It is quite apparent that events of the past no longer exist or happen today. Events do, however, have certain lingering influences from historical instances (from wars, for example). But for the most part events of the past have ceased; they no longer exist and neither can they be directly observed. This asks a good question, namely, how “can one avoid skepticism about the past?” Historian Patrick Gardiner captures this, asking: “In what sense can I be said to know an event which is in principle unobservable, having vanished behind the mysterious frontier which divides the present from the past? And how can we be sure that anything really happened in the past at all, that the whole story is not an elaborate fabrication, as untrustworthy as a dream or a work of fiction?” (1) Historical realist and prominent philosopher William Lane Craig explains that “Since past events and things are forever gone, the historian has no way to check if his reconstructions correspond to reality, that is to say, are true. Historical realism and historical truth are otiose for the historian and should therefore be ignored” (2).
The historical relativist may bring science into the equation in order to argue his point. He might point out that the scientist has the objects of his research right in front of him and therefore is free to experiment repeatedly in order to test his hypotheses. However, the historian’s objects of research no longer exist and therefore are not subject to either observation or experimentation. The relativist thus argues that historical knowledge fails to measure up to the standards of objectivity set by scientific knowledge.
The lack of direct access to the past, argues the relativist, has two important implications. First, it affects how one views historical facts. According to the relativist Carl Becker it means that historical facts are only in the mind. This is because the event itself is gone and all we have to go on is the historian’s statements about the event. To the relativist it is those statements that constitute historical facts, however, if everyone forgot about the event it would no longer be a historical fact. Craig explains that according to the relativist “historical events really only exist in your mind, not in the past” (3). Two sub-implications follow from this line of thought.
The first is that historians must put their own meaning on the facts. Because the event itself is gone and the facts are only in the historian’s mind Becker argues that “even if you could present all the facts, the miserable things wouldn’t say anything, would say nothing at all” (4). The second sub-implication is that our interpretation of history is largely a result of the historian’s own biases, personality, interest, and so forth. Hayden White, a historian and literary critic, explains that “no historical event is intrinsically tragic… For in history what is tragic from one perspective is comic from another…The important point is that most historical sequences can be emplotted in a number of different ways, so as to provide different interpretations of those events and to endow them with different meanings” (5). Craig explains that “Because the historian determines the meaning of the facts himself, the history he writes will be just a reflection of himself” (6).
The other, second, implication of the historian’s not having direct access to the past is that there seems to be no way to test the truth of historical facts. A scientist, for example, has the method of experimentation to test his hypotheses whereas the historian cannot do that because the events are gone. So how can the historian test his hypotheses? As philosopher Patrick Gardiner explains that “We cannot reproduce what we believe to have been the conditions that determined the collapse of the Roman Empire and then watch for the consequences, in the fashion in which we can combine certain chemicals and then see whether the result agrees or disagrees with a prediction of the result of such a combination” (7). This, the relativist argues, is an unsolved problem of how to test for truth in history. On the extreme we have Jenkins’ argument that “history now appears to be just one more foundationless, positioned expression in a world of foundationless, positioned expressions” (8). This is to essentially say that a realist understanding of history is no longer tenable.
1. Gardiner, P. 1961. The Nature of Historical Explanation. p. 35.
2. Craig, W. 2008. Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics (3rd edition). p. 471 (Scribd ebook format)
3. Craig, W. 2008. Ibid. p. 473.
4. Becker, C. 1959. “What Are Historical Facts?” in The Philosophy of History in Our Time. p. 130-131.
5. White, H. 1966. “Burden of History” in History and Theory. p. 84-85.
6. Craig, W. 2008. Ibid. p. 475.
7. Gardiner, P. 1952. Historical Explanation. p. 35.
8. Richard Jenkins quoted in by Robert Burns in Historiography: Culture (2006). p. 472.