (no matter how rigorously executed). Note that there is virtually no convergence. (By contrast, there *is* convergence in serious Biblical scholarship.)

      Like

  2. After years of reading essays on this forum one addresses a topic I actually work in. I am an archaeologist and within my discipline, similar augments are centered on whether or not archaeology is a “science”. I take the affirmative view (if you take a broad definition of science) and it comes down to issues of biological and cultural evolutions. As you say:

    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).

    I would extend this to the biological evolution of the human animal. Culture get very tricky though (and its relationship to biology). Within archaeology, you find many cultural materialist. It think this has something to do with the epistemological issues of trying to reconstruct social relations from the materials remains recovered during archaeological excavations. I do find it striking that patterns in cultural evolution tend to be tied to ecological and economic changes or adaptations. And I tend to be a vulgar Marxist myself in this regard. This is a much less common view than it was 30 or more years ago as archaeology has not been immune to the postmodern turn in the humanities or the social sciences. This struck a chord:

    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.

    Respect the ancestors I say.

    Like

  3. The danger that researchers will project their preferred stories onto historical sources is a real one because the scientific picture of the world appears to leave no room for narrative structure, outside of human thought. For instance, the laws describing space-time, matter, energy, and motion, have mathematical form, so how does narrative explanation gain any kind of toehold in reality, past, present or future? Some, such as Alex Rosenberg, argue that narrative doesn’t even have application in the explanation human cognition, so it has no place whatsoever. Though this makes it hard to explain what *error* the humanists are making in pursuing their lines of inquiry (how can error exist on his view?), one can get a feel for what Rosenberg is worried about, I think, by reflecting on how extremely hard it is to grasp such views as General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics even in the face of their incredible empirical success – they work despite our inability to understand them as a combined whole, so perhaps the ability to understand the world isn’t in the cards.

    Professor Kaufman is certainly right that scientific practice is threatened by corruption via political interference: no matter how much topic neural rigour exists in a field of inquiry, if the questions that can/cannot be asked are restricted on the basis of non-scientific, or otherwise inappropriate, factors, then we have the potential for real trouble.

    For what it is worth, this is part of why I – and here I will generate disagreement with Professor Kaufman – prefer to err on the side of scientized philosophy. If we make it harder for narrative to get its foot in the door of our inquiries, then we make it harder for corrupting influence to get in the door too, since they rely on moving narratives. This isn’t to say that I think philosophy should give up on trying to help us understand reality, but it is to advocate for philosophy in the style of Galileo, Descartes, Newton, Leibniz, Einstein, Russell, Quine, etc.; i.e. philosophy with one leg in the sciences, trying as far as possible to put its theses in the formal mode so as to make interference difficult to do but easier to spot. Not a popular view today, I know…

    Like

      • I am very sensitive to your concerns but remain philosophically preoccupied – obsessed even – with the relation between the images: what can we make of (the very existence of) the manifest given the scientific? How is it even possible? Etc.

        I’ve been reading The Electric Agora with admiration for a couple months and found myself with a day between lecturing and exams so have inserted myself into the forum, hopefully well. Keep up the excellent work with the magazine.

        Like

        • You are a most welcome addition. I dont think the images are reconcilable. Rather i think Sellars got it right when he described a complete vision as being “stereoscopic.”

          Like

          • Yes, absolutely. I still am in the phase of searching for a uniscopic worldview, for better or worse…

            Like

        • “What can we make of (the very existence of) the manifest given the scientific?”

          Here’s one way, perhaps: Many scientific-image explanantia explain things in the manifest-image (which are then the explananda). (The reasoning often goes: if the existence of scientific-image-stuff X would explain manifest-image stuff Y, then X is taken to exist.) So if you deny the existence of a manifest-image explanandum, you render the scientific explanation senseless and the explanantia it invokes dubious. In other words, the very idea of there being scientific-image things might be parasitic on our basic understanding of the manifest-image things the former are supposed to explain.

          Just a thought.

          P.S. Happy to have you here!

          Like

          • Interesting; thanks. The next important question: what is the relation between image and reality? If the scientific image somehow reveals things as they are independently of us – in themselves – then it becomes hard to see how to reconcile the two views (we seem to have to just live with Sellars’ stereoscopy). If not, then reconciliation is at least on the table, e.g. Kant, later Putnam, etc. This will hardly be settled here, of course…

            Like

    • Josh Mozersky

      I have the same general view of what is best in philosophy as you do, it seems.

      I don’t think that *certain kinds* of narrative can be excluded from science, by the way.

      Like

      • Interesting; look forward to hearing more. If you take a certain narrative structure as essential to science, how does that impact your view if the nature of the material world? Does it include something narrative-like?

        Like

  4. Mark,
    Although well-presented, I’m not sure where this understanding of historical scholarship leads. What texts, what authors would you commend as exemplary here? What would it read like? How would it be disseminated with the general public, taught in schools? Or is it already?

    One problem here concerns what constitutes history? That is, what events or phenomena evidence in the document6s and artifacts actually constitute history?

    A recent historian whom I hold in the highest regard is Fernand Braudel. But since he began as a economist, his interest is not in the major wars governmental reconfigurations (although he doesn’t deny their interest and importance as history), but in developments in agriculture, general changes in diet, innovations in new tools and such other seemingly mundane topis that cast light on the reconfigurations of markets that put pressures on various social processes. The Structures of Everyday Life is thick which immersive research – as well as engagement with other and previous scholars in the field – which you seem to imply is somehow a lazy scholarship.

    BTW, I probably would not have read much of that 600 page volume if Braudel had not engaged considerable wry humor – a rhetorical choice – or had he not been able to tell a good story.

    Also BTW, it should be noted that no historian of economics followed the protocals you suggest as closely as Marx in researching the historical passages of Kapital.

    Of course he had an idea of what he was looking for; but Braudel, according to the Introduction to Structures, didn’t; rather the themes of his text, some of which are compatible with those of Marx, arose from critical reflection on the material.

    Finally, while you write of ‘liberal myths,” and complain about religious, Marxist, even metaphysical agendas, could you explain how a historian would also avoid the conservative myths that you seem to accept? And if you also exclude those myths, and liberals, Marxists, Christians, metaphysicians and perhaps even conservatives are not to be trusted with developing our knowledge of history, whose left?

    I don’t see that the kind of objective rigor one finds in the natural sciences can translate well into the study of history. The object of that study is of a different kind than the study of molecules or plants or stars. It is something dear to us, and something we can use. Actually, I admit that I don’t think the acquisition of knowledge, just as such and for its own sake, is all that interesting.

    “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.”

    I’m not sure that there is all that much danger in this; and I assume, as you apparently do not, that most historians are sincere in critical efforts to read the past fairly, even should their personal beliefs shade their efforts. And I suspect most of them understand that they write in an environment of competing narratives appealing to readers of differing beliefs.

