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It is logically impossible to know the past

 
 
NoAngst
 
Reply Sun 1 Oct, 2006 09:02 pm
I have always been troubled by a vague sense of fraudulence whenever historians claim to know the past. For example, there are no less than five definitive accounts of the Spanish Armada, Macaulay's among them. One historian says that the Duke of Medina Sidonia was puerile. Another says he was a dupe of the King. Another says he was an incompetent fool. Another says he was a tragic hero. And yet another says he was quite simply insane. Each historian in turn points to the same body of evidence, but draws a different and incompatible conclusion. So how are we to decide which account is the truth of the matter? Simpy by considering the probative weight of the evidence each historian provides, determining in our own mind which explanation accounts for the most facts or otherwise is the most compelling, and then make a decision? Isn't this tantamount to saying that it is rather the readers of hisotry and not historians who ultimately determine the past? It seems to me that mere reader assent cannot and should not settle the matter, any more than a patient should settle on his own disease from a number of alternative diagnoses. Shouldn’t it rather be the experts who decide these things? So why don't they? I know that history is not like casting out nines in arithmetic, but to say that we can know the past without knowing the truth strikes me as being logically impossible. I do not think that a demand for certainty in historicism is not a demand to be like chemistry or physics, i.e., to demand the rigor and precision of the laboratory in an area where it is simply not possible. I do not expect history to be science. But this does mean that the interpretative excesses of historians do not go far beyond what the subject matter admits. And I think this is why historians disagree about the past more than on the fact of the matter; they all take the same body of facts and then manipulate and characterize those facts to best serve their purpose. In the end, they’re doing no more and no different than what a literary critic does when he insists what the correct meaning of a play or poem should be. This is not to say that an appreciation of the past cannot be gotten from reading history; it is to say that I am not looking for appreciation; I’m looking for the truth. And as long as historians play employ emotive language and interpretive license, I am not going to get it. Nobody is. And there’s the pity. Because getting history right is a hell of a lot more important than getting King Lear or Jabberwocky right.
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Type: Discussion • Score: 2 • Views: 10,980 • Replies: 94
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perplexity
 
  1  
Reply Mon 2 Oct, 2006 04:08 am
@NoAngst,
NoAngst wrote:
....So how are we to decide which account is the truth of the matter?


Except to strongly suggest the answer, that none of them are the truth, it is difficult to see the point or purpose of your posting..

NoAngst wrote:
....Shouldn’t it rather be the experts who decide these things? So why don't they? I know that history is not like casting out nines in arithmetic, but to say that we can know the past without knowing the truth strikes me as being logically impossible....


Does that then mean to suppose that it is logically possible to know a truth?

First things first: how would you hope to convince me of that?

NoAngst wrote:
I do not expect history to be science.


Does that mean to say that science provides a sense of certainty, or more of one?

I am not so sure that it does.

I would rather say that science is history, always and inevitably out of date, and the experience (i.e. the history) of other people is usually less certain than our own, at least to ourselves.

NoAngst wrote:
...they all take the same body of facts and then ...


Surely not. They each have a different point of view. Our experiences differ, and because of that a discussion such as this may benefit while interpretational differences preclude the possibility.

NoAngst wrote:
I am not looking for appreciation; I’m looking for the truth.


But if you already know what you are looking for, why bother to look for it?

Or if you don't know what you are looking for, how are you going to know when you have found it?

NoAngst wrote:

....Because getting history right is a hell of a lot more important than getting King Lear or Jabberwocky right.


Is it?

While I prefer to study fact, alleged facts already being being fictional enough for me, thank you very much, a writer may rather tell you that fiction provides a better way to tell the truth.

It is all history now, but while at school history was not a subject to enthuse me so much because it did not appear to be so important.

I am much more interested now because of the eventual realisation of the challenge that history presents, not so much in terms of knowing of a truth, but rather in terms of the impossibility of knowing what it was like not to know of experiences which we now take for granted, with scarcely a second thought about it. I sense today for instance that it is impossible for younger people to know what it was like to grow up, as I did, in a World where the Internet was not yet a distant dream, not to mention pocket calculators and ordinary access to facilities such as television.

--- RH.
NoAngst
 
  1  
Reply Mon 2 Oct, 2006 05:50 pm
@perplexity,
I did not say none of the accounts were true; I said there was no rational means to determine which (if any) were true.

Perhaps in lieu of mischaracterizing what I stated and/or posting non sequiturs, you might ask questions for clarification or offer up reasoned counter-argument to those points you do understand but do not agree. As it stands, you have done little more than misstate, pout and traffic impertinence.
perplexity
 
  1  
Reply Mon 2 Oct, 2006 08:01 pm
@NoAngst,
NoAngst wrote:
... I said there was no rational means to determine which (if any) were true....


In which case, logically, none are true,
in so far as a truth is known by determination.

What else is a "truth"?

--- RH.
NoAngst
 
  1  
Reply Mon 2 Oct, 2006 08:54 pm
@perplexity,
perplexity wrote:
In which case, logically, none are true,
in so far as a truth is known by determination.

These are the words you previously tried to put into my mouth. Thank you for at least owning them now. From that the truth among alternatives is not knowable, it does not follow that none are true. To say otherwise is tantamount to saying that 2+2=4 only if one has knowledge that 2+2=4. That you do not allow for possibility of truth independent of human attendance or knowledge is your thesis, not mine, and certainly not mine for purpose of this thread. Let us say for argument that historian X's account of the Spanish Armada is true. My point is that its truth cannot be determined by a reading of the account, nor by comparative survey of it against other accounts of the same event.

perplexity wrote:

What else is a "truth"?

Again, how is this germaine to my thread? And why is truth in quotes? Are you asking a question or fostering an agenda?
perplexity
 
  1  
Reply Tue 3 Oct, 2006 06:24 am
@NoAngst,
NoAngst wrote:
That you do not allow for possibility of truth independent of human attendance or knowledge is your thesis, not mine, and certainly not mine for purpose of this thread. .....
Again, how is this germaine to my thread? And why is truth in quotes? Are you asking a question or fostering an agenda?

A "truth" independent of human attendance or knowledge is a belief, an axiom, a theory, an hypothesis, a speculation, an opinion or a conjecture, and should correctly be referred to as such.

It may be the stock in trade for a missionary or a magician to speak of a truth as something not determined, but I would not have expected a philosopher to be so loose about it.

And what by the way, please, was the purpose of the thread?

I had merely sought to extend the argument, to consider to what extent it is logically possible to know anything, gemane enough, one might have thought.

--- RH.
NoAngst
 
  1  
Reply Tue 3 Oct, 2006 10:33 am
@perplexity,
perplexity wrote:
A "truth" independent of human attendance or knowledge is a belief, an axiom, a theory, an hypothesis, a speculation, an opinion or a conjecture, and should correctly be referred to as such.

It may be the stock in trade for a missionary or a magician to speak of a truth as something not determined, but I would not have expected a philosopher to be so loose about it.

And what by the way, please, was the purpose of the thread?

I had merely sought to extend the argument, to consider to what extent it is logically possible to know anything, gemane enough, one might have thought.

--- RH.

Your purposes or desires here do not interest me. If you wish address the notion of truth generally, by all means start your own thread. But for you to ask my purpose here or attempt to dilute it as serves your lame agenda strikes me as further testimony to your own disingenuousness; perhaps you meant to ask, "Why isn't your purpose here my purpose?". Lemme guess: You pick window #2:

Window #1: "Look at the beautiful sunset!"

Window #2: "Look at beautiful me looking at the sunset!"
perplexity
 
  1  
Reply Tue 3 Oct, 2006 01:45 pm
@NoAngst,
NoAngst wrote:
Your purposes or desires here do not interest me.

To which one may as well suggest that to discuss me, rather the concept of historical truth, it would be that much more germane to start a thread to do so.

Each to his own, but when something or somebody fails to interest me, I take no notice.

--- RH
NoAngst
 
  1  
Reply Tue 3 Oct, 2006 01:51 pm
@perplexity,
And so will stop it here.
0 Replies
 
pilgrimshost
 
  1  
Reply Thu 5 Oct, 2006 06:26 pm
@NoAngst,
A VERY ODD DEBATE

It would seem that NoAngst was hi-jacked by perplexity. Excuse me, but im perplexed by how the debate about historical accuracy can be distorted by historians can be warped so badly. Ive seen quotes before (my english teacher always said keep them brief) that just takes the...

Any way NoAngst you were saying....Ive noticed this also by historians, being an avid historian myself-I love it, and yes it is important. Resently there was a programe on BBC4 that blew my mind. I cant find anything on it yet but it basicly said that Shakespeare didnt right any significant (if any) of his plays, but infact a 'Marlow',also quite famous pend them! Lots of evidence to back this up. This is apparently because he was Catholic and at the time would have been banned-ever wondered why shakespear stopped writing suddenly one day. He went back to Stretham-upon-avon, (where he appered 'suddenly'from),in his mid 30's i believe and never wrote again!
perplexity
 
  1  
Reply Fri 6 Oct, 2006 03:46 am
@pilgrimshost,
pilgrimshost wrote:
A VERY ODD DEBATE
It would seem that NoAngst was hi-jacked by perplexity. Excuse me, but im perplexed by how the debate about historical accuracy can be distorted by historians can be warped so badly.

Perhaps it was not so badly warped; just that the historical account of it is badly warped.

To appreciate the difference it might assist to be clear about the intended purpose.

When we begin with different premises it is not so unlikely that our conclusions will eventually differ.

--- RH.
pilgrimshost
 
  1  
Reply Fri 6 Oct, 2006 01:35 pm
@perplexity,
MY old history teacher once pointed to an historian who said that it is a truth that if history isnt known (i.e. if knowledge is absent from an event in time)then it does not exist. Also as always historical truth is subject to the perspective of the teller, therefore what can we know of the past with any certainty at all. We rely so heavily on written text to find this information. Would it then be right to say that anything written of an event would be( no matter how 'unsuitable') true and have to be accepted as so?

