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Hilltop: A Literary Paper. Volume 1 Number 2

An Idea of History

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An Idea of History

The main part of this article was delivered as a talk at Victoria College last year. It attracted so much attention that we asked Dr Munz for the text.

I do not wish to advertise the subject I happen to teach in this University as a panacea for our ills. I am interested in History because I think it is an important study. At the beginning of my University career I read Classics; now I am really interested in Philosophy; but I am concentrating my efforts on the study of History because, for the reasons which I am going to give you, I think it is of such vital importance for our intellectual development.

The chief problem of our age seems to be our disillusionment and our scepticism. We feel that we can never put our mind and our hands wholeheartedly to anything because we know that most of the things we can think of have turned out to be failures. This consciousness has sapped the best part of our vitality and is taken by many people to be certain evidence of our decadence. The return to our Christian faith which is so widely advocated and even practiced does not appear to be a sound remedy. Firstly because a willed faith lacks the original naivety that gives strength to faith, and thus renders it a self-conscious effort which only bears witness to the evil it is meant to overcome. Secondly because the dialectical development of all the various stages in the growth of this faith has just landed us where we actually are; to invite us to return to one or the other possible forms of faith is to invite us to repeat once more the very development at the end of which we are standing to-day. And thirdly, because we cannot retrace our steps. At any one moment in our lives we are standing on a frontier and have to face the fact that we have to build the bridge which will lead us from the past into the future. If we flinch we will change and we will merely reiterate what we have stated before.

The question then is, is there anything in our disillusionment on which we might build a future? Can we accept our disillusionment and our scepticism as positive valnes and develop them into something that goes beyond pure resignation? Let us examine an intellectual discipline which has been both cause and effect of our loss of faith and seek to discovery in it those traits which might become the positive values transcending our resignation.

Two intellectual disciplines have developed simultaneously with our loss of faith and our growing scepticism. This simultaneity is certainly no accident. These two disciplines are the novel and the study of history; if properly understood they embody the new positive value: they have turned our negative scepticism into a positive scepticism. Both disciplines aim at an understanding of other people. True this is only one of their many aspects; but the one aspect upon which we must seize for the sake of our investigation. This aim is the quintessence of the long development which led from the straightforward narratives of Fielding to the subtle and refined methods of Proust and Mann. The novel is an attempt to see the world as it looks if seen through the eyes of other people. The study of History if it is true History and not merely the sociology of past ages, aims at precisely the same thing. The subject matter of novels deals with the possible, that of History with the actual. The facts of the former cannot be verified and the facts of the latter can be verified to a certain extent. The aim which these two disciplines have in common is to understand other people in their own terms. This is the goal of the modern and most significant intellectual effort. Before this effort was made, the stories that used to be told were either romances and fairy tales or histories written with the idea that human nature is always the same and that history therefore essentially repeats itself or is the monotonous record of man's crimes and follies. In these days, no attempt was made to understand other people in their own terms because men were not thought to be essentially different from one another. Our scepticism and our disillusionment grew because we realised that page 6 the world does not look the same from two different people's standpoints and that whatever one believed in it was always dependent on one's particular point of view. We began to doubt the universal applicability of rational standards, we began to waver in our conviction that the universal dictates of right reason were valid, when we began to understand that each man is a world to himself and that therefore no judgment is true beyond the boundaries of the one particular world in which it originated. But at the same time, this new insight has directed our attention to a new problem. We could now no longer take it of for granted that human beings were essentially alike; and hence we had to make a conscious effort to understand them in their differences and their individualities. The new conception of man as a unique individuality and a being essentially different from every other human being made us sceptical in regard to universal standards and beliefs; but it forced our attention on the necessity of understanding each one of these unique individualities in his own terms.

To understand another human being in his own terms means to see him as he saw himself. The terms in which a man sees himself are the general experiences with which he is familiar and which render everything that happens to him or which he does meaningful to him. A man relates all his acts, his thoughts and his experiences to a background of ideas and notions; and these notions bestow meaning on the acts, thoughts, and experiences. If all men were essentially similar or even alike, the problem of understanding others would be quite simple: for one could then related everybody's acts, thoughts and experiences to the same background. But in view of the essential uniqueness of every human being such an understanding would be a real misunderstanding. To understand another person in his own terms means to see him against the same background of ideas and notions against which he sees himself. In order not to misunderstand him, one must not make use of those ideas and notions of which he himself could not have made use.

If we make use of other ideas and notions than, e.g., A's in order to understand A. we are not really understanding him, but only interpreting him. In this case we are not treating him as a historical person but as the subject matter of a sociological or psychological or medical, or some other interpretation of history. The important point about A as a human being is that he had a mind and did, or at least could have, explained his acts and thoughts to himself in his own terms. Any story about him which explains his acts and thoughts in other terms is not a true story but an interpretation of history.

Here we are touching upon the real difference between natural science and history. The difference does not lie as is often supposed in the fact that the former is interested in the formulation of universal statements and the latter in the discovery of particular facts. The difference between the two types of study lies in the fact that the former can never be objective whereas the latter can be objective. In science there can be no objectivity, for 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. History, however, deals with human beings who have minds and who can therefore explain their behaviour to themselves. Another person can understand this behaviour subjectively if he explains it in this own terms; and objectively if he explains it in the terms of the person he is trying to understand. This does not mean, of course, that scientific knowledge is inexact or untruthful. Scientific knowledge deals with the only truth there is in regard to objects which have no minds and cannot explain their behaviour to themselves. There just is no more to be said about the stone than a person other than the stone can say about him. One must also be able to say what that other man said, or could have said, about himself. It would therefore be more correct to speak of science as giving subjective explanations and of aiming at inter-subjective explanations in so far as its explanations ought to be testable by more than one subject. But in History one can achieve real objectivity because the historian can ultimately explain a person in the way in which that person might have explained himself.

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With this concept of objectivity in historical understanding, we come to the concept of truth. A historical description is true if it is objective. It is clear that a final and ultimate truth in this sense can never be reached. But it is possible to approximate truth. The historian, for instance, is not interested in whether Luther's theory of transubstantiation was correct or not; but in whether be can understand this theory in Luther's own terms or not. Thus the notion of truth is transposed from the problems of transubstantiation to the problem of understanding what such and such a person meant by transubstantiation. It is transposed from ideas to people. As regards ideas, we have become sceptical: transubstantiation is after all a very woolly concept and we have found that there can be no ultimate truth about it since so many people who are obviously very intelligent seem to hold contradictory views about it. But as regards people we are not in the least sceptical. Or rather: we are turning our scepticism into a positive value. We want to find the truth about Luther, or about Calvin, and so on. What really matters to us now is not whether Luther himself was right or wrong, but whether we can understand him truthfully. Our growing scepticism has really operated in a negative sense only in one direction. In another direction, it has helped us to formulate a new theory and has shown us that what matters is not the truth about ideas but the truth about people.

In this sense the study of history will lose its value as magistra vitae, for we will not be able to learn from past experience. If all men are essentially different from one another, there are no lessons to be learnt from others. Our form of historical consciousness does not help us to make a success of politics or to plan for the future. The study of history is not a political technique—but a moral education.

It is a moral education in threefold sense. Firstly we gain freedom for ourselves and tolerance towards others. Freedom—in the sense that we will be able to rid ourselves from the obsession that we must owe absolute allegiance to any one definite set of ideas or beliefs. By acquiring other peoples' experiences—and that is what historical study consists of—we can also acquire their beliefs and thus free ourselves from the obsession that our own belief is the only belief possible for us. Tolerance—in the sense that we will be able to accept a variety of beliefs because we can understand that each variety is linked to a particular set of experiences. This form of tolerance is not the tolerance of the decent man who knows that he is right but does not mind others being wrong; it is a positive tolerance, linked to one's own sense of freedom from one's own beliefs.

Our positive scepticism is, secondly, an example to others. Those who are not willing to follow it, set themselves outside the frontiers of human intercourse. Hence this scepticism defines the sphere within which are not willing to understand others in their terms but who insist on the universal correctness of their own beliefs can, from their own premises, make no claim on our tolerance.

Thirdly: man's mind is such that it wishes to transcend itself. Man has always found something rather distasteful and unnatural in a view, which extols and worships him as the beginning and end of all existence. We are too painfully aware of our own personal shortcomings and the general defects inherent in our own psycho-physical makeup to believe that man is something very wonderful. The study of other human beings and the endeavour to understand them in their own, and not in our, terms, is therefore the most appropriate intellectual activity we can think of, because it is more becoming to our mind than an activity which does no consist in an effort to get away from ourselves and to transcend ourselves.

These positive values arise directly out of our scepticism and disillusionment. 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. We should therefore not try to overcome our scepticism by an artificial and willed effort to go over our past history again; but should cultivate it and pay very close attention to that intellectual discipline which was evolved simultaneously with the growth of scepticism. In order to find our salvation, we must not retrace our steps but accelerate them in the very direction in which we have been moving.