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.

Dan wrote:

[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.

32 Comments »

  1. Mark, this is good and clarifying. I actually don’t think we disagree very much at the proverbial “ground level.”

    With regard to this, however:

    “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.”

    = = =

    It is my view that *you* are the one doing this, when you (not here, but elsewhere) single these sorts of things and their study out as being in some sense lesser than or less real than or less “objective” then the objects of science and scientific study. *That* stance requires hypostatizing them. Otherwise, if one understands that of course, a contract isn’t an object, in the sense that a tree is, there are no difficulties whatsoever in speaking of its reality or of the rigor of the discourse about it.

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    • Dan

      “I actually don’t think we disagree very much at the proverbial “ground level.” ”

      I am never quite sure!

      “With regard to this, however: “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…” It is my view that *you* are the one doing this…”

      We would have to look at actual claims of mine. But obviously there are different kinds of knowledge and different kinds of rigor. I certainly don’t feel ready to concede your point that it is I who have been hypostatizing — what exactly? Science? Natural processes? I am perfectly happy affirming the importance of many kinds of scholarship (including jurisprudence).

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  2. Mark,
    if I were set aside the previous discussions – which you clearly not asking for – I would read this as largely a position paper, and as such, would not need to argue with it, despite disagreements. After all, this is your position, let’s see what you can do with it.

    But there’s a sticking point of course. I asked on a previous comment thread what may have appeared to be an innocuous, marginal question : If your position were fully adopted, how would history be taught? In fact this is at the core of the matter – what we know as history began in the Enlightenment, partly for political purposes, and ultimately intended for mass dissemination by way of increasingly extensive and inclusive educational systems. By the end of the 19th century, it had become clear that this was a necessary component for the development of an informed electorate of shared national community. And teachers of history are necessarily story tellers.

    If we were to adopt your position on its strictest terms, there would be no teaching of history, only the teaching of certain research techniques. Your ‘naive realism’ (and your implicit scientism) suggest a ‘study of history’ that would approach the texts of the past as mere artifacts, much the way paleontologists study fossils, rather than as recorded voices from a conversation continuing to this day.

    And that’s the other problem I have with this: why is it that the past interests us at all? . It would seem to be self-evident that it is to better understand ‘how we got this way’ – that is, better understanding the ongoing stories and dialogues that have at last brought us into these as participants in the narrative, characters in the drama. (Interestingly, it is only a reified subjectivity – which you rightfully deny – that would allow the kind of distance that would allow one to ‘study’ the past without actually being interested in it in this way.)

    “Our present, from the point of view of the past, does not exist.” – This is simply not true. All texts are written with an eye to the future – after all, any audience a text is being written for hasn’t read it yet! But the various constitutional documents of various nation; the debates surrounding the writing of these; or, the historical travel narratives, such as Marco Polo’s or just the occasional brief narratives by traveling monks during the middle ages; the religious texts of course, but also wills and testaments, letters to friends or family – one could go on listing, but what’s the point. The simple report of events in a newspaper are as much intended toward the future as utopian manifestos. The texts we write bring into being the future present. The texts of the past brought our present into being. What we’re looking for when we study the past is, how this happened.

    Of course any good student of history wishes to read the texts of the past through the perspective of those who composed them. Any projection of present biases into the past only warp the narrative, but ultimately will be debunked in time. That is why critical reading and critical thinking are so necessary to the study of history. But the solution to this problematic is not to adopt a scientific (or rather, scientistic) approach that leaves our relationship to the past either mute or benumbed by caution. You bemoan that our tendency toward narrative is some fault of a brain (dys)function, and bemoan it in such a way that you seem to think neurosciences will someday find a ‘cure’ for this. I find that idea sad, frankly. Our faults make us human as much as our virtues. That’s why I prefer to think of scholarship in the Humanities as a conversation. Sometimes ideologues threaten to close off that conversation; and sometimes the economics of it are threatened by those who see no need for such a conversation. But it has produced enormous public benefit, and remains the life blood of a healthy representative democracy. Democracy is all about disagreement – it thrives on dialogue and conversation. It is not about settling matters once and for all.

