THEORY OF HISTORY: PART III of IV

THE UNDERLYING PHILOSOPHY

Canberra, 22 August 2012

History is an account of the past, with examinations of how and why a particular event happened followed by the extrapolation of its short to medium term repercussions and long term follow-on influence. Fundamental to ‘good’ history is that it must report the truth in terms of the event being discussed, as far as possible without bias. The question then arises: What is truth in a historical sense? The dictionary variously defines truth as, (a) that which is true; the true or actual facts of a case, (b) conformity with fact or reality; verity, and (c) a verified or indisputable fact, proposition, principle, or the like. However, it is difficult to assess historical facts with sufficient accuracy for them to be verified as absolute truth, always leaving a gap in its verification, however small. Therefore, truth will obviously have a slightly different connotation when applied to a historical fact. To ameliorate this discrepancy, it is necessary to overlay historical facts with a clear analysis of the relationship between the bare descriptions of what is presumed to have happened—as far as decipherable—and the accounts of the events as commonly reported. Any significant divide between the two would need to be reconciled to ensure that the historical fact is as close to the ‘truth’ as possible.
The underlying philosophy of history influences the process of such reconciliation. The philosophy of history consists of the hypotheses, theories, assumptions and conceptual processes that are employed in historical analysis to produce a narrative that depicts the actual events in an acceptable accurate manner. This also includes the philosophy of discussing why a particular event took place and clarifying its meaning and influence in an overarching manner. The analysis could, on the one hand, be the investigation of events, which historians term as critical philosophy and on the other could be a concerted search for recognisable patterns to the events in the past, which is called speculative philosophy. Both methodologies are not fool proof and have their advantages and drawbacks. Hence, for an in-depth understanding of past events, the optimum approach would be to have access to both kinds of analysis.
The Significance of Events
As illustrated in Part I of this paper with the comparison of Alexander’s death with that of a common soldier in his army, the significance of certain events are instinctively clear even to laymen and, therefore, not disputable. Such historical facts need not be further investigated for correctness, but can be analysed as truths. However, in the case of events of lesser consequence, the decision whether or not an event is of significance, and therefore needs to be investigated, will be a matter of judgement. In these cases it is the analyst who will decide whether to research a particular event further or not. The decision could be instinctive, based on intuition and not on facts. Of course, this is not to suggest that analysts arrive at these decisions lightly or even that the intuitive process of historians are wrong, but is highlighted only to underscore the vagaries of the analytical process in history. However, since the process is open to distortion, it is possible that the analysis and further understanding would be biased leading one to believe that a certain amount of imbalance will always prevail in historical awareness.
The subject of historical fact has to be further examined. First, history is a combination of simple and interconnected facts, which combine to create the narrative of an event. This narrative could be termed the interpretation of the event. This is the intrinsic connection between historical fact and interpretation, which could also be called an explanation of what happened, why, how and the follow-on events that stemmed from this primary event. So, obviously, history is an amalgamation of fact, as truthful as can be assumed, and its interpretation. It is therefore necessary to accept the interpretation for what it is and distinguish it from fact, which is a more significant factor. Further, there are no clear guidelines as to the correct balance between historical fact and its interpretation in an analysis; the balance between the two being open to the individual discretion of historians.
Second, almost always, historical facts, an amalgam of a series of independent events, are incomplete for a number of reasons. The narrative of a particular event is built up from available accounts, collective memories—both through the oral tradition and written records—and observations, as well as narratives of connected events, which themselves suffer from similar drawbacks. Further, a number of historical facts are developed from presuppositions of past events or from incomplete recordings. It is easy to recognise that absolute verification of accuracy is almost impossible in most cases and as a corollary, determining what is true and what is not becomes extremely difficult. With these constraints on determining the veracity of facts itself, it is obvious that taking the next step of deciding the level of significance of a particular event is fraught with the inherent danger of being off the mark.
In determining the significance of an event, some amount of bias and perception interference cannot be avoided. Since history is the interpretation of significant events, this leads to the conclusion that all recorded history is inherently biased. Even if the bias is negligible, it will never be absent. The bias and perception of the person recording or analysing events is a function of ‘who that person is’. An individual’s perception of an event is determined by a large number of factors such as culture, experience, profession, education, ethnicity, and religion. For example, the perception of one nation sending military forces into another, for whatever reason, can be construed as actions to liberate the recipient nation from occupation by a third country or as an invasion dependent on the belief and perception of the individual. When the individual perception gets to be collective, then it gets embedded as that of the nation and is thereafter unlikely to change. Essentially, history can never be taken as the complete truth, even though the narrative can be accepted broadly as what happened in the past. This lacuna, of the acceptance of a certain bias, is exploited by persons who use history to support and establish the legitimacy of a particular contemporary ideology—political or religious—in relation to a nation or people. This could perhaps be thought of as the exploitation of past history to justify present-day claims of correctness and, in extreme cases, of moral authority. This sentiment was expressed clearly by George Orwell in his seminal novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, when he stated, “He who controls the present, controls the past. He controls the past, controls the future.”
