Posts Tagged ‘philosophy of history’

History we don’t know does not matter …

September 7, 2022

history (n.)
late 14c., “relation of incidents” (true or false), from Old French estoire, estorie “story; chronicle, history” (12c., Modern French histoire), from Latin historia “narrative of past events, account, tale, story,” from Greek historia “a learning or knowing by inquiry; an account of one’s inquiries; knowledge, account, historical account, record, narrative,” from historein “be witness or expert; give testimony, recount; find out, search, inquire,” and histōr “knowing, expert; witness,” both ultimately from PIE *wid-tor-, from root *weid- “to see,” hence “to know.” It is thus related to Greek idein “to see,” and to eidenai “to know.” 


What we say about the past is utterly irrelevant to the past, but what we say determines completely what we think was the past. Histories are constantly being rewritten. Sometimes because research and scholarship gives rise to new “facts” and sometimes to satisfy some political agenda in the present. (I would argue that even the most dispassionate research has an agenda since it can never avoid the biases and prejudices of the historian). Whenever a historian is described as “left-wing” or “right-wing” or “socialist” or any other thing, it is a warning that the veracity of the past being narrated has been subordinated to the historian’s agenda. In any event, writing and rewriting histories does not change the past. Which begs the question as to whether history is knowing what truly happened in the past or just the current story about what happened in the past. I have been reading histories for most of my life. But I have now reached the conclusion that history is much more about the story than it is about the knowing.

What happened in the past gives us our present but knowing what actually happened does not matter to the present. The current story (true or false) of what actually happened matters a little bit in the now, but is soon superseded by new stories. The perceived accuracy of the current story is only of relevance as contributing to the credibility of the current story.

On the paradox of purpose and veracity in histories

I find that all our histories have one of only two purposes. The first is to satisfy the intellectual need to know and the second is the desire to influence future behaviour. The first is part of epistemic curiosity and the second is just politics. ….. Of these two purposes, one is a search for knowledge (truths) and is an end in itself. The other, the civic, political purpose, is as a tool for some other agenda. The curious thing is that whereas the veracity demanded by curiosity is absolute (since truths are needed to be considered knowledge) the use of history as a tool to influence future behaviour requires only perceived veracity. …… Thus, actual veracity is irrelevant in a history to be used for social purposes. Only the perceived veracity matters. Actual veracity – the truth – is relevant only in satisfying epistemic curiosity.

When the purpose has no impact the truth is sought assiduously. Where the purpose is to have an impact, the actual truth is irrelevant and only perceived truth matters. Perhaps it is just my cynicism but I find this somewhat of a paradox.

The past is unchangeable. (Observe that the past “is” while the events of the past “were”). Most of the past is unknowable. Since knowledge and knowability require a mind, most of the past is, and also was, unknown to any mind. In fact, most of what occurs in the now is unknown to most of us. Most of all that has occurred is – and will always be – unknown to human knowledge.

The stories we tell about the “recent” past are continually changing to suit our current agenda. “Recent” in this context means since records are available. When we get to ancient times even the “facts” are uncertain. As an intellectual exercise the study of history and origins is fascinating. The stories we tell about the past are important (may be vitally so) for our psyches and our insecurities in the present. We use the stories of the past to justify present and future actions. The stories are tools in the hands of the politicians of the day. Every academic who studies history has an agenda – even if it is as mundane as conning the public purse to provide a living wage. But the intellectual curiosity which drives the study of history is real. We wan’t to know where we came from. We wan’t to know why people in the past behaved as they did. We wan’t to explain how we come to be where we are and to fantasise about what could have been. The stories we tell need to be credible and compliant with the “known facts” but can speculate as much as required to fill in the gaps between the “known facts”. The further back in time we go, the greater the gaps and the more fictional the story we tell.

All of recorded human history goes back – at a stretch – 10,000 years. Humanity goes back – at a stretch – some 300,000 years. Our histories tell stories, not just from 4.5 billion years ago when the earth appeared, but even from 13.8 billion years ago when we say the universe started. Clearly the stories we tell about the past do matter in the present. These stories matter because we use them to guide and justify our present actions. What actually happened in the past is mainly unknown. The stories matter and the credibility of the stories matter but the knowledge of what truly happened is irrelevant. What we don’t know does not matter at all and even what we do know matters only in supporting the credibility of the stories we tell.

Every day we forget more history than we record. What we do record has a lifespan and all that we do record will all eventually come to be forgotten and leave the realm of knowledge. History we don’t know does not matter (and what we do know does not matter very much either). But whether we know or not, we will tell stories for ever.



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