    A narrative is an argument. Failure to recognize this weakens your position here.

    Like

    • ejwinner

      “Although well-presented, I’m not sure where this understanding of historical scholarship leads. What texts, what authors would you commend as exemplary here?”

      I recommend reading texts from the past. Any texts. The close study of old *literary* texts used to be a central component of education.

      “One problem here concerns what constitutes history? That is, what events or phenomena evidence in the documents and artifacts actually constitute history?”

      I alluded to these questions but, not being either an historian or an advocate for the academic discipline of history, these are not problems *for me*. Besides, lacking a background in history, how could I usefully contribute? (I know something about intellectual history and could say something about that, I suppose.)

      I am tempted to see history as a bit like philosophy in so far as it works best when it attaches itself to a particular discipline/subject area: history of … (like philosophy of …).

      “Finally, while you write of ‘liberal myths,” and complain about religious, Marxist, even metaphysical agendas, could you explain how a historian would also avoid the conservative myths that you seem to accept?”

      Such as?

      “[Quoting me] “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.” I’m not sure that there is all that much danger in this; and I assume, as you apparently do not, that most historians are sincere in critical efforts to read the past fairly, even should their personal beliefs shade their efforts.”

      I said all along it’s a matter of degree. But the danger is real and the danger is there.

      “And I suspect most of them understand that they write in an environment of competing narratives appealing to readers of differing beliefs.”

      Yes. But this “conversation” is not one which everyone finds essential or is drawn to.

      “Actually, I admit that I don’t think the acquisition of knowledge, just as such and for its own sake, is all that interesting.”

      This is the nub of the issue. This is the great divide.

      Like

      • “could you explain how a historian would also avoid the conservative myths that you seem to accept?”

        Such as?”

        You’re kidding, right?

        “But this “conversation” is not one which everyone finds essential or is drawn to.” – they do if they are engaged in the study of history – which, I think it becoming ever more obvious, you are not.

        Why not just title your essay “History is Not Knowledge.”
        Well – good luck to you and Mr. Rosenberg! You want to speak on a subject you claim to have no interest in – very well.

        (I have little interest in microbiology, although having some training in it. But I don’t think I’ve ever made a claim on the interpretation of it.)

        Like

      • Yes. But this “conversation” is not one which everyone finds essential or is drawn to.

        = = = =

        I would think that history is essential to everyone. I mean it literally is about what happened. How could anyone not need to know that?

        Like

        • When I said this “conversation” was not one which everyone deems essential or is drawn to I was referring to the sort of academic post-modern conversation which Rorty talked about. The kind that just goes on and on and does not have a knowledge-seeking goal.

          Like

          • ““And I suspect most of them understand that they write in an environment of competing narratives appealing to readers of differing beliefs.”
            Yes. But this “conversation” is not one which everyone finds essential or is drawn to.”

            I was not talking about any post-modern conversation as Rorty might (although he didn’t) agree to. I was talking about those engaged in the study of history, of whatever stripe. And in the context, this is quite clear.

            Like

  5. Mark,
    I want to apologize for the sloppy typography of my previous comment, The most egregious moment was: ” The Structures of Everyday Life is thick which immersive research – as well as engagement with other and previous scholars in the field – which you seem to imply is somehow a lazy scholarship.” I meant to say that Braudel engages in immersive research (in primary sources and their statistical extrapolation), but that he also engages in converse with other scholars, even those of the past, which the OP suggests is not proper scholarship in the scientific sense. For a Humanistic discipline, this suggestion seems absurd.

    The rigor of historical research and narration is simply not the kind of rigor you demand of it.

    But then, on review, I confess that I don’t see how any history can be written given your demands for a history purified of narrative and purified of what you perceive as ideological bias.

    Even scientism is an ideology. You may not think so, but clearly many of us do. Who or what would be the judge determining it otherwise? We’re both atheists, so god’s out. It can’t be history, because that’s the case that must be judged. Nobody’s taking a vote on this; there’ no court to take this for adjudication. You may hope that it will simply be a matter of transformation of the disciplines in the academy involved with the issue. Obviously I will hope otherwise. However, i think history on my side. According to some reports based on the evidence.

    You can’t, in a discussion of this nature, so privilege and reify your own beliefs so that all other beliefs are to be treated with suspicion. Some kind of “hermeneutics of suspicion” seems to be what you’re offering here (and in other essays, which has irritated me somewhat, I confess). But if we purify history of all bias, yours has to go too.

    In which case there would be no one we could trust to write history.

    Two other notes concerning our previous discussion on my English Revolution essay:
    1, That essay is not an exercise in historical research, and was not presented as such. It was an essay trying to understand the social contract theory in its context of its historical origin. You suggest you have no counter-narrative, but that’s disingenuous. Of course you do, and you should tell us what it is, so that contentions can at least be clarified, if not resolved.

    2. You said that your main interest in reading history was acquiring “background” to the reading of literary texts. You have a problem. The literary texts of the past are part of that background (which suggests there is no foreground, only whatever texts we have available). Literary texts are just more text – they are documents of history. We read them otherwise because we’ve been trained to think of them as elevated experiences of entertainment, perhaps with lessons that transcend their historical origins; and I am quite willing to discuss them as such. But they have the same social-ontological value, the same documentary value,, as an old newspaper.

    Like

  6. “But they have the same social-ontological value, the same documentary value,, as an old newspaper.” – I meant, as far as historical research is concerned. Obviously they mean something more in the social-ontology of inherited cultural knowledge. (Oh, gosh, I wish I could stop hitting the “post” button so quickly.)

    But of course one has to have a sense of the fundamental difference – social-ontologically – between historical research and literature; and between these and any non-narrative discipline of study. .

    (Hopefully I’ve only said what I intended this comment!)

    Like

  7. Mark wrote:

    I am using it in the phrase “rigorous scholarship” to characterize certain types of scholarship — those which are science-like in their goals, methods and general outlook

    = = =

    Well, then you’re just engaging in argument by stipulation. That’s not what ‘rigorous’ means.

    And there’s tons of convergence across the non-scientific disciplines. “George Washington was the USA’s first president.” Tons of convergence. Way more than most scientific statements in fact.

    I’m afraid this part just isn’t going to fly, Mark. I appreciate that you have greater confidence/interest/what have you in what the natural sciences tell us than social sciences, etc., but that’s just a personal preference on your part. It doesn’t indicate anything deep about them. Of course they are different in fundamental ways. They would have to be, given that they fall on opposite sides of the Manifest/Scientific Image divide. But the notion that one produces “knowledge” and the other doesn’t is just unsustainable. At least not without stipulating your way through the arguments.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dan wrote:

      “That’s not what ‘rigorous’ means.”

      Definitions 2 (severely accurate, scrupulous) and 4 (relating to deductive explicitness) of ‘rigorous’ in the Collins English Dictionary are more or less what I have in mind.