There is one more aspect of interpretation of facts—with a number of sub-elements built into it—that needs to be amplified. In a large number of cases, the government controls the dissemination of information and therefore has the ability to insist on putting forward a particular notion of a central core of facts, irrespective of other viewpoints on the same events. Interpretations carried out from these skewed analysis of facts will obviously continue to move on a tangential path to those of entities that subscribe to other beliefs on the same matter. This situation is more common in nations with autocratic regimes with a vested interest in creating a savoury interpretation of history normally to instil a sense of legitimacy of the government in the eyes of the general population. The erstwhile Soviet Union is a prime example of such manipulation of historical facts. Second is the role of the media, even in liberal democracies. In the past few decades, media ownership and, therefore, its control has gradually become concentrated in the hands of a small number of corporations and individuals. While this may be acceptable in a capitalist economy, it can be debilitating for the analysis of current events as historical facts at a future date. The contemporary reporting can be consciously steered to mould public opinion and even to stifle meaningful debate. When these events are being studied in posterity, available information will be one-sided and lead to interpretations and conclusions that could actually be even the complete opposite of what happened. The situation obviously is tailor-made for state-controlled media in nations with no popular participation in government. Third is the role of education in understanding history. Since history is closely related to the identification of a nation-state, patriotism—the mainstay of ensuring the sovereignty of a nation—is closely linked to pride in national history. This leads to some governments being tempted to control the education of history to distort unpleasant historical facts to more acceptable versions, to cater for and increase national pride. While this could in some ways be understandable, although it cannot be condoned, at the furthest end of the scale, the same actions can convert the manipulated history into a tool of nationalistic propaganda. Tampering with the content of history in national education can be extremely dangerous in the long-term.
The Search for Patterns
The well-known historian Toynbee is considered one of the great proponents of the belief that history always follows a pattern that can be discerned if historical facts are studied in detail. He postulated that in an overarching manner human history is the story of independent civilisations that grew, dominated a region and then decayed to be replaced by another one. This is an endless cycle, with each succeeding civilisation following the same pattern. However, this theory has been questioned and disputed by a large number of historians who believe that it cannot be applied across the entire known history of mankind, even if the period being viewed is considered in centuries rather than in decades. There is an important factor that negates the application of the pattern theory in an all-encompassing manner. Civilisations do not grow and mature in isolation. Their development is predicated on contact with other civilisations and therefore their evolution and decline cannot happen in isolation. Similarly the extent of the dominance phase of one civilisation would dependent on the capacity of other civilisations to withstand the measures to dominate. Such a contest, in turn, is very likely to lead to war. In fact, the move to dominate and the push-back against it has been one of the fundamental catalysts for the wars of history. At one extreme end of this theory is the school of thought that there has only ever been one human civilisation, with sub-cultures evolving, attempting to dominate and declining in different timeframes, in different geo-political environments and creating independent geo-cultural entities. According to this theory, each sub-culture gradually mingles with others, eventually merging to form an amorphous whole that in turn starts to mingle with other existing sub-cultures and so on, ad infinitum. This is a fascinating theory, but is an idealistic and simplistic view of the developments that have so far taken place in the world. It is difficult to believe human history as the interpretation of a single civilisation.
There is another method of historical analysis gaining prominence—the study of history as narrative fiction. Such analysis are attempts to make coherence of incomplete information by extrapolating other known trends to fill the gaps that exist and thereby make the past a series of uninterrupted events. This is particularly important in recording the history of the ancient world where gaps are many and for longer periods of time. Historical fiction permits an individual to project his or her ideas, concepts, impression and interpretation of an event without distorting the central event that is being studied. However, historical fiction can only be considered study-worthy if a tangible balance is maintained between fiction and known and accepted facts without manipulating the available facts.
Conclusion
The study of history does not adhere to a set of rigid rules and therefore, is more complex than studying science that is governed by strict laws. Past events—from which history is derived—are created by human beings and the proclivity of human beings to not be slaves to set patterns, in other words their penchant for erratic behaviour, makes it impossible to create any discernible set of norms, even as a guideline. History, therefore, will always be open to interpretation. So, why study history? The study of history is crucial to understand the origins of the challenges that are faced by nations today, where the nation and its people have come from, the reason why a certain event unfolded the way it did, and also to be cognisant of the pitfalls in some of the actions a nation is contemplating to undertake. History is also an essential, even critical, element in predicting the future. There is the famous saying, “History does not repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes” that encapsulates this aspect of history. Predicting the future can be done as a linear progression of known facts into the unknown time ahead. However, this will only work with reasonable accuracy if the history that is being extrapolated is one that has contemporary ideas and concepts superimposed on the interpretation of historic fact. In other words the interpretations being used have to be based on values, ideas and understanding of the contemporary world. If these conditions are met, history can provide a glimpse of the future to the astute observer.
[to be continued…]          
     
        
Advertisements

About Sanu kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS)

No comments yet... Be the first to leave a reply!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: