Knowledge of the Past and Knowledge of the World
by Mark English
My intention here is to recapitulate a couple of points arising from recent discussions with a view to clarifying my own position on the nature of the past, before briefly addressing some broader questions relating to realism and culture.
Is it acceptable to distinguish between, on the one hand, an account of the past (whatever kind of account it might be) and whatever it is which such an account is or purports to be about? I ask this question because I was challenged recently for using this form of words by Daniel Kaufman. Not only would I argue that it is acceptable, I would say that such a distinction (or something very like it) is necessary to make sense of the very concept of truth-telling versus lying, or to make sense of the distinction between history and fiction, or between scholarship and polemics, or between science and pseudo-science (in the context of those sciences which deal with the past).
The defense I am putting here, however, is a limited one and does not require a direct refutation of Quine’s views on language and reference or Davidson’s take on the relation between framework (or organizing scheme) and content. My claim is that using the form of words I did (note, in particular, my use of the verb ‘purport’) does not commit me to a specific metaphysical view.
One can, I am saying, use and understand such language and employ such a distinction whilst remaining completely agnostic about the nature of the past: it might be a meaningless concept; it might be a figment of our imaginations; it might be in some sense actual but created and determined, in part or in toto, by us; it might be stable, or it might be shifting and unstable (i.e. dreamlike). Or it might be more or less how the vast majority of humans think of it: that is, as existing or having existed quite independently of us and our thoughts and desires; as stable and unalterable; as knowable only imperfectly and in part. Even if this last option falls foul of the anti-realism arguments which Dan has so lucidly articulated, my point is that you can make the statement I made without necessarily committing to this or any other particular view.
[Davidson’s] target, of course, is the “scheme/content” distinction – what he calls the “third dogma of empiricism” – something that Mark clearly seems guilty of embracing, with his talk of “the thing our accounts are supposed to be about.” There is no such thing, nor does it really make sense to speak of there being one, which is why for Davidson, talk of “the world” or the “reality” which our statements are supposed to be “about” collapses into talk about the truth of those statements…
Note that the apparent direct quote from me is actually a paraphrase. (At least I can’t find where I said this.) My actual words were, “… whatever it is which our accounts normally purport to be about.” And, as I explained above, this form of words does not entail a commitment to the existence of anything (other than our accounts, of course).
There was a second claim of mine to which Dan took exception, calling it “flat out false… [a]nd obviously so.” He elaborated on his objections in the essay linked to above. Given that this piece prompted further extensive discussion (more than 160 comments), some may feel that the topic has been done to death, at least on this forum, and at least for the time being.
My view, however, is that, as in the case of the previously-discussed claim, some recapitulation and clarification may be useful. In this second case, I think that a careful reading of what was being said in the context in which it was being said may help to allay confusion and misunderstanding.
The claim in question was that “the past is what it is (or was what it was).” I could elaborate on what I meant by this (and did so to some extent in the comment thread attached to Dan’s essay); but perhaps the best way to unpack the intended meaning without inadvertently bringing in new complications is simply to look at the context in which the claim was made.
A commenter on my essay, “History and Knowledge,” reacting against my skeptical attitude to the stories historians tell and to my suggestion that we should focus instead on reading for ourselves texts from the past, had queried my use of certain words (‘external’, ‘alien’, ‘arbitrary’) in describing how historians often project their own (political, moral, etc.) preoccupations and values into the stories they tell about the past, preoccupations and values that are often quite alien (as I put it) to the people and societies being described.
“All of these words,” he said, “are puzzling to me: ‘external’, ‘imposing’, ‘alien’, ‘arbitrary’. Consider me unpersuaded.”
“The past is what it is (or was what it was),” I replied. “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.”
I said that we want to understand the past “in its own terms” and “as it was.” Taken in isolation I concede that this latter phrase especially could be seen to imply the naive view that Dan ascribes to me. But I explained my meaning in the words which immediately followed: [we want our view to be] “distorted as little as possible by present-day preoccupations and perspectives.”
This is why I recommended focusing on primary sources, reading the actual texts from the past in the languages in which they were written. Will we be able to understand them in exactly the same way their authors understood them? No. Our experiences are very different. But scholars who immerse themselves in the writings of a particular period are able to achieve a very good sense of the perspectives of the original authors. And a good historian can (I concede) convey something of this.
So when I spoke of the past “as it was” I was not talking about a perspectiveless, abstract or noumenal past at all. I was talking about the actual perspectives of actual people who lived and spoke and wrote and some of whose writings we have access to and are able to read.
Our interpretations of this evidence are our interpretations, not theirs. But this applies to all human communication. And despite the one-way nature of the communication and the inevitable cultural divide, it seems not unreasonable to see the attempt to understand the past in its own terms – i.e. as it was for the people at the time – as a reasonable goal of historical scholarship and research, even if that goal will never be perfectly achieved.