      Or the third meaning in Webster’s New World College Dictionary: “rigidly precise; thoroughly accurate or exact”. And their example is the very phrase I have been using: “rigorous scholarship”. I am interpreting it a certain way, sure.

      And I am not denying that certain historical claims can be shown to be accurate.

      Like

  8. Pareto has this idea that we should work from the well known to the less well known (The Mind and Society) Apply that to history and we work from the present to the past, a vertiginous counter intuitive thought perhaps but if we consider the various interpretations of present events that we know well very likely better than a historian working 100 years from now, we can see see how fraught history is. Think of Rashomon by Kurosawa and his masterly delineation of the multiple perspectives of just one event. Maybe history is bunk!

    Like

  9. I have a little difficulty following the different lines of argument here. Most people I work with think the “social sciences” are part of the scientific endeavour – full stop. They don’t think the usage “the mathematical sciences” is a delusion on the part of mathematicians. I have to review research grants that use anthropological methods – narratology and “qualitative research methods” – because those are what a scientist uses when studying diseases affecting human populations.

    When I look at citations of Chalmers “Facing up to the problem of consciousness” via Google Scholar and find 284 citations in 2018-9, the journals start: “Annual Review of Psychology”, “Cortex”, “Neuroscience and Behavioral Reviews”, “Nous”, “Australasian Journal of Philosophy” etc – should I be surprised? Sellars says the Manifest Image roughly involves those theoretical entities Aristotle dealt with. I know that is not true, as most people I know have some vague knowledge of Freudian concepts in their “theory of mind”, which of course is simultaneously Manifest and Scientific. Are there scientific ways to test the adequacy of Freud’s thinking, which in one sense could have been proposed by Aristotle – sure. Aristotle could have given a dozen possibilities. They would not be the same kind of tests that Panksepp uses,
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=Panksepp%20J%5BAuthor%5D&cauthor=true&cauthor_uid=26869838
    but are answering the same questions.

    Like

    • The explanations in the Manifest Image are teleological and invoke intentionality. Neither are features of scientific explanation, nor are they reducible to scientific explanations. There is no such thing as “simultaneously manifest and scientific”: indeed, it is a category error. As Sellars explains, a complete vision of the world — one that includes people their activities and the institutions they create, as well as nature — can only be stereoscopic. I find myself forever mystified as to why this is so difficult for people to understand. Massimo and I did an entire dialogue on it.

      https://meaningoflife.tv/videos/38394

      Like

      • Dear Dan – the use of “category-mistake” in this context is meaningless to poor old non-dualist realists. We have to be believe the Manifest to be supervenient (or whatever) on the Scientific, and that the Scientific Image is arising from the “common-sense” Manifest worlds of the actual scientists involved. Stereoscopy allows one to fuse the two images, abusing the metaphor as far as it can go,

        “Both Putnam and van Brakel are thinkers, driven by the work of the American pragmatists as well as Husserl and the later Wittgenstein, who have done a lot to debunk the myth of the images” – the Pragmatic solution is to make the SI a fragment of the “real” MI. The materialist v.v.

        Like

        • That is a flat-out misunderstanding of what the Manifest Image is. Sellars himself explicitly maintains that it is not the common sense view of the world. And there is no abuse involved in the metaphor whatsoever, if one actually understands it.

          In this sense, philosophy has significantly regressed since the 1960’s, when all of this was far better understood. I don’t expect scientists to understand it, as it is not their type of work. But it is disappointing to see how many philosophers have either misunderstood or deliberately misrepresented Sellars and the implication of his landmark paper.

          Finally, if one actually understands Sellars — and Kant — one would understand that the Manifest Image is actually primary: there would be no Scientific Image without it, and beyond that, the Scientific Image must be interpreted in terms of it. This is something that Massimo and I also discussed in our dialogue, to which I linked earlier.

          Like

          • Dear Dan:

            Sellars The Epistemology Lectures Lecture 1 P 174:
            [“The Epistemology lectures evolved into the Machette Foundation Lectures for 1971 at the University of Texas and were printed as “The Structure of Knowledge” in Action Knowledge and Reality: Studies in Honor of Wilfrid Sellars“]

            “Thus, for methodological reasons I shall, to borrow Husserl’s useful term, bracket the theoretical picture of the world and concern my self with explicating what I have called elsewhere the manifest image roughly that commonsense conception of the world where the phrase ‘commonsense’ indicates a framework of categories, a way of conceiving man and the world rather than a collection of uneducated beliefs. I use the word `commonsense’ in the tradition of G.E. Moore and the Scottish Realists.
            “In this commonsense picture of the world, physical objects have perceptible qualities, roughly the proper sensibles and common sensibles of Aristotle, and these qualities are to use a familiar technical term ‘occurrent’ qualities as contrasted with
            dispositional or causal properties or propensities and the like.

            “…In the manifest image, the commonsense world, a person is a basic individual. It is clear that I regard Aristotle as the philosopher of the manifest image and Strawson as his contemporary disciple.” [P176]

            I have read through this material a few times. When I quoted it previously, you have found other quotes more to your liking, but it is clear that Sellars’ thoughts on these matters underwent some evolution. I do not think the commonsense of the Scottish realists is that far from that of those of the social sciences.

            Like

          • David, you may be right that Sellars’ views about this changed over time, but I am not primarily interested in Sellars scholarship. In that sense, I would argue that he was more right in his earlier work — i.e. where he says quite explicitly that the Manifest Image is *not* simply the common sense view of the world — than he was later.

            Like

        • I should also add that ‘supervenience’ is one of the most useless words in philosophy. A classic example of giving the illusion of having explained something without having done much of anything at all. The Powers of Attorney I have over my parents are as real as anything can be — I’ve had to evoke them a number of times, over the last few weeks. And they supervene on nothing physical. *Nothing*.

          Like

          • This is why I consider myself a behaviorist, though not of the Skinner variety.

            When I see Dan Kaufman on a video, I do not do a chemical assay to see if this is really Dan. I judge by his behavior, broadly understood.

            I see a small dog — the size of a cat. And it looks more like a cat than like a great dane. But I recognize it is a dog, because it has dog behavior.

            We are all clusters of behaviors. The atoms in our bodies are mere implementation details for achieving those behaviors. In some sense, the physical supervenes on the behaviors.

            Like

      • I agree with this characterization of the issue. Kant and Sellars (and others) lie at the heart of all of this, and philosophy has lost its way a bit in recent decades. The debate between those who see the manifest image as primary and those who see the scientific image as primary is enduring and important. Kant, of course, had the empirical world conditioned by the mind’s categories, thus explaining how rational (teleological, intentional, etc.) explanation can find application in understanding the material world. This move troubles me: our minds are the product of the empirical world, not its condition, is it not? So I still seek reconciliation: not a reduction or elimination of the manifest, but an understanding of its place within the scientific. This is a really interesting thread…

        Like

  10. One last general remark from me:
    The kind of knowledge that we expect from the natural sciences is similar to that which we expect from the judgment in a court of criminal law: Beyond a reasonable doubt (or a probability of 98%, +/- 2).

