Critique of Historical Relativism.


Philosopher and historical realist William Lane Craig.

 There are two basic objections that we have looked at. One being a lack of neutrality (which produces subjectivism), and the other that of a lack of direct access to the past (which produces anti-realism). Philosopher William Lane Craig is most informative here. For instance, the historical relativist has argued that historians find themselves at a disadvantage to, say, the scientist because of the scientist’s greater accessibility to his objects of study. Craig explains that this is not entirely true for “it is naïve to think that the scientist always has direct access to his objects of study. Not only is the scientist largely dependent on the reports of others’ research (which, interestingly, constitute for him historical documents) for his own work, but furthermore, the objects of the scientist’s research are often only indirectly accessible, especially in the highly theoretical fields like physics. Such theoretical entities as black holes, quarks, and neutrinos are postulated as the best explanations for the observable data, but they themselves cannot be directly observed” (1).

It is also worth noting that while the historian does not have direct access to the past, there is a “residue” of the past that exists for him to study. In other words, things that have really existed are directly accessible to him. The historian is not simply dependent on the reports of earlier historians, especially since archaeological data provides direct access to the objects of the historian’s investigation. The widely known historian R. G. Collingwood thus explains that “scissors and paste [is] not the only foundation of historical method. Archaeology has provided a wonderfully sensitive method for answering questions to which not only do literary sources give no direct answer but which cannot be answered even by the most ingenious interpretation of them” (2).

If we consider this then it would seem that the historian, like the scientist, often has direct access to the things he is investigating. However, it remains that archaeology is only one of the means to secure such evidence. Craig goes on to draw an analogy between the science of geology and history, saying that “The major difference between history and geology is the human factor, not the accessibility of the data. Whereas the subject matter of the geologist is the earth’s history, the subject matter of the historian is human history. Basically their task is the same” (3). Thus a historian’s work is the reconstruction in thought of a particular historical event whereas the geologist’s is the reconstruction in thought of a particular geological epoch at a particular place. Craig concludes:

“If this is the case, then the relativists’ argument based on the inaccessibility of the past loses all its punch. For the subject matter of the geologist is every bit as indirect as that of the historian, and yet geology is part of science, which has traditionally been the model of objectivity to the relativist. Since lack of direct access cannot preclude geological knowledge, neither can it preclude historical knowledge” (4).


1. Craig, W. 2008. Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics (3rd edition). p. 484 (Scribd ebook format).

2. Collingwood, G. 1939. An Autobiography. p. 135.

3. Craig, W. 2008. Ibid. p. 486.

4.Craig, W. 2008. Ibid. p. 486.

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