Saturday, December 30, 2006

A Flawed History

Our understanding of history is inherently flawed. We often think of history as a progression of recognizable factual events that ultimately lead up to the present moment. in many instances this include a sense of evolution: an idea that we are growing and therefor the present is superior the past, with the future being a lofty perfection to be attained. The problem with this view is the fact that, inasmuch as we can grant that we perceive to be true, we can only be certain of events that we ourselves have perceived. All sources of evidence that tells us what he know of the past can be forged, altered, or misinterpreted. In addition, the view of any document has so much content that is very reliant on context.

Our weblogs, websites, newspapers, television shows, novels, movies, homes videos, and more are what our descendants will use to tell themselves about us. So what are they going to think of all of our pornography, race hate sites, science fiction, and the like? The further back you go the more evidence begins be become lost or destroyed. The less we have, the more reliant on the evidence itself to tell us the whole picture. Eventually it gets to the point were a a snippet of a completely separate document can change how we look at the context of another. This leads itself is why we have the study of history, and explains why there is always debate going on about any given point of history.

The reliability of our knowledge of history goes through certain stages:

Direct evidence (oral and written) from our oldest living relation, mostly our grandparents but with lifespans these days sometimes great-great grandparent or elder. It is a bit more reliable then the more ancient sources, because we have their word for it. But the elderly might suffer from illnesses that affect memory, so even then something can be lost or miss told.

Direct evidence from our Parents. They are in their prime, and they do a lot to affect your perceptions of the world.

Direct evidence that we perceive ourselves is the only source that we can truly accept as fact, all else becomes distorted. And even then: when we put something to any form of record, be it ; be it video, paper, stone, song, or painting; that understanding it is very much connected to the context of its creation.

With this in mind then, we can say that everything we know about history is not fact, put a patchwork of ever changing theories. This means that our understanding of events can radically change with a little bit of new evidence, and our reality changes with it. The more we find about a certain period, the more windows and contexts we can recognize the depth of the period. But in the end, we can never get to the true sense of its full context unless we are at the moment of its creation: you must directly perceive the event itself. Specifying further, you have to have been the creator of the source to understand its fullness.

Evolution as a concept beyond the biological is non-existent, but it is embedded in a lot of our ideas of the past. In history, it says that our society is by its nature superior in all ways to the past. In technology, social structure, political composition, ethics, etc, we are the inheritors of the past and that we improve on it.

We do not.

There are things done in days past that we just can't duplicate today, the techniques are too different. Europeans called the natives they encountered savages, but those 'savages' had a cultural inheritance and geo-political interactions that were every bit as complex as their own. In addition, those interactions of the past were every bit as complex as the present. We can watch the changes, and see some of the aspects guiding the changes, but over all, there is always more there then we can see.

The more complexity we get, the more we are forced to break things down into smaller and smaller specializations in field. Increasingly we can see that even the bigger trends are made up of sub-trends: trying to define the roman empire and just who was 'roman' can be seen in the same light as just what constituted the identity of a car. Is the car the axles? Is it the headlights, transmission, battery, or fuel tanks? No, it is all of those things and none, its identity is contingent upon our designating it such. The same goes for the Rome, is it the city? The empire? What did the empire consist of? What made one roman? For that manner when did Rome end? The sack of Rome in 476? The conquest of Constantinople to the Ottomans? The Russian Tsars claimed the title of Emperor, Tsar is a variant of Caesar. Charlemagne was able to claim the title Holy Roman Emperor in part because the west considered the imperial throne vacant during the reign of the Byzantine Empress Irene. The Visigothic rulers in Italy kept roman officials with roman titles. Just what Rome is has become extremely blurry. So what is Rome? All of this and yet none of it. It is just what we chose to designate as Rome.

With the lack of true knowledge regarding any given event outside of our own perceptions, we can never be certain of what things were like in the past. As such, to say event transpired any one way, is inherently incorrect. We have theories, but no facts that we can truly accept as pure: therefor our very understanding of history is flawed. Imagine if we could not even trust our own perceptions to be true?

1 comment:

loosehead_prop said...

I know of no historian that views history as a "progression of recognisable factual events that ultimately lead up to the present moment" that in many instances include a "sense of evolution".

I know of no historian that views mankind or man a species as being "superior now as opposed to in the past, other than in knowledge and as species the more you learn increases your capacity to learn.

I know no historian that views the use oral histories from family members or witnesses as an important witness to, or of history, you seem to.

You said. {"Evolution as a concept beyond the biological is non-existent, but it is embedded in a lot of our ideas of the past. In history, it says that our society is by its nature superior in all ways to the past. In technology, social structure, political composition, ethics, etc, we are the inheritors of the past and that we improve on it.} (close quote)

Indeed you are right evolution has no relevance as a concept save that of biological. Again I know of no historian that says we are superior or that we will improve upon the past. But merely, if we do not learn from the mistakes of the past, we are condemned to repeat them. Vietnam and Iraq is but one example.

The people and historians of the future will do what we have done. They will read sources, papers, histories, government documents, unit histories, examine cultural fare from music to film and from all that and more...paint a picture of what we were as they perceive the evidence. No more, no less.

Nothing is perhaps human perception.