    The nature of history is that it finds its resolution in a kind of judgment similar to that in Civil law: Preponderance of the evidence (with probability varying according to the case).

    Broadly in any study of history (or ‘history of’) the researcher first acts as judge, in order to achieve an interpretation. Once achieved, the researcher then must act as advocate on behalf of the interpretation, with the readers – scholarly, in an academic environment, the general reader if a non-academic publication – acting as tribunal. If there is disagreement among scholars, this is hashed out in debate and publications. A strong, defensible interpretation will achieve general consensus of approval, which will stand until further discovery of evidence, which will, hopefully produce a stronger interpretation. (The general public reaches its judgment in a different way and by different criteria.)

    This is true in all of the humanities (and to a lesser extent – perhaps much lesser, that’s open to debate – in the social sciences).

    One can see why this would annoy those of certain ideologies demanding some sort of certainty equivalent to that in the sciences, or those committed to certain religious or other ideological dogma. And certainly the process can be misused by those who wish to promote politically motivated relativism, as well as by those who hold that there is no real knowledge to be acquired in the humanities. But the process – developed by the ancient Greeks in one way, by the ancient Hebrews in another, has survived centuries, despite occasional attacks by dogmatists and skeptics however motivated. That is because, in a certain stage of development, civilized men and women prize their origins, and seek better understanding of what they value.

    If there comes a time they do not, then it is fair to ask whether their condition can be considered civilized, whatever else it might be.

    Like

    • ejwinner

      You talk about historical judgments as being like judgments in civil courts.

      “In a scholarly context, a strong, defensible interpretation will achieve general consensus of approval, which will stand until further discovery of evidence, which will, hopefully produce a stronger interpretation. (The general public reaches its judgment in a different way and by different criteria.)… This is true in all of the humanities…”

      This looks like an idealization to me. When it comes to historical narratives, countless assumptions are built in and you get entrenched positions diametrically opposed to one another.

      “One can see why this would annoy those of certain ideologies demanding some sort of certainty equivalent to that in the sciences…”

      A reference to those committed to “scientism” presumably.

      “… or those committed to certain religious or other ideological dogma.”

      Actually your story would play into the hands of those seeking to promote their ideology.

      “… certainly the process can be misused by those who wish to promote politically motivated relativism, as well as by those who hold that there is no real knowledge to be acquired in the humanities.”

      What about those who are pushing other political or religious agendas?

      “But the process – developed by the ancient Greeks in one way, by the ancient Hebrews in another, has survived centuries, despite occasional attacks by dogmatists and skeptics however motivated. That is because, in a certain stage of development, civilized men and women prize their origins, and seek better understanding of what they value… If there comes a time they do not, then it is fair to ask whether their condition can be considered civilized, whatever else it might be.”

      Given the context of this comment, you seem to be suggesting that anyone (like me, for example) who takes a much more skeptical approach to (certain kinds of) historical narrative than you do is on that account marked as uncivilized and as one who does not prize his/her origins or seek better understanding of what he/she values.

      Like

      • Mark,
        I’ve followed you here too long not to recognize how much you value our cultural inheritance, as well as certain histories, particularly that of your personal experiences. I even share much of those values. But there is a certain extreme scientism and reductionist determinism that holds few such values and for whom history is a distracting drag – Rosenberg has been something of a shadow stalking us here. There is a danger in that, which Huxley articulated as a dystopia in Brave New World, but which Skinner presented as a utopia in Walden Two. Utopias and dystopias aside, we witness effects of the loss of interest in history and preserved values in our politics today, much to the dissatisfaction of yourself and myself, albeit for different reasons.

        The conversation I’ve been speaking about is that which has gone on among scholars since the Greeks and the Hebrews; when Muslims joined that conversation in the 10th Century, they resurrected the Greek texts in order to so, and thus preserved a history that the Christians had shown little interest in up to that time. Of course those involved had religious agendas. So did Jewish and Christian scholars when they decided to converse with Islamic scholars. And there is somethings to be learned from the Medievals, despite the fact that their cosmos seems hopelessly out-dated to many of us. In a conversation there will always be those with vested interests and agendas – scholars are human, and humans have interests and agendas.. But as the conversation continues, these will hopefully be sorted out and chaff removed. But the only way that can be accomplished is continuing that conversation.

        It was that conversation that got me into the university and impelled me to earn my doctorate. I am perfectly aware that I idealize it considerably, for if reality were this ideal, I would be in the academy still – and obviously I’m not. But I still read the better texts of that tradition, and the more interesting texts published today, as if that conversation could be continued, and readers and writers still today could participate in it.

        Finally: My stance grew harder and more aggressive here because of this exchange:
        ““Although well-presented, I’m not sure where this understanding of historical scholarship leads. What texts, what authors would you commend as exemplary here?”

        I recommend reading texts from the past. Any texts. The close study of old *literary* texts used to be a central component of education.”

        This is not an adequate answer, given that the OP is an argument for standards expected in the study of history. You then say you are no advocate for the discipline of historical study – then why assert standards for it?

        Part of the function of becoming a scholar in English is, or was in my time, learning the history of literature, which required learning the practice of historical research. If this is no longer true today – and I fear it might not be in many colleges – it’s a terrible loss. So to attack the study of history for possibly allowing conversations you don’t agree with, or you suspect of some agendas you don’t like, can be seen as yet another excuse to diminish the usefulness of historical research and of the scholarly conversation that requires it. The practical end result – which I hope you would not support, would be further decrease, perhaps even elimination, or Humanities departments in our colleges.

        So I suggest rethinking the scholarly conversation as necessarily, beneficially pluralistic, and trusting somewhat to history that the more extreme or egregious elements will exhaust themselves and be disregarded over time. But the conversation stops, that would be a major blow to civilization just as such. It is not the civilization that makes such conversations possible, it is the conversation that makes civilization.

        Like

        • It’s funny but I’m actually starting to think that Rosenberg is little more than a crank. I used to have greater respect for his work, until I started encountering some of his more extreme statements. I also had some “interesting” experiences of his temperament in the work on the edited volume that I am doing with Skye Cleary and Massimo for RandomHouse, in which Rosenberg was originally supposed to be a part of.

          Like

  11. ejwinner

    “[Quoting yourself, then me] “And I suspect most of them understand that they write in an environment of competing narratives appealing to readers of differing beliefs.”
    “Yes. But this “conversation” is not one which everyone finds essential or is drawn to.”

    I was not talking about any post-modern conversation … I was talking about those engaged in the study of history, of whatever stripe. And in the context, this is quite clear.”

    Okay. But you did talk about an environment of “competing narratives”, having rejected my concerns about the dangers of ideological distortions etc. as being unwarranted or overdone. I (uncharitably perhaps) interpreted what you had in mind as the sort of postmodern “conversation” which just “goes on and on and does not have a knowledge-seeking goal.”

