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Hilltop: A Literary Paper. Volume 1 Number 3


page 28


"Idea of History"

Sir,—Dr. Munz has recognised that natural science is subjective in the sense that "the object to be explained, e.g., a stone, can only be explained in terms of the observer, for the stone never thinks about itself and cannot explain its behaviour in any terms at all." He says next that history can, accordingly, he objective—since "history deals with human begins who have minds and who can therefore explain their behaviour to themselves."

Now, does this mean that the historical understanding of a historical figure is to be, if it is to be objective, the same as that figure's understanding of himself? Surely, such a history would be no more objective in its understanding of historical figures than were those figures in their understanding of themselves—and people are notoriously lacking in objectivity in regard to themselves.

On the other hand, does Dr. Munz really mean that history can be objective only if it "can ultimately explain a person in the way in which that person might have explained himself" If he had been able to be objective about himself? In other words, is the historian to make himself the vehicle for the "objective" self of the historical person? This would seem to be what Dr. Munz does intend—but surely such a history could still be no more objective than the historian concerned.

Any discipline which seeks to understand and explain things sets up those things as "objects" of study and sets up itself as the "subject" conducting the study. The understanding and the explanation are accordingly always "subjective" to some extent, though they always aim at "objectivity." This seems to be Dr. Munz's own meaning for the word "subjective": the peculiar thing is that he should have tried to set history apart from other disciplines, claiming "real objectivity" for history but denying it to science.

The logic of the case is singularly clear: no explanation can be objective without being to some extent subjective, because all explanations of objects must issue from the subject who is doing the explaining. We think Dr. Munz would agree with this logic and with its premisses—why then does he still try to expel altogether from historical explanations that very same subjectivity which he finds inexpungable from science?

Moreover, our perplexity increases when we remember that Dr. Munz wants us to accept and use "our disillusionment and our scepticism," instead of running away from the fact that "the world does not look the same from two different peoples' standpoints and that whatever one believed in it was always dependent on one's particular point of view." To say that "no judgment is true beyond the boundaries of the one particular world in which it originated," is simply to say that all judgments are to some extent subjective. Why does Dr. Munz himself try to expunge subjectivity from history?

Such subjectivity cannot be expunged by saying, 'I will "explain a person in the way in which that person might have explained himself" if he could speak to me today'- this is merely substituting that person's subjectivity for your own. Nor can it be expunged by saying, 'I will "explain a person in the way in which that person might have explained himself" if he had known the objective truth about himself'—for this still leaves us with the subjectivity of the historian who is doing the explaining.

In fact, subjectivity can never be expunged, and "real objectivity" is a misleading ideal. Dr. Munz seems to know this fact: he asks us to accept it and use it: why then does he himself try to do away with it ?

B. Sutton-Smith and Pat Wilson.

Sir,—An illuminating idea imparted by word of mouth does not always appear so convincing in cold print—even the tidy print of Hilltop. This is how I feel about Dr. Munz's article. And especially because his central idea—namely, his emphasis on the truth about persons rather than about ideas as the historian's concern—is sound, one feels almost iconoclastic in pointing to flaws in his conception of it.

The central difficulty is that Dr. Munz seeks to get moral benefit by understanding many historical persons in their "own terms" page 30 while still standing apart from all of them. The obvious dilemma is that he has in some sense to identify his mind with theirs to attain real understanding; but that on the other hand if he goes too far he will go mad (like the lunatic who imagines he is Napoleon). The other dilemma lies in the choice of material. You may delude your readers— and even yourself—into thinking that you are disinterested and impartial, by choosing some obscure uninvestigated personage whose interests extend no further than the vegetable-garden; but as soon as you start dealing with persons of a challenging stature, you cannot avoid presuppositions in the form of a selective approach to "the facts" (as witness the many differing interpretations of Augustine and Rousseau). And of all this Dr. Munz is doubtless aware, even if it is not made explicit.

Dr. Munz, however, tries to solve his dilemmas by lopping off from his task the question of the truth of ideas. "If we must value the truth about people," he seems to be saying, "we can at least reject the value of their ideas and not be at all interested in whether they are right or wrong. So far—yes—but no farther! For might we not begin to tread on the edge of a precipice if we take these people's ideas seriously or allow that they might even have something to teach us ? Each age, indeed each person, is different, so let us beware of regressing to the past." This view is all very well until we ask what has happened to the historian's humility. How can he assume that he has sufficient answers to render the truth of other people's ideas irrelevant, or that our knowing scepticism may not be modified considerably by the additional evidence of other sources? And if we don't take the ideas of people in the past seriously, why take any other person's ideas seriously? The truth is of course that we do learn to take seriously the ideas of others (whether past or present). And indeed this is not unnatural, for most of our "own" ideas are really borrowed from either tradition or contemporaries; if this were not so education would be futile, if not impossible.

Scepticism is not enough. If he really is to penetrate a thinker's mind, the historian must face the impact of the ideas for himself. Similarly a genuine historian of music could not be content with studying Mozart's environment and technical apparatus; he must learn to appreciate his music and reach the reality expressed by the composer. Without such an effort, I can see little future in Dr. Munz's attempt to produce moral education, in the form of his three rabbits, out of the hat of historical scepticism. Morality (and moral education) exists only on the plane of action. And morality will soon die in the atmosphere of ultimate detachment which seems to be implied when Dr. Munz talks of positive scepticism and "acquiring" other people's experiences and beliefs. The addition of the adjective "positive" in such a context is unconvincing. It is more likely to end up as a negative tolerance, not so very different from an enlightened cynicism. And the refusal to treat the ideas in other men's minds as serious issues indicates that, after all, you are not really willing to stand where they stand or understand them in their own terms.

Dr. Munz links his positive tolerance to a "sense of freedom from one's own beliefs." But does such a "freedom" exist, except for the schizophrenic and the dead? If tolerance is to be positive and moral it must surely get rid of this very "freedom from" complex and take its stand on convictions which so grip the personality as to provide a standard of judgment and a will to tolerate the other differing personalities by whom the person is continually challenged. Perhaps this sounds altogether too "positive" for the health of historians, too much akin to that dangerous ogre, the "artificial, willed faith." Indeed, there are dangers involved in having convictions—but there are more insidious dangers in pretending to have none at all; all I ask is that the historian should be honest in bringing what he holds out into the light. That is more likely to lead the historian to ultimate truth than is the alternative, and I believe it to be a truer view of the way we can meet and tolerate other persons.

A. C. Moore.

Sir,—In printing "An Idea of History" by Dr. Peter Munz, "Hilltop" has rendered a very real service to all those readers who are not content to remain mentally inactive in that condition of "disillusionment and scepticism" which certainly constitutes, if not the chief, one of the chief, problems of our age. The page 32 whole argument is developed with such force and cogency that it would be an impertinence to attempt to go over the ground again, and I assume that anyone who so much as glances at this letter will have read the original article. It follows that he will have compelled to ponder the thesis that the study of the novel and of history constitutes the most appropriate intellectual activity towards, and may be our guide to, "a new and firmer belief in truth." An end greatly to be desired.

But I would venture to challenge the writer's attitude to what he calls "our Christian faith," and to suggest that in the study of that (to his mind) discredited faith there may be found yet another activity leading to the same goal, "a new and firmer belief in truth." For most of the pessimists and the disillusioned of the younger generation, surely the possessive abjective here is ill-chosen. Is it not rather a "return" to a conventional religion, tightly held in the dead hand of tradition, that Dr. Munz has in mind? As one reader of "Hilltop" put it—"What they were taught years ago in Sunday School." So any return would be to the religion of the older generation, and, by hypothesis, that generation has failed, and all its achievements are as of dust and ashes. The second point made by Dr. Munz against religion seems to be either that the exposition of the Christian faith as we know it has left us no choice but rejection and unbelief, or that it is thanks to Christianity that we are in our present plight I have to confess that I am not quite clear as to the implication of the words used. The third point is admirably clear, however, and I cannot conceive any reluctance to accept the statements (a) that we cannot retrace our steps, and (b) that, standing "on a frontier," we must ourselves "build the bridge which will lead us from the past into the future": nor can there be any doubt that any line of study pursued with intellectual, integrity will help us in the building. Dr. Munz makes a strong case for history, which appeals to me as a humanist, and I can think of students who would make an equally strong case for science.

But man does not live by intellect (or by instinct) alone. He is a strange compound: Pascal's words are ever true—"L'homme est a lui-meme le plus grand probleme de la nature." (I quote from memory.) This idea of our being lined up at a frontier—so vivid a picture of any European of this decade—calls to my mind a book Freethinkers of the 19th Century. The men and women there portrayed were conscious in their day of having to cross a frontier, renouncing a region in which they could no longer live with sincerity, and going forward to they knew not what. So in every generation must those who are truly living souls and not dead echoes face the frontier and build the bridge.