Archeological evidents of all types can provide information which forms the bigger picture to our past. It can also help streighten out problems of certainty for example. But then is it the fault of the interpreters that cause the confussion or the acceptance of their results by the popular masses? So is the 'history' that is acsepted 'true' or is it really just the ascepted lie, with an alternative 'truth' yet to be uncovered.
perplexity
 
  1  
Reply Sat 7 Oct, 2006 01:42 pm
@pilgrimshost,
pilgrimshost wrote:
Would it then be right to say that anything written of an event would be( no matter how 'unsuitable') true and have to be accepted as so?


When I was your age I felt unsure but thought that I was sure enough.

After half a centrury of watching everything change I feel much surer of myself while knowing full well that nothing else is so sure. Everything and everybody lets you down sooner or later. I use the very same words now that I did then but their meanings are already different.

What exactly was meant then by words written five hundred years ago?

That is to do with imagination, scarcely an issue of "knowing".

--- RH.
pilgrimshost
 
  1  
Reply Sun 8 Oct, 2006 10:33 am
@perplexity,
It is important to remember that our past is also our future and it has an uncanny ability of repeating itself, hense it is important to know as much as possible about it as we can! The truth as hard to desipher as it may be will eventually come to light. The world may change in verious ways, and so does our perseption of it, often in an unrelated way. But thats not to say that our time is that much different to the times of old,if you'd excuse the way ive put it. I mean our world may seem different but our perseptions would still be very simular in its core because the source of our perseptions are always the same( we are all human). Therefore a primary source is equally reliable no matter when it was written.
perplexity
 
  1  
Reply Sun 8 Oct, 2006 11:59 am
@pilgrimshost,
pilgrimshost wrote:
It is important to remember that our past is also our future and it has an uncanny ability of repeating itself, hense it is important to know as much as possible about it as we can!


My conclusion is rather that the past appears to repeat itself because our narrative is in effect derived from the same database.
The challenge is not so much then to learn from the past but rather to transcend the genetic inheritance, as soon as you know what you want.

pilgrimshost wrote:

I mean our world may seem different but our perseptions would still be very simular in its core because the source of our perseptions are always the same (we are all human). Therefore a primary source is equally reliable no matter when it was written.


How come that the source is the same; how do you hope to know that, apart from your perception of it?

The impression that I have is rather akin to TV viewers who mistakenly believe that they discuss the same soap opera when in fact they were tuned into different channels.

-- RH.
0 Replies
 
pilgrimshost
 
  1  
Reply Sun 8 Oct, 2006 01:52 pm
@NoAngst,
By database do you mean information source of some type? Well i think that the perceptions generation is in the mind, so it would seem to me that when someone is making an account of an event it is through there 'emotional relationship' to it. All humans share this quality ( unless there a sociopath, then there probably spending their fime doing other things). Humans tend to have a pedictable way they interact with things, and they've always been this way.
0 Replies
 
perplexity
 
  1  
Reply Sun 8 Oct, 2006 02:36 pm
@NoAngst,
The illusory nature of perception may be fairly easly demonstrated with for instance the Big Spanish Castle

Perception is a process of pattern recognition, as therefore is History. The mind doesn't gather the totality of an immediate happening ad hoc; that would be terribly troublesome overload of your nervous system. It rather looks for patterns already to be expected in order to fit the present impression into expected categories in order to update the working model, the mental map that we suppose to be reality.

The impression of a repetition of past events is thus inevitable: For as long as our method to interpret the past is to recognise past events in terms of events we presently experience, the repetition is a tautology, inferred by the very method.

Events past or present which are totally foreign to our database of experience are inevitably misinterpreted, or not even seen at all. The tricks of magicians often work like that, with the power of suggestion and misdirection.

--- RH.
pilgrimshost
 
  1  
Reply Sun 8 Oct, 2006 03:43 pm
@perplexity,
The big spanish castle is good, examples like this really illustrate ideas well.

Didnt Hegel say it was possible to discern a particular 'spirit' unfolding in the historical process which he called a 'dialectic' with three stages, i think. It repeats itself over and over always aiming for a rational ideal and absolute. This is much like I was saying about history repeating itself, though as soon as an event is described or recorded it is interpreted which leads to a 'picture' or a view of understanding. How do we relate then the interpretation to the event?
perplexity
 
  1  
Reply Sun 8 Oct, 2006 05:22 pm
@pilgrimshost,
pilgrimshost wrote:
...though as soon as an event is described or recorded it is interpreted which leads to a 'picture' or a view of understanding. How do we relate then the interpretation to the event?


Thre trouble with this is that it is not just about the events of 500 years ago. The 'picture', the interpretation is immediate, already out of date as soon as we conceive it, nothing much more than a best guess at the best of times. It is logically impossible to know the past of 10 seconds ago, and more so for me than for most; short term memory terrible, if I put something down for as long as that to think of something else then it is like a game of hide and seek all over again, to work out where I left it.

Better then to create a reality as we go along, spontaneously.

Saves all the bother of having to keep track.

-- RH.
pilgrimshost
 
  1  
Reply Sun 8 Oct, 2006 05:31 pm
@perplexity,
I think im begining to understand now, so can we trust the past to give us anything or do we have to seek the understand in the present to create our 'truth' of it?
 

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