    Note also that in the offending comment I was responding to Dan who was questioning my commitment to the view that it is important to know what happened in the past.

    Like

  12. Hi Mark:

    Here’s a way to reframe the question. Is the professional standing of an historian positively correlated with his or her “objectivity”?

    You agree, I think, that some historical work does exhibit some degree of “rigour”. (You even regard Biblical scholarship as exhibiting it!) I would describe objectivity as having mastery over the whole body of available evidence relevant to a given topic and mastery in marshalling that evidence towards a conclusion that best fits that whole body of evidence.

    What is professional standing? It is signalled by such things as distinguished professorships in high-ranking universities, being elected president of national professional bodies, being published by big name publishers, etc.

    Here’s my question: how in the case of history do you view the correlation between these two dimensions? OK, I know what you will say, that you are not a historian and so not in a position to make that sort of judgement. So I’ll put it differently: if the two were widely regarded by professional historians as strongly positively correlated, would the scepticism you espouse be in any degree lessened?

    (One would hope that in any academic or non-academic profession there is a strongly positive correlation.)

    Alan

    Like

    • Alan

      “Here’s a way to reframe the question. Is the professional standing of an historian positively correlated with his or her “objectivity”?”

      Obviously there are professional limits on what is allowed in terms pushing particular lines. But my basic point, my way of framing the question focuses on what I see as an intractable problem with complex narratives of a certain kind.

      Stuff happens in the world during a particular period. There are countless, literally countless possible and plausible perspectives on these events. So any one narrative is necessarily arbitrary in many ways, *almost* to the point of being fiction. There are historical facts, of course. And errors of fact can be avoided. But what status does the prose narrative itself have? A *single narrative* in the face of the immensely complex reality which any slice of time embodies.

      Turning to your question, obviously a degree of objectivity is required for professional recognition. Eric Hobsbawm was respected by most of his colleagues despite and not because of his biases (Marxist convictions, soft treatment of Soviet Russia, etc.).

      Many noted historians are known to have — and exhibit, and so in a sense promote, in their writings — particular political (or religious) agendas. In fact, these sorts of convictions are often motivating factors. They would not have written had they not had them.

      “You agree, I think, that some historical work does exhibit some degree of “rigour”.”

      Yes I do.

      “I would describe objectivity as having mastery over the whole body of available evidence relevant to a given topic and mastery in marshalling that evidence towards a conclusion that best fits that whole body of evidence.”

      You say “conclusion” but are we not talking about complex narratives?

      “What is professional standing? It is signalled by such things as distinguished professorships in high-ranking universities, being elected president of national professional bodies, being published by big name publishers, etc.”

      I am not altogether sure what these indicators are indicative of. (And whatever drives these things varies according to time and place.)

      “Here’s my question: how in the case of history do you view the correlation between these two dimensions? OK, I know what you will say, that you are not a historian and so not in a position to make that sort of judgement. So I’ll put it differently: if the two were widely regarded by professional historians as strongly positively correlated, would the scepticism you espouse be in any degree lessened?”

      It becomes a matter of trust, I guess. I don’t know that I can say much more than this.

      Like

      • Mark: Replying to two of your comments:

        “Stuff happens in the world during a particular period. There are countless, literally countless possible and plausible perspectives on these events. So any one narrative is necessarily arbitrary in many ways, *almost* to the point of being fiction. There are historical facts, of course. And errors of fact can be avoided. But what status does the prose narrative itself have? A *single narrative* in the face of the immensely complex reality which any slice of time embodies.”

        This must be wrong. It would be a miracle if any plausible history were ever written if, as you say, narrative is “necessarily arbitrary in many ways”. Arbitrary? I picture the historian tossing a coin: heads I say X, tails I say Y.

        The missing element in your account is “relevance”. There is an infinity of facts but the only facts that count are relevant facts. Relevance is determined by the questions being asked. After that, the relevant evidence has to be tracked down, by a hit and miss process. Historians who turn a blind eye to evidence they don’t wish to find generally get caught out.

        “Many noted historians are known to have — and exhibit, and so in a sense promote, in their writings — particular political (or religious) agendas. In fact, these sorts of convictions are often motivating factors. They would not have written had they not had them.”

        “Many noted historians”? Here’s a list of prize-winning historical works by some noted British historians:
        https://www.wolfsonhistoryprize.org.uk/past-winners/all-winners/.
        Can you pick out the “agendas” at work here? I can’t, and I’ve read six of these books and know some work by about 20 of the other authors. My point is that you underestimate the professionalism of scholars such as these.

        Here’s another example: https://www.peterfrankopan.com. His “agenda” is?

        “They would not have written had they not had them.” You know this? How?

        Like

  13. Alan

    “The missing element in your account is “relevance”. There is an infinity of facts but the only facts that count are relevant facts. Relevance is determined by the questions being asked.”

    And what determines what questions are being asked? The particular mindset of the historian, and the sorts of preoccupations which just happen to be in the air in the society in which the historian lives come to mind as possible factors. With respect to the past seen in its own terms these are external — and so arbitrary — factors. No coin tossing required.

    Some people here (like ombhurbhuva who mentioned Kurosawa’s Rashomon) obviously have a similar view to mine on the issue. Rashomon and many other films and literary works demonstrate that, even within a given time, different perspectives driven by moral factors and different levels of knowledge coexist. Does this not suggest another possible source of arbitrariness? (Whose perspective does one choose?)

    Also, relevance is a very flexible concept. (There are often disputes in courts of law about it.)

    You can’t even tell the story of a single family over time (a few decades, say) without running into trouble. For example, my brother and sister and myself not only have different perspectives on various incidents from our shared past, in many cases we interpret them quite differently. I have encountered a few cases recently of *wildly* different interpretations. More than one difference was based on ignorance of crucial facts. The point is, we create these stories based on what we know, but the stories inevitably go beyond the evidence. Plausible does not equate with true (or even likely true).

    Like

    • “And what determines what questions are being asked?” Many things, obviously. Historians write with various sorts of motives, some of them national, religious, ethnic, gendered, class-based, and so on. These partly shape the questions they ask. But, (1) they are also responding to problems emerging from within their own discipline, when new evidence leads to new perspectives; and (2) if the research is professionally done, the questions they ask don’t determine the findings. The questions only determine what sorts of evidence will be relevant.

      “With respect to the past seen in its own terms these are external — and so arbitrary — factors.” I don’t know what you mean here.

      Like

      • Alan

        “With respect to the past seen in its own terms these are external — and so arbitrary — factors.” I don’t know what you mean here.”

        I mean we are imposing something on the past, something alien (*our* ideas) and so distorting it.

        Our ideas are arbitrary with respect to the past because causality doesn’t work backwards.