    I worry, Mark, that the kind of knowledge you seek from science, or from history approached ‘scientifically,’ is a kind of dead knowledge – a settling of matters once and for all. I hope I’m wrong. Knowledge – or rather knowing and learning – is an ongoing living enterprise and experience. It is most lively when best challenged.

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    • ejwinner

      [Part one]

      “… if I were set aside the previous discussions … I would read this as largely a position paper, and as such, would not need to argue with it… But there’s a sticking point of course.”

      Of course.

      “I asked on a previous comment thread what may have appeared to be an innocuous, marginal question: If your position were fully adopted, how would history be taught? In fact this is at the core of the matter…”

      It is an important consideration but I am not in the business of putting out detailed suggestions as some kind of expert. You asked a question and I answered it in terms of my own experience. As I have explained, I picked up my history via other subject areas. So when you talk about history as a discrete subject as essential or as “a necessary component”, naturally I resist.

      “… what we know as history began in the Enlightenment, partly for political purposes, and ultimately intended for mass dissemination by way of increasingly extensive and inclusive educational systems. By the end of the 19th century, it had become clear that this was a necessary component for the development of an informed electorate of shared national community. And teachers of history are necessarily story tellers.”

      Matthew Arnold thought literature could play this role. And I see a place for this kind of storytelling and indoctrination into the values of the community but it applies, as I see it, mainly at the earlier stages of the educational process and these stories can be told within the framework of other disciplines.

      “If we were to adopt your position on its strictest terms, there would be no teaching of history, only the teaching of certain research techniques. Your ‘naive realism’ (and your implicit scientism) suggest a ‘study of history’ that would approach the texts of the past as mere artifacts, much the way paleontologists study fossils, rather than as recorded voices from a conversation continuing to this day.”

      Not at all. Works of literature are full of life. They speak to us, that’s the whole point. Scholarship establishes texts and points out cultural differences and explains puzzling references and allusions. But you don’t need to be a scholar to enjoy most literary works (including essays, letters, diaries, etc.).

      “It would seem to be self-evident that it is to better understand ‘how we got this way’ – that is, better understanding the ongoing stories and dialogues that have at last brought us into these as participants in the narrative, characters in the drama.”

      I have got no problems with this. This is what the reading of literature and the study of intellectual history has always been for me.

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    • [Part 2]

      ” “Our present, from the point of view of the past, does not exist.” – This is simply not true. All texts are written with an eye to the future – after all, any audience a text is being written for hasn’t read it yet! … various constitutional documents [and] the debates surrounding the writing of these … historical travel narratives … wills and testaments, letters to friends or family… The simple report of events in a newspaper are as much intended toward the future as utopian manifestos. The texts we write bring into being the future present. The texts of the past brought our present into being…”

      Hyperbole. *Helped* to bring…

      Sure, people look to an unknown future and try to influence it. Heidegger talked about our being essentially future-oriented beings. But it is an *imagined future*. It is not “our present”. I stand by what I said.

      “Of course any good student of history wishes to read the texts of the past through the perspective of those who composed them. Any projection of present biases into the past only warp the narrative, but ultimately will be debunked in time. That is why critical reading and critical thinking are so necessary to the study of history. But the solution to this problematic is not to adopt a scientific (or rather, scientistic) approach that leaves our relationship to the past either mute or benumbed by caution. You bemoan that our tendency toward narrative is some fault of a brain (dys)function, and bemoan it in such a way that you seem to think neurosciences will someday find a ‘cure’ for this.”

      I said/suggested nothing of the kind. Our brains are narrative-generators at a very deep level. And this is precisely why we should (in my opinion) be cautious in our judgments about the past — and about the present.

      “Our faults make us human as much as our virtues. That’s why I prefer to think of scholarship in the Humanities as a conversation. Sometimes ideologues threaten to close off that conversation; and sometimes the economics of it are threatened by those who see no need for such a conversation.”

      Increasingly ideologues are running the humanities. It’s not a conversation now, it’s more like a campaign or a crusade.

      “But it has produced enormous public benefit, and remains the life blood of a healthy representative democracy.”

      This rings hollow for me. The US is about as far from a healthy representative democracy as a representative democracy can get. The humanities, before they were politicized, *were* beneficial. But not in their current form, for the most part — at least as far as I am concerned.

      “Democracy is all about disagreement – it thrives on dialogue and conversation. It is not about settling matters once and for all…”

      No doubt you are thinking in terms of a ‘democratic society’ (and not specifically politics) here. I’m not sure there that there has ever been such a thing, but I concede that democratic values can inform our behavior (or not, as the case may be).

      “I worry, Mark, that the kind of knowledge you seek from science, or from history approached ‘scientifically,’ is a kind of dead knowledge – a settling of matters once and for all. I hope I’m wrong. Knowledge – or rather knowing and learning – is an ongoing living enterprise and experience…”

      Intellectual curiosity comes in various forms, but (as I see it) it is about wanting to find things out, to learn, to know. It is not an appetite which is ever likely to be satisfied however.

      Different people want to know and understand different kinds of things. And there is nothing wrong with that.

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      • Mark,
        Of course I’ve been arguing for the ideal, that once informed academic endeavors – I’m much more pessimistic about the current state of education and our society than this would make it appear. But you tend toward cynicism about that ideal, and I won’t go there. (Pessimism and cynicism are not the same.) If our society is going down the tubes, it is because our schools are not teaching history, or literature, or civics, or social studies or philosophy. They’ve reduced their curricula to target test scores, and even jigger these. Even in the STEM programs in high-schools. In the last few years I taught writing in college, I had students who didn’t know who Abraham Lincoln was! And you want them to read, say Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or the Autobiography of Frederick Douglass? But when I was in high school, these were required texts in 8th grade. Also the year my history teacher directed us to read some Plato and research Voltaire.

        I think the kind of direct-to-text education you look for was that widely available to the upper classes in the early 19th century – primarily the reading of Latin and Greek classics. It’s not a bad style of education at all. It is utterly useless as a model for a nation with a large, diverse population challenged by a wave of immigrants from Europe, as education theorists found themselves in America by the end of the 19th century. Yet still they strove to preserve the values of that classical education – and thus the modern Humanities were born.

        It’s not clear yet whether America has truly ‘failed’ as a representative democracy yet. My guess is probably not. All we know of this failure, after all, is what we gather from the media. And while our education systems do seem to be in a state of chaos, there are still good people in them, trying to do the right thing by their students, and occasionally enjoying some success.

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      • I add here, that, after consideration, I don’t see how we can preserve the texts of literature without study in the history of literature. If the field of literary study is falling apart, one reason is that the ‘ideologues’ you rightfully complain of have effectively abandoned literary history even as mere heuristic.

        I know you allow histories of differing fields; the problem is that any historical study is going to have much the same issues you see as problematic.

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  3. It’s a mix of two things, clearly demarcated facts and interpretations of those facts. I sowed carrot seeds on the 12th.of April. They are now beginning to show. My thinking about that particular time of sowing is that they would show after the last expected frost. We actually had no real frost this year but I’m careful and as well I have this belief that unchecked growth leads to best results even though carrots are hardy. That’s typical of me, being careful, eliminating risks, staying on the safe side…… But then how do you explain my episodes of gambling? Could it be that I am proving the correctness of my prudence and that ventures in the risky are fraught. The apparently inconsistent may be a successful experiment.

    Suppose an earlier riskier sowing had been successful followed by a large crop that was stored early and left the ground open for a further sowing. I might begin to believe in luck.

    Such is politics. When does the leader make his move? Has he guiding principles that can be discerned? Are we to believe his rationalisations. Is he naught but an idiot savant?

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    • ombhurbhuva

      “It’s a mix of two things, clearly demarcated facts and interpretations of those facts…”

      Interpretations are both necessary (to create a real narrative) and, as you suggest, always uncertain or provisional.