But, strange thought it may appear, having struggled across the bridge of his own enquiries and perplexities and doubts and gropings, on the other side of the frontier the traveller sometimes finds God, the God who transcends all frontiers. He may even come to realise that more strangely still it is the "God and his fathers." He has not "returned," nor do those left .behind on the other side always understand or approve this newness of life. But "forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before," he has pressed on seeking only the truth, and he finds the truth in "the high calling of God in Christ Jesus." (St. Paul.) He does not deny the claims of reason, but he has to admit that in his new philosophy "le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait pas," (Pascal) and he is not ashamed. He is content to see that while all his life long there will be frontiers to be crossed one by one, the chief end of man remains "to glorify God and enjoy Him forever."

Olive Wright.

Sir,—There are many points which Dr. Munz makes in his article "An Idea of History" which I would like to contest, but I am going to confine myself to his attack on Christian faith, and his assumption that we must have a "positive scepticism" and that "by accentuating our scepticism we can evolve a new and firmer belief in truth, because it obliges us to transfer our interest from ideas to people."

Dr. Munz then concludes that we should cultivate this scepticism plus intellectual discipline and move forward in the direction we have been moving.

page 34

The purpose of this letter is to refute these ideas and to show that a change takes place when Christ becomes the object of our personal faith.

Where does Dr. Munz's view lead us? He says we must rid ourselves from the obsession of any absolute allegiance to any one set of ideas or beliefs. If we carry this to its logical conclusion, what ate we going to do with truth? What is it? What do we mean by it? Even when we know the answers and have decided on what is truth we must not strictly follow it because of this principle of non-allegiance. No, with all due respect this philosophy leads us up a blind alley. Can we build anything in the material or spiritual world without the solid bases of some loyalty? The answer is No. Truth as set forth by Christ and His followers is a solid basis to build on and surely history proves this. All history points down to, and from Christ. Calvary is the focal point, the crossroad of history.

Why divorce ideas from people? Are they not bound up together? What about some of the great personalities whose lives show adherence to Christian faith? Dr. Livingstone, Sir Wilfred Grenfell, Sadhu Sunda Singh, and Dr. Albert Schweitzer? A moment's thought will show that we can go back into history and find inspiration and courage to face the future. If I were to list all the great characters of history who adhered to the Christian faith I would need much more paper than is at my disposal here.

Dr. Albert Schweitzer in his book Civilisation and Ethics writes: "Resignation as to knowledge of the world is for me not a hopeless fall into a skepticism which lures us to drift about in life like a derelict vessel," and continues," every world view that does not start from resignation in regard to knowledge is artificial and a mere fabrication, for it rests upon an inadmissible interpretation of this world". All this from a man who holds five doctorates, including philosophy.

The great apostle Paul said "Faith is the substance on things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." This is opposed to Dr. Munz's view, that we must build our life on a "positive skepticism."

Christ said: "I am the way, the truth and the light of the world." One could go on pilling up evidence from history with its courses of action, good, bad and indifferent, but it shows that any individual, society or nation is doomed if it departs from the right relationship with the author of all truth, God. Rather than trust to a "positive scepticism" I would prefer to trust in Christian faith and God.

Raymond R. F. Jones.

Sir,—Dr. Munz suggests that through the objective study of history and the modern novel we should seek to understand people within their own terms rather than judge them in relation to our own scheme of values.

Short of completely identifying ourselves with other persons, in which case we should cease to be what we were, I contend that this is impossible. Everyone, including the author of "An Idea of History," has a scheme of values to which he relates the actions and motives of other people. For example, Dr. Munz believes that the study of history is more important than the study of history is more important than the study of (a) the New Testament or (b) "Thus Spoke Zarathustra." He believes in 'understanding' and the "tolerance' which it breeds. Through the study of the novel and history we 'free' ourselves from "the obsession that we owe allegiance to any one set of ideas or beliefs." People are more important than ideas.

Here now we possess a substantial part of Dr. Munz's creed. Like any other creed it is full of implicit value judgments concerning the lives of other men. Just imagine how pleased Luther would be to find he was being understood in his own terms by a man who virtually dismisses his concern for the truth of his theory of trans-substantiation. This tolerance, too, stops strangely short, for Dr. Munz sets "outside the pale of human intercourse" all those who evaluate the world against background of personal belief. That's a powerful lot of men. Finally, it might be asked, what of a Dostoevsky or a Greene who see their characters etched in against the vast backdrop of Christian theology?

