22 October 2009

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Does history matter?


Dear friends,

This Sunday we are discussing Does history matter?

Indeed twenty years ago we saw the fall of the Berlin Wall and today we
are enjoying the benefits of the mother of all recessions. In both cases
the writing was on the wall so to speak. The first world war was a
precursor of things to come in politics and the liberalisation of the
money markets in the eighties was a test run of the financial frenzy we
had these past few years.

So, does history matter and can we learn from it?

Take care and see you Sunday


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Does history matter?

In effect, by asking this question we are asking ourselves to make a
value judgement on the subject of history. For example, is history
useful or relevant for us; us being the people living today. But by
extension people that belong to other generations also have the right to
ask the same question for themselves.

We can even go a step further and use the often asked question: can we
learn from history? But to go from Does history matter? to Can we learn
from history? we have to bridge a huge philosophical gap.

Ideally before we can arrive to consider this gap we first have to be
clear about the terrain we are about to traverse. And to do this we
normally have to define the topic, i.e. what is history? And to meet
this criteria I will offer you this definition by Daniel Little from his
essay Philosophy of History (Philosophy of History: Daniel Little: First
published Sun Feb 18, 2007: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/history/ )

To quote Little's definition of What is history?, he says "Most
prosaically, it is the human past and our organized representations of
that past."

And on the question of learning from history, Little writes: (Philosophy
of History) It raises the possibility of "learning from history." And it
suggests the possibility of better understanding ourselves in the
present, by understanding the forces, choices, and circumstances that
brought us to our current situation. It is therefore unsurprising that
philosophers have sometimes turned their attention to efforts to examine
history itself and the nature of historical knowledge.

However, although the answer to the question What is history? seems
quite adequate I want to argue that a definition of history is dependent
on two important issues:

The first issue is: when (or where) does history begin and experience
ends? For practical purposes, I will consider history to be human
history although there is no reason not to include non-human events in
human history. For example, the role played by earthquakes, oil
reserves, ice ages and so on.

The second issue is whether the problem with history is the same problem
of deriving an "ought" from an "is" (Hume: Hume's Fork: is/ought
dichotomy); or more generally the problem of induction (scientific

Hence, as far as we are concerned, before we can even ask What is
history? we have to ask when does history begin (for us)? For example,
twenty years ago, in October and November, we saw the fall of the Berlin
Wall. Many of us would remember the images and news reports of people
breaking up the wall which was in effect the breaking up the Soviet
Union and Soviet style communism. It would be natural to say that this
was indeed a historical event. However, it is also our experience, many
of us were alive at the time and not only could we relate to the events
but those events affected our lives. We might even have changed the
course of our lives because of those events. But is the fall of the
Berlin Wall history or my (our) experience? And what makes the fall of
the Berlin Wall history and not say the dinner we had on the 20 October

My point is that somehow we have a kind of proprietary right over our
experience which we do not have for history. My experience is mine and
it affects me and what I do, not to mention that what I do also affects
others. But not so for history? The Normandy landings do not belong to
me as experience, and nor can I do anything about it. I cannot go on the
cliffs of Normandy and look at the landing crafts arriving on the
beaches. But many people alive today did go on the Berlin Wall and chip
away at the concrete, and those of us who saw the events affected us

Our experiences cause feelings, reactions, actions and opinions in us
which are different from the feelings, reactions, actions and opinions
we have when we read about events in the past: i.e. history.

With our experiences we have a one to one relationship with our
environment, our society, and the world we live in, but not so for
history. With experience we also have a blood and guts connection. In
other words, I can participate in the world around me, even to the point
of changing the status quo. With history we only have an epistemic or
intellectual relationship with the events we are interested in. So does
it make sense to speak of participating in the world of history. I
certainly cannot affect what happened in Normand (although what happened
in Normand does affect me) and I doubt whether you can.

You might ask what is wrong with accepting that an event might be both a
historical event and a personal experience; after all most people think
this way and we might have done it ourselves. But you will recall that
Little's definition of history includes "the human past" and "organized
representation...". Sure the Berlin Wall fell twenty years ago, but my
experiences are part of me today as much as they were twenty years ago.
Just because events happened twenty years ago they do not cease to be
part of my. And by implication who has the right to "organise" my
experiences other than myself? Not to mention that I do not have a
representation of my experiences, I have experiences.

I am suggesting that although a headline that an event might be both an
historical event and a personal experience might be emotional, it is not
good enough for philosophy. We might use the cut off point at the time
the last person from a generation passes away. Certainly a good idea,
but not necessarily practical. Are we prepared to wait that long before
we can call something history? Nor do I want to enter into a discussion
on utilitarianism and pragmatism.

But this has a direct implication to the second issue; i.e. is history,
at the very least, tainted with the problem of induction if not, that
is, induction being the essence of history for us?

What we experience is indeed a fact and what we do as a consequence of
our experience is also a fact; thus what happened (to us) and what we do
are both facts (our feelings etc are facts). In other words, when we act
as a consequence of our experience we are deriving an "is" from and
"is". For example, the fall of the Berlin Wall (fact) makes me want and
do go to Berlin and visit East Berlin as a free person (fact). However,
something we do or feel or act because of history we are in effect
deriving an "ought" from and "is". The allies won the first world war
(fact), but the reparations the Germans had to pay were irresponsible
(ought) and therefore war reparations is not a very good political
policy (generalised ought). Indeed, the first instance when the is/ought
dichotomy (and induction) creates a problem for our topic it directly
involves ourselves. How much opinion can we reasonable have about the
past, and still reflect reality on the ground, instead of being an
amusement game during dinner parties?

But what right do we have to derive an ought from some event that
happened in the past? And why should our ought be better than someone
else's ought who might have a different opinion?

The issue of induction in history is also present in a different way.
You will remember that scientific induction is a form of theory building
by arriving at universals from particular instances (all ravens are
black; all swans are white: see Wikipedia on the subject). However, by
the very nature of how induction works, conclusions based on induction
are not certain. Induction only leads to degrees of confidence and

Of course, this does not mean that we cannot do anything with some
generalisation just because we are not totally certain. However,
induction does have consequences if we are to employ it in our
reasoning; and if we choose to be reasonable or rational. One of these
consequences is that we have to be prudent, very prudent, about what we
decide to do with our inductive conclusions. Especially conclusions
based on history.

Another important consequence is that by definition, induction has an
inbuilt epistemic deficit or an absence of information. And by its very
nature information, especially about historical events, starts to
deteriorate if not lost, immediately it is created. Documents
deteriorate, artefacts get lost, recordings lose audibility and so on.

But most important of all we do not have access to the very people who
can tell us most about what they did, why they did it, how they felt and
so on. In other words, we don't have access to the very same information
we rely on when deciding how to act and do act in our lives. What is
also clear is that when we act we act without knowing what the
unintended consequences are going to be. If we object to our
experiences, opinions, feelings and motivations to be reorganised by
others I'm sure that Napoleon, Patten and Stalin would feel the same.
Remember, this is not about being good or bad, but about being a human

Whichever way we look at the situation we are always one or many steps
away from reality when we consider history. But if we accept this
information gap about history we must also accept that whatever history
might be, we certainly do not have complete access to it. And this is
precisely the problem with history, how can something have a value if we
do not have access to the salient information about it? It's like doing
medicine without access to patients.

The issues of history and experience, and that of induction are not
meant to deny the existence or importance of history, nor the
objectivity of history and not even to shed scepticism on the whole
project of studying history, but to show that our tools, certainly our
present tools, are far from adequate. How inadequate these tools are
have a direct bearing on our question, does history matter? and on the
practical question, can we learn from history?

This is important for two main reasons, (1) how relevant is the
historical information we have for our purpose of learning from history?
And (2) how dangerous can the wrong information be for any actions we
might embark upon based on what we thought we have learnt from history?
You will also notice that I have not even mentioned such ideas as what
is good or bad or what is morally acceptable.

Indeed we do want to say that history matters because some how we are
convinced that we can learn from history. But I believe that I have
argued that the task of learning from history is not as straightforward
as we would like to think.

As far as history mattering I think we can safely say that it does
matter and it does because history is a valuable source of information.
Moreover, science and technology help us access information from the
past (e.g. archaeology forensics) and/or decipher information we gather
from the past. Thus narrowing the uncertainly gap with induction.

However, information by itself does not help us bridge the gap between
history mattering and learning from history. From the philosophy of
information we know that information introduces problems with meaning
and truth. (see Wikipedia and Stanford Encyclopaedia on Philosophy of
Information) And meaning and truth lead us to value judgements.

We can now ask ourselves two very relevant questions: What is history
really like? And can we really organise history? In the meantime does
history matter because we made a value judgment that it does or because
we have solid evidence that it does?

Take care



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from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Does history matter?

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