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  4. I’m sympathetic to your stressing the past’s independent reality, but not to your downgrading historians. Going back to ancient sources, some of our most used “original” texts are from historians drawing on a background of sources, evidence and interpretations of their own. I think you made this point in the original essay, but I’m not sure you really appreciate it. They aren’t necessarily more pure or less partial than the historian today. Precisely because we want to better approximate the past, we depend on the years and years of argument, analysis and study of a community of historians to reconcile the gaps and contradictions between different accounts, to evaluate the claims therein, and overall to get a more accurate picture of the past. In some cases, this entails also reconciling this textual information with archaeological or other forms of evidence. We can’t constantly reinvent the wheel. We have to jump into the conversation.

    That’s not to say I don’t have sympathy for people like Mike Duncan who threw himself into the original texts and eked out a sprawling “History of Rome” podcast and a book built (I can’t recall if it was entirely) on ancient sources, but all the same, he hasn’t solely read primary sources. And as for myself, I read the book and I’m listening to the podcast because they provide a more convenient and coherent entry to the subject. The problem goes for recent history too. I’m reading a book on the Holodomor right now. That’s because I’m relying on the historian’s years or research and compilation. I can’t be expected, like her, to pore through the Russian and Ukrainian archives, to pull together and evaluate all the testimony, and to weave the narrative all over again. It’s not feasible. Both of them bring value judgments not just to their methods, but to their subjects. That doesn’t bother me. I take it into account as much as I would if I were reading the conflicting accounts of Caesar, Cato, and Cicero. Of course, the latter were even more biased considering their immediate investment in the stories they were telling.

    Knowledge is built on a division of labor requiring some level of trust in a community of authorities involved in an endless conversation. We can’t play the arch-empiricist demanding to verify everything for ourselves without radically shrinking our worlds. And we can’t give in to disgust with values, perspective and authority. That’s an over-corrective to complacency, throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Zac

      “I’m sympathetic to your stressing the past’s independent reality, but not to your downgrading historians.”

      I have conceded that many historians try (with varying degrees of success, no doubt) not to let their own personal values and ideological leanings shape their narratives. I suspect, however, that many readers of history simply select historians whose general outlook aligns with their own.

      There is nothing wrong with this. Just as there is nothing wrong with me or anyone else choosing to build their historical knowledge in other ways (by reading old literary texts, for example).

      “Going back to ancient sources, some of our most used “original” texts are from historians drawing on a background of sources, evidence and interpretations of their own. I think you made this point in the original essay, but I’m not sure you really appreciate it. They aren’t necessarily more pure or less partial than the historian today.”

      Of course not. But we read them for knowledge of the perspectives *of their time*.

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      • I think there’s potentially something wrong with both routes, and that’s missing out on the historical conversation. Again, I’m cool with people who want to go back to the ancient sources if we’re talking about ancient history (like I said, modern history gets more complicated), but when you talk about getting “the perspectives *of their time*” many of the ancient sources aren’t just writing about their own time, and we aren’t just consulting them for their time’s view of that time. If we push this far enough, we end up in the old anecdote about Beckett and Joyce. Joyce asks, “How could the idealist Hume write a history?” and Beckett replies, “A history of representations.”

        I feel like you’re falling into a sense of ideology that has a similarly totalizing, dismissive, but strangely selective, flavor to the activists that worry you. Yours might have a more relaxed demeanor, but I find the the impulses and implications rather radical. They fear contamination, not just when it’s clearly there, but when it merely hovers in the background as a skeptical hypothesis. If a work betrays even the slightest symptom, it must be wholly infected. And we can’t evaluate this infection without exposing ourselves to it. They carve out a certain class of sources as sufficiently safe and dismiss everything else as compromised, even if the doubts of the one apply as much to the other. I think we just need to build a better immune system and that involves swapping a lot specimens with a lot of people. History is necessarily a collective endeavor.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Zac

          “… I’m cool with people who want to go back to the ancient sources if we’re talking about ancient history … but when you talk about getting “the perspectives *of their time*” many of the ancient sources aren’t just writing about their own time, and we aren’t just consulting them for their time’s view of that time…”

          I didn’t say we were. The perspectives of a given time obviously include how they see the past and the future.