        These issues are difficult to articulate. I am doing my best. If a word like “arbitrary” is getting in the way, I could try to explain my point without using that word.

        Like

        • All of these words are puzzling to me: external, imposing, alien, arbitrary. Consider me unpersuaded.

          Like

    • Your family history story works in my favour, not yours. Three people share their memories and find some differences. Being good historians, they modify their individual viewpoints in the light of the fact that others have different recollections. That’s progress. That’s how we all learn to get beyond egocentrism. If you have a thousand people doing the same for the French Revolution, you get history. The outcome will not be an infallible God’s eye account, but it is a significant intellectual achievement and one open to further rational improvement. (Just like science.)

      Liked by 1 person

      • Alan

        “Your family history story works in my favour, not yours.”

        It makes certain points I want to make. It can also be used to make the point that new information can change (correct) previous understandings of past events.

        “Three people share their memories and find some differences. Being good historians, they modify their individual viewpoints in the light of the fact that others have different recollections. That’s progress. If you have a thousand people doing the same for the French Revolution, you get history.”

        Your analogy is too loose to do useful work in my opinion. Historians are not participants comparing their shared memories of a particular event.

        The general process of communication and correction occurs in many aspects of life. Does it apply to historical scholarship? Yes. But you need to look at precisely how it works in this (or any given) context.

        Like

  14. Alan

    You obviously reacted against my use of the word ‘agenda’ which admittedly does have a negative connotation. Perhaps I should have used a more neutral term.

    “[Quoting me] “They would not have written had they not had them [i.e. particular political or religious views].” You know this? How?”

    Well, they would not have written what they wrote. Because if they had different priorities etc. they would not even be the individuals they are/were. They would have been different people leading different lives.

    On the broader question of motivation to do historical research and write historical narratives, obviously motivations differ and may or may not affect the character of the work in question.

    This is how I put the issue in the OP:

    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.

    “Here’s another example [of a noted historian]: https://www.peterfrankopan.com. His “agenda” is?”

    I can’t really get into discussing someone whose books I haven’t read but he clearly takes a keen interest in present-day politics and sees his own historical work as contributing in some way to promoting the (admirable, as far as I can see) vision he wants to promote. I quote from a blog post on Trump’s first Executive Order on visas and refugees:

    “I wrote about [these topics] in my book, The Silk Roads, where one of [the] main themes is that decisions to put up walls, pick fights and choose exclusion over inclusion seldom have positive consequences.”

    Frankopan, like anyone, is motivated by a range of factors. Intellectual curiosity, a love of certain cultural traditions and a commitment to certain moral and political values are clearly amongst them.

    Like

  15. Oliver Cromwell in History:
    |||||||||||
    Puritanism was hung on gibbets,—like the bones of the leading Puritans. Its work nevertheless went on accomplishing itself. All true work of a man, hang the author of it on what gibbet you like, must and will accomplish itself. We have our Habeas-Corpus, our free Representation of the People; acknowledgement, wide as the world, that all men are, or else must, shall, and will become, what we call free men;—men with their life grounded on reality and justice, not on tradition, which has become unjust and a chimera! This in part, and much besides this, was the work of the Puritans.
    (Of Heroes and Hero Worship)

    The soul of that party was Oliver Cromwell. Bred to peaceful occupations, he had, at more than forty years of age, accepted a commission in the parliamentary army. No sooner had he become a soldier than he discerned, with the keen glance of genius, what Essex, and men like Essex, with all their experience, were unable to perceive. He saw precisely where the strength of the Royalists lay, and by what means alone that strength could be overpowered. He saw that it was necessary to reconstruct the army of the Parliament. He saw also that there were abundant and excellent materials for the purpose, materials less showy, indeed, but more solid, than those of which the gallant squadrons of the King were composed. It was necessary to look for recruits who were not mere mercenaries, for recruits of decent station and grave character, fearing God and zealous for public liberty. With such men he filled his own regiment, and, while he subjected them to a discipline more rigid than had ever before been known in England, he administered to their intellectual and moral nature stimulants of fearful potency.
    (Macaulay: History of England)

    Oliver Cromwell, at that time a young man of no account in the nation, is mentioned in these debates, as complaining of one who, he was told, preached flat Popery. It is amusing to observe the first words of this fanatical hypocrite correspond so exactly to his character.

    (David Hume: History of England)

    So there is Cromwell. Add in the view of the Irish of him as a proto-Hitler and the image is still more pixillated. Still we like to read history because it has a Greek sense of fate; the present must happen and its mysterious origins have a fascination. Historicizing is a way of binding the tribe into a unity. We reach back to war office papers pertaining to an ancestor who lost a foot and a leg in the Crimean War. He had a leg fitted (boxwood), that’s noted and was physically there preserved in an attic by the family. Frostbite not the Roosian gun took his limb. I like to think that he shot at Tolstoy but fortunately missed, a Pierre Bazukhov of the Gael.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Alan

    “All of these words are puzzling to me: external, imposing, alien, arbitrary. Consider me unpersuaded.”

    The past is what it is (or was what it was). Our present (from the point of view of the past) does not exist. I am using words like “alien” and “external” to make this point.

    I assume that we both want to understand the past in its own terms; as it was; distorted as little as possible by present-day preoccupations and perspectives. Thus my concerns (overdone in your estimation) about historians wittingly or unwittingly inserting their own values or the values of their time into the stories they tell.

    Like

    • “the past is what it was.”

      ——

      I’m surprised to hear you say this as it is flat out false. And obviously so. No wonder your views on history are as they are. You fundamentally misunderstand what it is.

      In my Philosophical Ideas in Literature course, one of the books we read is Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle.” The question of the nature of history and the past is at its center and we discuss at length why the view you so succinctly state here cannot be correct.

      Like

      • Dan

        What I said was: “The past is what it is or was what it was.” Slightly less succinct but less ambiguous and vulnerable to criticism than what you have me saying, I think.

        “No wonder your views on history are as they are. You fundamentally misunderstand what it is.”

        *History* (as a discipline or as a set of narratives) is something else again.

        Like

          • Yes, but you are talking about *accounts* of the past (i.e. historical narratives). I was talking about whatever it is which such accounts normally purport to be about.

            Like

          • Still doesnt help Mark. Surely you see that. Was such and such on June x 194x a victory? Did the war start on such and such a date? It makes no more sense to speak of the ding an sich in history than it does in any other area.

            Like

  17. Dan

    “Still doesnt help, Mark… Was such and such on June x 194x a victory? Did the war start on such and such a date?”

    Our accounts of the past involve interpretation, of course. But these accounts can only have a claim to being accurate or whatever if there is a past for them to be about. That’s all I am claiming really.

    Like

    • And what I’m saying is that there is no independent fact of the matter as to whether x was a victory or not; or whether y was the start of the war or not. And yes, the mistake you are making is a version of the scheme/content distinction that Davidson dismantled in “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme.”

