September 23, 2010

excerpt: Truth in History

From Gordon S. Wood's The Purpose of the Past, Chapter 10:
History is one of the last humanistic disciplines to be affected by deconstruction and postmodernist theories.  These theories are not the same as ordinary historical relativism, which, as historian Gertrude Himmelfarb describes it, "locates the meaning of ideas and events so firmly in their historical context that history, rather than philosophy and nature, becomes the arbiter of truth."  Most historians these days, including Himmelfarb, have become comfortable with this kind of contextual relativism, which accepts the reality of the past and our ability to say something true, however partial, about that past.  [But] postmodernism threatens all that...

All may be contingent; all may be relative. But [citation] this prevalence of contingency and relativism does not mean the end of objectivity and the possibility of arriving at practical workable truths in history writing. It is true that historians, like all humans, are subjective: they have passions, desires, political and personal agendas. But so did Newton and Darwin, and they were still capable of discovering objective scientific truths. We can never return to the absolutist world of nineteenth-century positivism, but the alternative to that world is not the postmodernist world of total subjectivity...

[A new theory of objectivity, called "practical realism"] recognizes that there cannot be an exact correspondence between words and what is out there; still, it continues to aim for as much accuracy and completeness as possible in the historical reconstruction of the past. Our interpretation of the past may be imperfect, but practical realism knows that "some words and conventions, however socially constructed, reach out to the world and give a reasonably true description of its contents."
If those excerpts seemed interesting, the entire chapter demands your attention. Better yet, once again, I say go buy the whole book! (This chapter originally published as part of a book review in The New Yorker, November 1994.)

My comments:

Once again, Wood sings to my soul while he sharpens my brain.  I have absolutely nothing to add that these excerpted paragraphs have not already said very well, and so very profoundly.

I suggest scrolling up for the sheer pleasure of reading them again.

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"If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient observation than to any other reason."

-- Isaac Newton