          “I feel like you’re falling into a sense of ideology that has a similarly totalizing, dismissive, but strangely selective, flavor to the activists that worry you.”

          The “activists” who “worry” me (as you put it) are not the only issue here. My point is more general.

          “Yours might have a more relaxed demeanor, but I find the impulses and implications rather radical.”

          I think perhaps they are, and this is why the topic interests me. But I reject your metaphorical interpretation in terms of fear of contamination, etc.. My metaphor would be in terms of relative attraction, not repulsion. The question I ask is: How (given my various interests etc.) should I best spend my time?

          “They carve out a certain class of sources as sufficiently safe and dismiss everything else as compromised, even if the doubts of the one apply as much to the other.”

          But the point is, the doubts which apply to prose narratives based on interpretations and implicit judgments about specific human actions do *not* apply (or certainly not to the same extent) to some other forms or modes of historical scholarship. There are conversations of many different kinds going on between scholars and researchers concerned with the past. Not all of them are historians in your sense.

          I see periods of human history largely (but not entirely) as sets of coexisting and interacting points of view. Intellectual history traces similarities and influences within a given timeframe, and over time. But, even if you are dealing with individuals here, you are not normally dealing with a person’s total perspective, just with a small portion of it. Literary works generally give a better sense of how people thought and operated both in terms of ordinary life and in terms of their broader hopes, fears and beliefs.

          The samples are skewed, of course. You are not capturing a period so much as the views of certain (usually privileged) individuals. Their views may have very little in common with the mass of the population whose thoughts and ideas are lost to us.

          I suppose that what drives many historians is the desire to rescue, resurrect or reconstruct these lost points of view.

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          • Mark

            “The ‘activists’ who ‘worry’ me (as you put it) are not the only issue here. My point is more general.”

            Hence my accusation of radicalism. You throw the historians out with the bathwater.

            “My metaphor would be in terms of relative attraction, not repulsion. The question I ask is: How (given my various interests etc.) should I best spend my time?”

            I don’t think you’re voicing a simple preference when you say that anyone who’s serious about studying history must study the primary sources. Which sure, in a sense, but we call those people historians, and they end up having to suss out the conflicts and gaps of the sources as we have to suss out the conflicts and gaps of the historians. We put our trust in them for having done their due diligence, reckoning their efforts a contribution to knowledge. That they could be wrong and disagree and so on is all well and good, but not a profound, in-kind difference to science. Consider the ongoing, deep divides in interpretations of quantum mechanics we’re still having after a century, people’s choices at times hinging on a matter of sentiment and personal philosophy. Compare that to the historical consensus on the Holocaust, on which historians had settled the outlines much, much sooner. You want to say that the one being science is still in principle more “objective” but I’m sure in practice you consider historians’ accounts of the Holocaust objective and you’re not unsettled in your opinions by the deniers. And that without having learned German, Polish, French, Ukrainian, Estonian, Latvian Lithuanian, etc. and pored through all the primary sources. That’s because you’ve acceded to this collective enterprise called knowledge, of which both the sciences and the humanities are a part. Maybe that means you’re not a serious man about this particular historical subject, but if serious people are just a handful in a generation on any given subject, then well, we should expect the majority of people to be less serious and more realistic (metaphysical or otherwise).

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  5. “…the very distant past, before the advent of observers…There were no perspectives then.”

    This is indeed how Meillassoux attacks the Kantian nou-phe and antirealist stances in After Finitude.