      Like

      • “… what I’m saying is that there is no independent fact of the matter as to whether x was a victory or not; or whether y was the start of the war or not.”

        Okay, but what I am saying is that, *irrespective of what we say about it* (in terms of detail), things followed a certain course over the last 3.8 billion years or so.

        We have evidence which gives us certain information about the course and nature of these processes/events. The evidence needs to be interpreted, yes.

        When we are dealing with *human history*, the interpretations typically become more complex and difficult to assess.

        Like

        • I think you’re missing the point here. It’s not that the evidence is difficult to assess due to complexity, but that explanation cannot be separated from narrative, and involved attributing significance to events in away which does not involve formal statistical methods or anything that can be fruitfully compared to physical laws.
          You can reject the explanatory aspect of history as a discipline only at the expense of ruling out so much of what we care about when it comes to history, to the point where it just seems like a kind of unhealthy epistemic aescecticism. It’s also a misapplication of epistemic modesty, since the point of epistemic modesty is to minimise error, but you don’t minimise error by refusing to engage narratives, when the idea of a fact as to which narrative is REALLY true is questionable.
          Moreover, since all explanation, arguably, can occur only relative to a particular human way of framing things, including causal explanation, it seems selective to focus on history. If you doubt this, then please tell me what on earth an language-Independent necessitating relation might be. Because I for one haven’t the foggiest.
          I suppose you might say that in ‘rigorous science’ there is enough agreement on the basic framework within which explanations are made, and what counts as a good one for these philosophical problems not to matter too much, whereas in history, the problem of underdetermination of narrative by facts is much greater. But it’s not at all clear that this is completely true or indeed that it’s being true says much about the relative rigour of the disciplines being compared.
          Historically there have been many disputed about what even counts as a scientific explanation e.g. the dispute between the Rationalists and Newtonians. And to the extent that that has stopped, it’s not because of any decisive argument, as the endless debates in philosophy of science show, and current debates about things like levels of selection in evolution or retrocsusality in physics suggests that these issues have not been dealt with.
          Moreover, it’s questionable whether this convergence in narrative in science has happened because we are getting closer and closer to the truth. I’d recommend you check out Kyle Stanford’s work on unconceived alternatives, where he argues that the bureaucratic structure of modern scientific research discourages the proliferation of alternative frameworks in a way which was not true in the past. So even to the extent to which there is more narrative convergence in physical science, it isn’t clear that’s a mark of truth.

          Liked by 2 people

          • I should also add that it’s debatable whether the criteria by which theories are selective are truth conducive at all or merely pragmatic. For example, it’s quite plausible that there is nothing inherently truth conducive about simplicity, but scientists have good reason to prefer it, because it makes for theories we can actually use effectively in making predictions. If this is right, then the alleged greater success of the sciences compared to the humanities is obtained precisely by somewhat depriorotising truth, in order to yeild predictive accuracy, but since this isn’t something historians even aim for, it’s difficult to see what any scientistic claim of superiority even amounts to.

            Like

          • I’m actually going to do an essay on this. The discussion with Mark, and the fact that I’m teaching “Man in the High Castle” next semester has motivated me to try and get some points established re: the nature of claims like “The war started on X” and “The So-and-Sos were the victors.”

            Like

        • Okay, but what I am saying is that, *irrespective of what we say about it* (in terms of detail), things followed a certain course over the last 3.8 billion years or so

          = = =

          This assumes that one can, broadly, separate out one’s conceptual scheme from it’s content. We’ve known that you can’t, since Kant and this has been reaffirmed again and again, most recently and strongly, by Davidson.

          The view is hopelessly naive — again, in the descriptive sense. And lands you in skeptical holes, a la Hume, if taken to its logical conclusion. I’m actually surprised that you are suggesting it, given that you are more than familiar with the arc of modern philosophy.

          Like

  18. Let me just give a preliminary response to the response (from Dan and Kripkensteinsmonster303: will respond individually and in more detail later) to my response to Alan. Two points.

    I suspect that there is a profound difference in the way we see the world. And that difference will not be satisfactorily addressed or resolved simply by reframing the questions in the way you are doing.

    Secondly, it’s almost as if you are reacting against a view (about the relative epistemic value of certain disciplines) which is implied by my claims rather than dealing with the claims themselves.

    Like

    • I replied directly to the claim. I dont believe you can disentangle representation from the thing it is a representation of. Thats why i invoked Kant and Davidson. I also could have invoked Quine.

      I am writing up an essay on this right now. Thats the only way to do justice to the issue that you have raised.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Mark wrote:

      I suspect that there is a profound difference in the way we see the world.

      = = = =

      Yes, but the whole point of the relevant arguments is to demonstrate that this particular way in which you are viewing the world is wrong. Hence the references to Kant, Davidson, and others.

      Like

  19. Kripkensteinsmonster303

    “I think you’re missing the point here.”

    [Referring to this: “…We have evidence which gives us certain information about the course and nature of … processes/events. The evidence needs to be interpreted… When we are dealing with *human history*, the interpretations typically become more complex and difficult to assess.”]

    “It’s not that the evidence is difficult to assess due to complexity…”

    I didn’t say that. I said that the *interpretations* become more difficult to assess.

    “You can reject the explanatory aspect of history as a discipline only at the expense of ruling out so much of what we care about when it comes to history, to the point where it just seems like a kind of unhealthy epistemic [asceticism].”

    Fine. You can see my position as unhealthily ascetic if you like. It’s just that focus on “what we care about” which I am saying renders certain kinds of historical narrative less interesting, less attractive, to people like me.

    “It’s also a misapplication of epistemic modesty, since the point of epistemic modesty is to minimise error, but you don’t minimise error by refusing to engage narratives when the idea of a fact as to which narrative is REALLY true is questionable.”

    Or meaningful?

    “Moreover, since all explanation, arguably, can occur only relative to a particular human way of framing things, including causal explanation, it seems selective to focus on history.”

    You seem to be suggesting that scientific explanations are just as problematic as political-historical explanations. I don’t agree.

    “If you doubt this [that all explanation can occur only relative to a particular human way of framing things] then please tell me what on earth an language-Independent necessitating relation might be. Because I for one haven’t the foggiest.”

    I accept that explanations require framing in some way.

    “I suppose you might say that in ‘rigorous science’ there is enough agreement on the basic framework within which explanations are made, and what counts as a good one for these philosophical problems not to matter too much, whereas in history, the problem of underdetermination of narrative by facts is much greater.”

    Something like that.

    “Historically there have been many disputed what even counts as a scientific explanation e.g. the dispute between the Rationalists and Newtonians. And to the extent that that has stopped, it’s not because of any decisive argument, as the endless debates in philosophy of science show, and current debates about things like levels of selection in evolution or retrocsusality in physics suggests that these issues have not been dealt with.”

    Yes, but these “endless debates in philosophy of science” (as you put it) do not necessarily mean that scientists and scholars can’t continue to do valuable work. I see also that Kyle Stanford (whose work you recommend) seems to have a similar view to me on this.

