A (Very) Brief Philosophical Inquiry of History
By Samuel Mack-Poole
‘History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.’ – Karl Marx.
‘The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. Lies will pass into history.’ – George Orwell.
‘A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.’ – Marcus Garvey.
It is with delight and relish that I ponder upon history from a philosophical perspective. History and Philosophy are two of my favourite academic disciplines; they naturally complement one another like a pint of beer complements a curry, or like a biscuit complements a cup of tea. It shall be my endeavour to discover a truth that shall make the reading of this article a valuable use of your time. I wish to apply a Mack-Poole style metaphorical truth-scalpel with great skill; or one could merely say that I wish to utilise the method of reductionism and thereby wield Occam’s razor onto this grand topic.
One of the central questions I ask myself, as a teacher of history, is how do I know what I am about to teach is true? Do I know the events happened? Do I know where the source came from? Do I understand the context of the source, its utility, its biases, assumptions, imperfections and inaccuracies? The first stage which any historian treads humbly and carefully towards is quite simply to the field of empiricism¹: can this part of history be proven to be true?
That is merely the first stage. It is also the simplest one. All you have to do is investigate. Now, before the age of the internet, this was extremely tedious. Having to scour a range of different academic historical books in a university library wasn’t tremendous fun, but it did yield a wonderful sense of joy once you chanced upon the source that you needed to write an essay which would go towards your degree, which would then enable you to apply for employment within Adam Smith’s capitalistic dream.
Sorry. I digress: mea culpa ². Back to the issue in hand, the method of searching for information has now changed. We live in the age of the internet5
; it is a brave new world. We have such a gigantic wealth of information at our fingertips, just waiting to be discovered by enlightened minds. But, Lo! There is a great issue here, one which an empiricist would warn us all about: whilst, in the past, finding information was laborious, now we are awash with it. We currently live in the era of misinformation as much as we live in the era of information.
This takes the historian to a central question: what is the provenance of the source? Who created it, and why? I imagine that the historians of the future will look at the US election with academic trepidation, as the sources on both sides of the political spectrum will be deeply acerbic, passionate yet almost infinite. In our age, however, the name of the website, as well as whether it ends with dot org or dot com adds to the authenticity of the source. This is, however, dangerous. Why should there be gatekeepers to the truth? As the Roman poet Juvenal once said, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”³
We all know, or should know, the famous quote, ‘All power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely’4. Why would we think that a historian is any different? The historian is a still a human: he or she has their unconscious and conscious biases, strong opinions, hates, loves, moments of strength and weakness, changes of heart and mind…they are not to be put on a pedestal, even with their intellectual prowess.
Now, to be a true philosopher, or a true Scotsman, I should present a counter argument. This is inspired, as well as heavily borrowed, by Simon Blackburn’s Think, which is most worthy of reading. As there are websites with fake or sloppy research, there are also websites with genuine and diligent research. After all, the notion of ‘fake’ is parasitically dependant on the notion of ‘genuine’. If we look at the following statement, I’m sure you will follow my analogy:
‘Some banknotes are forged. So, for all I know all banknotes are forged.’
The conclusion is impossible. After all, forgers need genuine notes to copy. Once again, the analysis of the fallacious logic in the above statement is that the fake is parasitic and utterly dependent on the truth.
For me, or at least in the way that my mind works, this leads quite logically to the arena of conspiracy theories. Now, we must be honest about this: history is littered with conspiracy theories. Who really shot JFK and why? Were the moon landings faked? Was the Lusitania sunk so that America could intercede in World War One? These examples are just some of the many, many conspiracy theories that exist. However, what is a conspiracy theory?
A conspiracy is defined as ‘to make secret plans jointly to commit an unlawful or harmful act.’ Moreover, a theory is defined as ‘a supposition or a system of ideas intended to explain something’. However, philosophically, conspiracy theories are a dead end. They can’t often be proved, as the event which is theorised upon was committed in secret. Consequently, they can’t be disproved, as the conspiracy theorist can reply that their lack of evidence is evidence itself of the success of the conspiracy – and we are led into a spiral of questions, and it’s turtles all the way down6.
Despite all of this, we do know that governments lie to their people. Failed states subsequent to an invasion, and successful invasions, and leaked memos have all displayed the sobering fact that our elected officials are, at the very least, not entirely trustworthy – and, consequently, nor is the mainstream historical narrative entirely correct.
“In the end it must be as it is and always has been: great things remain for the great, abysses for the profound, nuances and shudders for the refined, and, in brief, all that is rare for the rare.” – Nietzsche.
Concluding this, a historian is behoved to find the truth. This means being confronted with something uncomfortable, something which challenges your petty biases and the values of the zeitgeist in which you reside. You must study the past, not with the eyes of the narrow-minded millennial, with their safe spaces and Pokeman Go apps, but with utter intellectual sincerity, and a willingness to realise that the truth you discover may fit outside of the ideals which you cherish, or what you have been taught to cherish, above all else.
¹ Empiricism: what can be proved to be true by the senses.
² Through my fault.
³ This, literally translated means ‘Who will guard the guards?’
4 Which is a quote that has been attributed to a range of different wise men over the ages.
5One has to wonder what Nietzsche† would have thought of the information highway. He believed that with a pen and a piece of paper, you could turn the world upside down. Well, with a laptop, perhaps he would have thought you could have the Earth in a permanent spiral.
† My favourite philosopher. Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (15 October 1844 – 25 August 1900) was a German philosopher, cultural critic, poet, philologist, and Latin and Greek scholar whose work has exerted a profound influence on Western philosophy and modern intellectual history.