    …this description of the modern philosophical conception of consciousness and language is the
    way in which it exhibits the paradoxical nature of correlational exteriority: on the one hand, correlationism [broadly the post-Kantian turn] readily insists upon the fact that consciousness, like language, enjoys an originary connection to a radical exteriority (exemplified by phenomenological consciousness transcending or as Sartre puts it ‘exploding’ towards the world); yet on the other hand this insistence seems to dissimulate a strange feeling of imprisonment or enclosure within this very exteriority (the ‘transparent cage’). For we are well and truly imprisoned within this outside proper to language and consciousness given that we are always-already in it (the ‘always already’ accompanying the ‘co-‘ of correlationism as its other essential locution), and given that we have no access to any vantage point from whence we could observe these ‘object worlds’ which are the unsurpassable providers of all exteriority,…[They] replace adequation by intersubjectivity in
    the redefinition of scientific objectivity…

    The question that interests us here is then the following: what is it exactly that astrophysicists, geologists, or paleontologists are talking about when they discuss the age of the universe, the date of the accretion of the earth, the date of the appearance of prehuman species, or the date of the emergence of humanity itself? How are we to grasp the meaning [my emph] of scientific statements bearing explicitly upon a manifestation of the world that is posited as anterior to the emergence of thought and even of life – posited, that is, as anterior to every form of human relation to the world? Or, to put it more precisely: how are we to think the meaning of a discourse which construes the relation to the world – that of thinking and/or living as a fact inscribed in a temporality within which this relation is just one event among others…

    That is, there is a difficult to avoid tendency to treat scientific hypotheses as “facons a parler”, despite a lip service to the scientific image as having equal standing with the manifest.

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  6. Hi Mark

    I’m sorry you don’t subscribe to Sartwell’s wonderfully named “bonehead realism”. That’s what I identify with. I think it needs a T-shirt.

    Seriously, I think it is the position of the great Thomas Reid. Reid may not be up there with Hume and Kant, but he’s on the fringe of the pantheon, in my opinion. And he writes so lucidly (which cannot be said of much of Hume and Kant). Reid argued that only a madman or a philosopher in his or her study would question the reality of the “external world”.

    Keith Lehrer has a good essay here:

    https://www.researchgate.net/publication/280066026_Thomas_Reid_on_truth_evidence_and_first_principles

    To take your discussion of history further it would be interesting to go back to Collingwood, also a pantheon fringe-dweller.

    Alan

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    • alandtapper1950,
      The question has never (or only rarely) been about the world in which we live and experience. That’s for mystics. The issue is what we can say about the world and how what we say best signifies our relations with that world. That’s why Medieval philosophy finally ended in the debates over Nominalism – the realistic or fictive status of universals – and why Western philosophies of quite different schools took “linguistic turns” in the 20th Century (although this trend began with the development of new approaches to logic in the 19th).

      One problem for Mark, I think, is that he wants the language of science to be privileged as a realistic depiction of the world, while holding the more common languages of Humanities to be considered fictive in nature (or at least suspected as such). As a Medieval Nominalist on a universals, and something of a Reidian in everyday practice – a Pragmatist influenced by Kant, Hegel, Heidegger and Wittgenstein – I’d have to say that Mark can’t get what he wants, and will have to “bite the Bullet,” as he says at the end, and either defend some kind of realism in epistemology (which, after all is what he’s discussing, although it certainly has metaphysical implications), or give up taking the rather hard line on ‘one world/one knowledge’, where a softer (albeit more openly political) line would do just as well.* Because the truth of inquiry is that it demands multiple approaches for differing fields. (Susan Haack makes the case for the position I feel most comfortable with these days: “Defending Science – Within Reason: Between Scientism and Cynicism.”)

      * I would still disagree with it, but at least we wouldn’t have to dance around our social commitments in the way we have to some extent over the course of these discussions.

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      • he wants the language of science to be privileged as a realistic depiction of the world, while holding the more common languages of Humanities to be considered fictive in nature (or at least suspected as such)
        = = =
        I agree that this is often either the overt message or the subtext of many of Mark’s essays and that the view is unsustainable; or at least, cannot withstand any sustained philosophical scrutiny.

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        • Dan

          “[Citing ejwinner] “[Mark] wants the language of science to be privileged as a realistic depiction of the world, while holding the more common languages of Humanities to be considered fictive in nature (or at least suspected as such)…” I agree that this is often either the overt message or the subtext of many of Mark’s essays and that the view is unsustainable; or at least, cannot withstand any sustained philosophical scrutiny.”

          I don’t need to defend views that I do not hold.

          Yes, I see the various sciences *and certain forms of scholarship* as essential knowledge-building activities. This body of knowledge may be characterized in various ways. Does it provide “a realistic description of the world”? I would say: look at particular theories or claims and characterize them carefully and individually, taking into account advice from experts in the respective fields. Is this view unsustainable?

          Do I see or suspect “the more common languages of the Humanities” to be “fictive”?

          I don’t even know what this means. I don’t know what the phrase “the more common languages of the Humanities” refers to. I know that ‘fictive’ means created by the imagination. But since I would have to try to guess what is being said here, it is not really possible for me to respond.

          The real issue here, I think, is a values question. Do I value various disciplines in exactly the same way as you do? No. But so what? Everyone has their own differing set of (often vague, intuitive and unarticulated) values about these matters. Such differences may be clarified but not resolved by philosophical discussion, I think.

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          • Well, Mark, then I have misunderstood quite a bit of your writing. E.J.’s characterization struck me as pretty accurate. And I have said before that you strike me in many ways (not all, of course) like a logical empiricist.

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          • Mark,
            I think we can agree that the languages of the natural sciences depend on mathematically exact measurement and precise descriptions of the entities under study, using terms agreed on by all those engaged in the study. One has to learn the science in its entirety to fully comprehend the math and descriptive terms involved. Communication with non-professionals is largely by way of summary using common language tropes.

            The languages of the Humanities are much more derived from the common language of the community, and thus more easily translate for communication with the non-professional. Technical terms are developed for greater precision, and so professionals can better articulate certain ideas and arguments among themselves, but ultimately a good general education should provide enough background knowledge for general readers to at least grasp the sense of the ideas and their arguments.

            However, the Humanities require methods of interpretation utilizing imagination, yes, and intuition, deploying narrative and expository styles in such a way that requires a dependence on perspective greater than we expect from the natural sciences. Repeatedly you have seemed to suggest that because of this, discourse in the Humanities ought not to be trusted and may not even be engaged in the making of ‘real’ knowledge (thus fictive, in a pejorative sense).

            If I have misread you on this, I apologize. However if this is a fair representation of your position, you do seem to have a epistemological dilemma. In Realist/Nominalist terms, we can debate whether “rockness” resides in the rock or is a conceptualization imposed on it. But it would be absurd to argue whether ‘Cromwellness’ resides in a speech by Oliver Cromwell, or whether ‘Hamletness’ resides in the soliloquies Shakespeare wrote for him. As others have remarked,not only the languages of the Humanities but the objects of their studies are shot through with imagination, intuition, rhetorical forms of address and the perspectives of their authors. Hence the reading of such study as essentially a conversation – not simply between the scholars engaged in such studies, but a conversation between the scholar and the texts under study.

            I don’t read Hamlet to admire a great work of art, nor to learn that the English spoke somewhat differently, articulating different ideas, than we do today. I read Hamlet to wrestle with the arguments Shakespeare makes in it, to see whether these still have pertinence to life in my own day, to what extent, with what weight. I think Harold Bloom is right that it is not really a ‘revenge tragedy,’ and deals with issues a real revenge tragedy, like the Spanish Tragedy, doesn’t even touch on; and that these issues need to be better understood with reference to Shakespeare’s biography (what little we can make of it), but also to the social and cultural upheavals of Shakespeare’s day – for instance the dissemination of the new sciences. (I think it was Kenneth Clarke who said, of the “alas, poor Yorick” speech that it was Montaigne with a vengeance.) All of this requires history, necessarily reconstructed as narrative. It requires a certain trust in our powers of interpretation, and in those of other scholars and other careful readers of Shakespeare, and other historians.