There was also some discussion of the very distant past, before the advent of observers. Obviously, envisaging this poses greater problems because you cannot talk about the perspectives of the time, and compare or contrast them with our own. There were no perspectives then.
Dan addressed some genuinely deep and difficult issues in the essay he wrote in response to those comments of mine and I want to turn now, albeit briefly, to some of those broader issues. In the course of discussion specific papers and books were referred to as well as a number of previous pieces of Dan’s. One such piece, “Knowledge and Reality,” begins as follows:
If you were to go to the trouble of asking ordinary people about their views on Knowledge and Reality—accosting them, at random, on street corners, perhaps—and succeeded in getting honest answers, you would likely discover that they hold something like the following view: What it is to know something is to possess some body of information—to have a “picture” of thing—that squares with or is true to reality. If you were to push further, regarding ‘Reality’, they would likely characterize it along the lines of “everything that actually exists” (the ‘actually’ intended to preclude imaginary and fictional things like unicorns and Sherlock Holmes).
Plausibly, this is what people would indeed say. You could see it as a form of naive realism. But, if my view is (as Dan has suggested) a form of naive realism, it is not this form of naive realism.
Both Dan and I see problems with the stated view. I approach these problems differently, however, and don’t (at least consciously) draw on Kant or Quine as he does.
The crucial issue here for me is a matter of underlying assumptions and perspective. I see my body as an intrinsic part of the physical world and my “self” as being dependent on a (physically instantiated) culture. This culture is just as much a part of reality as anything else.
Cultural products – languages, customs, artworks, nursery rhymes, fiction, music, etc. – undeniably constitute a part of reality, and Sherlock Holmes stories and unicorn legends are part of this reality. Obviously the characters and creatures featured in these stories are not real in the sense that real people or real animals are real (though young children are unable to grasp this). But, as imagined characters and creatures, they are components of the real (and physically instantiated) cultural matrix in which we happen to exist. A cultural matrix of some kind is, of course, a necessary condition for our existence as persons and for our functioning as human beings.
This issue is closely related to another topic which came up in discussion. At one point Dan said: “[F]or me, the question of how we understand our fundamental relationship to the world is of tremendous interest and something that I never tire thinking, reading, or talking about.”
I respect this. But, for the reasons outlined above, I do not see things in terms of my (or our) relationship to the world but rather in terms of trying to better understand the world of which I am an intrinsic part.
Such a view is quite consistent with scientific practice; in fact, scientific practice is arguably predicated on such a view, even in areas (like physics) which are not dealing with human culture. (Special Relativity, for example, is intrinsically perspectival.)
The world is a single world. (At least I see no reason to think otherwise.) It includes myself and others and language and culture as well as all the fundamental processes upon which physics and other sciences are focused.
Though all worthwhile discourse will, in my opinion, be consistent with the findings of science, it will not necessarily be scientific, even in a broad sense of the word.
The trick (as I see it) is to feel the pulse and appreciate the potency of language and other mechanisms of cultural expression without metaphysicalizing these processes in any way: without adopting Romantic myths about art, artists and the creative imagination, or hypostatizing the self or collectivities like “the people” or “the nation,” or falling for the social myths (utopian, libertarian or totalitarian), which are often associated with these ways of thinking.
How does Daniel Kaufman’s view align with my own? I am still not sure.
“If there is a framework independent world, then there must be a way it is,” he wrote in a comment on his essay, “Knowledge and Reality”.
Obviously a framework-independent world can’t be described without ceasing to be framework-independent so I guess the point is that this framework-independent world is necessarily noumenal and no good to anybody.
Certainly it seems reasonable to deny the notion of a super-framework (or God’s eye view). But rejecting a super-framework is quite compatible (isn’t it?) with accepting that there is a world which our (necessarily limited) frameworks (partially) describe.
When I raised this point, Dan replied: “Of course when we engage in empirical investigation we obtain knowledge about the world. No one disagrees with that, not even Berkeley. The disagreement is with the realist’s claim, not with the idea that empirical knowledge consists of knowledge about the world.”
If we can have such knowledge without realism, why do we need realism? Though occasionally using the term “scientific realism” as a convenient shorthand to describe my position, I have always preferred metaphysical agnosticism to explicit metaphysical commitments.
If I can get what I want – the possibility of more or less objective knowledge and distinctions between science and pseudo-science, rigorous scholarship and polemics, history and fiction, etc. – without committing to a particular metaphysical stance, great.
If not, I am prepared to bite the bullet and defend a form of realism – reluctantly, however. I have always seen metaphysical commitment as a form of baggage. And I prefer to travel light.