    “Moreover, it’s questionable whether this convergence in narrative in science has happened because we are getting closer and closer to the truth.”

    How you describe scientific progress is obviously important.

    “But I’d recommend you check out Kyle Stanford’s work on unconceived alternatives, where he argues that the bureaucratic structure of modern scientific research discourages the proliferation of alternative frameworks in a way which was not true in the past. So even to the extent to which there is more narrative convergence in physical science, it isn’t clear that’s a mark of truth.”

    I accept that much current scientific research is compromised in the way you suggest. But, looking at scientific and many scholarly developments over the last few hundred years, the convergence cannot be explained in social terms.

    Like

    • “But, looking at scientific and many scholarly developments over the last few hundred years, the convergence cannot be explained in social terms.”

      That’s not entirely correct. The explanations may sound so innocuous as to be passed over, but they are social explanations nonetheless.

      Consider the Nazi claim that Einsteinian physics was essentially “Jewish science,” and thus opposed to the social truth of Nazism. Well, you can’t get a more biased historicism than that; Heidegger railed against it, the absurdity is so clear.

      Yet, the fact remains that Einstein achieved recognition of the importance of his theories of relativity for the quite social reason that the international community of scientists were developing – against some resistance other than that of the Nazis – an internationalist culture of shared ideas and discovery. So yes, the science is what it is; but only achieved attention and (following appropriate, communally agreed justification) acceptance, for what are clearly social reasons.

      Science requires a certain social environment in order to pursue its research. This is quite obvious historically, and remains true today. You may see that as epiphenomenal to the actual science, but the actual science could not be ‘actualized’ otherwise. And of course the question is how deeply is the social environment embedded in the culture of scientific research. I suggest quite a bit. The liberal state and it’s bureaucracy, its systems of checks and balances, its openness to public disagreement and debate, have clear analogies in practices in the scientific communities.

      A people without knowledge of its history and culture is a tree without roots.

      Like

    • And yes, my example requires certain narratives of history; but to properly disagree with it, you would have to offer a counter-narrative. Just saying ‘no’ is not good enough.

      A narrative *is* an argument. It is in fact a sequential series of specific inductions leading to a generalized abduction. As I warned you, your failure to recognize this weakens your position here.

      Like

  20. ejwinner

    A few more reactions (to comments of yours to which I have not already replied)…

    “But … on review, I confess that I don’t see how any history can be written given your demands for a history purified of narrative and purified of what you perceive as ideological bias.”

    My demands (?) for a history purified of narrative? Where is this coming from? The entire piece is predicated on the idea that narrative is unavoidable, and that there are *different kinds* of narrative.

    I am not asking for a comprehensive, scientific history. I am saying that some approaches to dealing the past are more objective/scientific than others.

    “Even scientism is an ideology. You may not think so, but clearly many of us do.”

    As I recently suggested, the term is probably more trouble than it’s worth (since it has so many possible meanings). But even if my views are deemed to be scientistic (in some sense), so what? I am explicitly articulating and defending a position. And the whole thrust of what I am saying is opposed to grand ideologically-driven narratives, scientistic or otherwise.

    I am committed to something like Whewell’s notion of consilience, and possibly to a more radical position than this. (He was a clergyman, after all!) I see the attempt (started by German Idealists) to fence off the so-called Geisteswissenschaften from the hard sciences as a fatal mistake. We are part of the physical world, after all. The sphere of culture and language introduces new elements, but we are still talking about a single reality. For convenience we slice it in various ways, and different scientific and scholarly disciplines require different methods, but it is unhelpful, in my opinion, to try to ringfence the humanities. (Doing so will only hasten their demise.)

    Let add that for me *the arts* are an important and integral part of life and living. They enrich our lives, but they are more about enjoyment and pleasure than knowledge-seeking in a scientific and scholarly sense.

    “There’s no court to take this [to] for adjudication. You may hope that it will simply be a matter of transformation of the disciplines in the academy involved with the issue.”

    Precisely.

    “You can’t, in a discussion of this nature, so privilege and reify your own beliefs so that all other beliefs are to be treated with suspicion.”

    I am just expressing (and arguing for) my views on certain topics. How this involves doing what you accuse me of doing escapes me. I don’t see how honestly articulating a point of view entails the sort of arrogance you imply.

    “Some kind of “hermeneutics of suspicion” seems to be what you’re offering here (and in other essays, which has irritated me somewhat, I confess). But if we purify history of all bias, yours has to go too… In which case there would be no one we could trust to write history.”

    This is just the kind of dichotomous thinking that I am trying to avoid. All or nothing, etc.. The scholarly ideal is (or should be) not to allow one’s personal biases to influence one’s work. Many scholars in historically-oriented disciplines manage to do this to a very large extent.

    Like

  21. ejwinner

    More replies to your comments (concluding with a brief statement of my personal experience of reading historical scholarship)…

    “… concerning our previous discussion on my English Revolution essay…”

    Since you chose not to reply to my response to your criticisms of my comment on that piece, I assumed you were offended by what I said and did not want to discuss the matter further. I would have been quite happy to continue the conversation.

    “You suggest you have no counter-narrative, but that’s disingenuous. Of course you do, and you should tell us what it is, so that contentions can at least be clarified, if not resolved.”

    I don’t have a counter-narrative regarding those particular political events or regarding the origins of social contract theory. I’m quite partial to Hobbes, but find Rawlsian approaches flawed (because certain assumptions are built in). I could probably flesh out my views a little more but any narrative I could come up with would be minimally engaged with political history.

    “You said that your main interest in reading history was acquiring “background” to the reading of literary texts.”

    This is what I actually said: “[N]ot being a reader of history, there are limits to what I can plausibly say. For me history has always been “background” for reading literary works [in English, French and Latin] from past eras; or else more scientifically oriented (e.g. history of language, prehistory (archaeology, geology, etc.)).”

    And, of course, history of ideas. I mentioned Basil Willey’s books, for example (probably my earliest introduction to the history of ideas).

    Also, as Iris Murdoch pointed out, growing up within the kind of (Platonized) Christianity to which she was exposed, and which was once a common element in traditional forms of life and education in Britain and other European and Commonwealth countries, constituted in itself an education in history (or at least in European cultural and, to an extent, intellectual history).

    Such an upbringing led me, in fact, to do wide reading not only in devotional literature and theology but also in the history of Christian origins. In the end, my growing knowledge of the historical background to the New Testament led me away from Christianity altogether. I found that certain kinds of Biblical scholarship (especially textual criticism, but also more broadly-focused work on the cultural and intellectual background to these writings) had a potency, significance and empirical rigour which theology lacked. At the time of my strong interest in these things, there was also a lot of material coming out on the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi library.

    So, all in all, I am keenly aware of the potential power and significance of historical scholarship.

    Liked by 1 person