            There may or may not be a ‘fact of the matter’ that makes a rock a rock. There is no fact of the matter that makes Shakespeare Shakespeare. He is a set of texts speaking to us, and to which we can speak, as well as speaking with others engaged in this conversation..

            The position called ‘scientific realism’ is an assumption made by scientists in order to engage in their research; it works. So does instrumentalism, which sets any question of ‘reality’ aside. Neither is an adequate epistemology nor refers adequately to some metaphysical ‘whatness’ without further argument.

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  7. I don’t think positively-conceived scientism is hostile to narrative – quite the opposite. Though we like to concentrate on the abstracta of physics and chemistry, so much of it is the stories that the mathematical abstractions give rise to and organize, and the analogies these underlying rules give rise to between stories about completely different entities. Whether thought experiments, actual experiments, the history of the accretion of the Earth and the collision(s) that gave rise to the Moon, the life cycle or any evolved phenotype of an organism, hows bees talk among themselves to choose the next hive site, the differences between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, or between politics post the 1930s Depression and the 2008 Depression, these are all scientific narratives not really that different from those in any other area of human life.

    In passing, Sellars said:
    I regard the professional separation of philosophers from other areas as an unhappy fortuitous accident. It didn’t used to be
    true and I am sure that some day, it will not be true. I think that right now the professional divisions lead to a falsification of the relationship. I think that the true historian is one like Collingwood, who writes the history of Britain and writes about what it is to write the history of Britain! One who thinks about what it is to have evidence for a historical argument.

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  8. ejwinner

    I value being able to read and interpret texts like Hamlet.

    I also value knowledge about the fundamental processes that drive the natural world of which we are a part.

    I don’t know what you are asking me (if anything). You speak as if I need to spell out a complete epistemology or metaphysics in order to justify claims I have made. Which claims? As I said to Dan, I think the differences in our views are fundamentally values-related and will not be resolved (though they may be clarified) by philosophical discussion.

    Your characterization of the humanities is very general and you make a contrast with the sciences on the basis of the type of language used. But I have often made the point that some forms of scholarship are science-like in certain ways. Also, not all sciences are as abstract or heavily dependent on difficult forms of mathematics as theoretical physics, for example.

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    • As I said to Dan, I think the differences in our views are fundamentally values-related and will not be resolved (though they may be clarified) by philosophical discussion.

      = = =

      I wish you’d actually spell out what these “value differences” are.

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      • I have a more positive attitude to the sciences than you, for example. I see myself as valuing the sciences and scientific ways of knowing more highly than I see you valuing them. And I have a more negative attitude to theology and religion. Etc.

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        • These are not primarily differences in valuations. They are primarily differences with regard to our substantive conceptions of these endeavors and subject areas. As Ayer might have put it, our primary disagreement is over facts, not values.

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    • There’s a very real and persistent way in which we label whatever we’re talking about as concerning “facts” and decide that it can be worked out by rational inquiry and argument, or as concerning “values” and decide that (throws hands up). I don’t think it’s nearly that simple, and just as often this frame distract us from the facts in our values discussions and the values in our facts discussions. The entanglement is deep and unescapable. See: this conversation.

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  9. Hi Alan

    Yes, Reid would be worth looking at. And Collingwood on history. (I see Collingwood is also mentioned in one of David Duffy’s comments).

    One reason I hesitate to lay serious claim, philosophically speaking, to some kind of realism is because that would involve dealing with concepts (like the notion of an “external” world) which are not in line with my preferred way of framing things.

    Also, I do not dismiss all idealism out of hand. There may be some merit in some of the things some idealists say. (Insights, if you like.)

    I acknowledge that sometimes advances in science are driven by metaphysical speculations, and the development of our knowledge base can (to some extent) vindicate or undermine certain metaphysical approaches.

    But I doubt that most classical metaphysical disputes can be resolved. Dissolved perhaps; forgotten, more like it; *possibly* reframed and resolved.

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