I do agree that where our own universal values are narrow and inflexible we become inquisitors rather lovers of mankind. By all means let us read novelists and historians who have both breadth and sympathy, but let us page 36 Not confuse this with that loss of intellectual consistency and integrity to which Dr. Munz's course, if adopted, would inevitably lead. For the whole way of life of a people only becomes possible where it does owe allegiance to one set of ideas out of which it can agree to make set laws.

John Summers.

Criticism of Criticism.

Sirs: Mr. Ron Smith has used feeble arguments in his letter evaluating the review of a soviet film written by another contributor for your first issue. Unfortunately I have not seen the film in question myself; but it is against the type of argument, not against whatever actual film criticism it involves in this particular case, that I wish to sound a note of warning.

"One is reminded of the old art for art's sake," and similar arguments, Mr. Smith says. I am afraid that this sort of refutation is, to me, most unconvincing. Surely there is more to be said for or against this approach to art than just to pass it by with the condescending air of a man who allegedly knows better. I am not so sure by what standards Mr. Smith would measure Renaissance painting, or does he believe that artistic achievement should be—or has always been—rigidly controlled by socio-economic forces? I often cannot help feeling that the condemnation of creative work as "degenerate art" a la Hitler and Goebbels, is pretty close to the equally authoritative condemnation of art, especially writing and music, that it is found necessary to impose on Soviet artists. If it is said that he who pays should also call the tune, I would assert that, for the sake of the creative artist, even hunger might be preferable to security. I might change my mind if and when Mr. Smith can convincingly prove to me that Beethoven's chamber music is clearly showing signs of feudal patronage, or that the French bourgeoisie has found its epitome in Rodin's sculpture.

The reason why, I think, that both in Germany and in the Soviet Union, such authority-inspired categorical criticism has been adopted is that to my mind you cannot consciously plan to re-model society and the state without coming to the obvious conclusion that there can be nothing beyond the state, and that art, like everything else, has to befitted into that blueprint. It seems, from that point of view, immaterial whether your goal be Socialism of the Soviet model, National Socialism or Fascism. It is one thing to find that, historically, the dominant classes will tend to have some influence on the artistic development of any epoch; it is, I believe, quite another thing to turn such findings into a political imperative. Lest I be misunderstood: I fully realize the differences between the two systems. But it is no heresy to see them stem from a common basic political philosophy.

That to Mr. Smith a Nuremberg Party Rally, with its undoubted enthusiasm, marching youth, flying banners and smiling faces is inferior to a similar display on the Red square is a permissible point of view. But it is an almost tragic misunderstanding to dismiss Nazism with a shrug of the shoulders, as having produced lifeless "automatons" (sic): it just means that you are fitting a social and historical phenomenon of incredible force into a neatly labeled pigeon-hole of detestable and therefore dismissible facts. The tragedy of Nazims was exactly—and still is, I fear—that it was carried by the enthusiasm of the same smiling and self-assured young people who strike Mr. Smith so forcibly as being truly representative of socialism. He seems to have nothing but faith; he has not, I gather, seen the forces of a similar enthusiasm elsewhere. Parades and smiling faces do not, in themselves, prove very much. And if you prefer one type of it while—partly because of ignorance—relegating the other to the forces of reaction, then you have only repeated an article of faith. You have not, and could not have convinced the reader.

Harry Benda.

Poetic Struggle

Sirs: I am a young writer still at the stage known as 'struggling.' I am married and earn my living in what Mr. Baxter so feelingly calls "the dismal swamp of journalism." While I agree with what this writer says about our "inability to find meaning in a world either dead or disastrous," I think that too often it is our own fault.

If we agree that no section of the community, no department of experience, should page 38 miss the writer's scrutiny, then surely we will all have something to say, all the time, if we really are writers.

Mr. Baxter uses a determinist argument to show that although when they are young, writers can sometimes solve their problems by living off their parents, later, "social and economic pressure forces them to the wall."

I believe, however, that such people never are writers in the true sense of the word. A writer qua writer never does stop writing. He uses every trick of fate, be it good or ill, solely as a portal to new experience.

"Those who can, do," is a determinist illustration of what I mean.

O. E. Middleton.