From brownh Sat Dec 14 15:48:06 2002
Date: Sat, 14 Dec 2002 15:48:00 -0500
From: Haines Brown <>
Subject: Relativism in historiography (was: Exciting book by Keith Windschuttle)

Relativism in historiography

By Haines Brown, 14 December 2002

The discussion of second-hand views is always unwise, and I probably should not have ventured to do so. An honorable way out might be to consider the reason for my entering those risky waters in the first place and on that basis construct a proposition to stand on its own feet and so properly fall subject to criticism. That proposition and its criticism hopefully relates to some central issues in the original exchange.

In that exchange, it seems that the core of the matter was the perceived threat of relativism to two quite different and largely contradictory intellectual traditions. Nevertheless, I think I see a way to pull these traditions together, for what they share is their quest for certainty, and modern social science has appeared to some as a threat to those certainties. So on this basis, let me try to erect a proposition.

I will approach it first by suggesting a quest for certainty lay at the core of traditional European historiography. I’ll then suggest that the infusion of social science into 20th century historiography did not at all represent a threat to that quest, although the quest itself seems problematic.

Is relativism the bÍte noire of western historiography?

The quest for certainty in bourgeois historiography

Some might argue that a quest for certainty is part of human nature in that it offers a necessary foundation upon which to build our conception of things and it represents a criterion of truth without which constructive dialog would be impossible. Indeed, as we explore the world of thought in quite different times and places, we nearly always encounter in some form a quest for certainty.

And, yet, is that quest in fact universal and part of human nature? I doubt it. The real issue is our need to make wise decisions, and perhaps that is universal. The criticism of optimal decision theory is not its presumption that people make choices in relation to their likely consequences, but its definition of the context in which choices are made. I suspect it would be impossible to prove that people who base their choices on a priori certainties rather than optimal outcomes are in any way more successful or more honorable.

Secondly, I believe it could be argued that a quest for certainty has always been closely associated with ruling classes. The great mass of mankind, which is certainly as intelligent as those ruling classes, and faces in life its own set of daunting challenges, does not seem to be as taken by this perhaps quixotic ambition to grasp absolute certainty. Perhaps for most people, the social context and the experience of daily life are a sufficient ground for action and constructive thought.

I don’t intend to elaborate this point beyond its implication that even the quest for certainty is socially conditioned. In such terms it is easy to represent both modern western historiography (itself an expression of its partiality, incidentally) and the old pre-capitalist quest for certainty. They just approach certainty from positions that may be opposite in philosophical and ideological terms, but arguably share common presuppositions.

In his Trahison des clercs (1927), Julien Benda regrets the decline of the certainty he associates with “Hellenism” (For Benda, see I take his point to be a certainty that links what is immediate and tangible to the Absolute, to the Idea, the transcendental.

I venture to draw this inference because it seems quite rational. It was, however, in the eyes of Europe's bourgeois revolutionaries of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, highly pernicious (Helvetius, Holbach, etc.) The ability of social science to reveal the unmistakably ideological character of idealism is surely one reason for that hostility to persist.

But I don’t want to exaggerate. There are surely metaphysical threads in bourgeois thought, and there is readily seen in today's troubled world a growing quest for metaphysical certainty in the form of religious fundamentalism. Nevertheless, precapitalist (feudal) ideology in Europe generally (though perhaps not before the eleventh century) assumed the existence of a level of reality that is metaphysical in the sense of being not contingent, that is accessible through reason or revelation, and that gave meaning to the human condition.

It naturally tended to be ideological, for it served to insulate truth from intrusion of awkward facts, and it supported an unchallengeable status quo. It is often pointed out that ruling class ideology tends to be idealist for this reason.

Nevertheless, many bourgeois revolutionaries did not entirely reject metaphysics, and many adhered to a vague deism, But the supernatural and metaphysics were demoted in importance, and henceforth, preference was instead given to what was contingent and tangible. A classic example is Isaac Newton. His atomistic reductionism by no means required him to cast aside metaphysics, for his atoms had a mystical innate “sympathy” that drew them toward or repelled them from other atoms.

Nevertheless, it is safe to say that on the whole, the bourgeois revolutionaries tried to bring the argument down to earth, to base action upon specific institutions in need of deconstruction and construction, to question the religiously based legitimacy of monarchy. And, of course, well before the rise of capitalism, the bourgeoisie dedicated themselves to effective action in this world, to which the other world must adapt.

The atomism then in fashion and radical empiricism joined in an assumption that certainty could be gained through an agenda of radical reductionism combined with sensationism. The laboratory model in the late nineteenth century arguably represents the apogee of this trend.

The laboratory model separated a portion of reality from its natural context, so that the scientist might observe the behavior of artificially isolated phenomena. Once removed from the confusion of unpredictable external influences (accidentals), essential qualities were what remained. While not an atomism, the laboratory was nevertheless equally a reduction of a part from the whole. It also made a fetish of instrumental (objective) observation of the greatest possible accuracy in order to separate the observer as well from the object under study.

The results of this exercise might be interesting, but they were highly unrealistic. This is because a closed system must have positive entropy, and therefore the behavior of what lies within the laboratory is necessarily predictable. That is, the general law is more an artifact of the laboratory than reflective of the essence of things. While in practice laboratory isolation can involved energy dissipation needed to support emergent processes, that is excluded from the laboratory model employed as ideology.

The actual laboratory sought isolation and therefore allows the dissipation of energy needed to support emergent systems, but the actual practice had little bearing on the ideological significance of the laboratory.

The laboratory has limited relevance to what lies without its walls. Out there, nearly half of all processes are emergent (are “negentropic”) and therefore only weakly predictable. The essence of one thing embraces everything else. Further, we now know that any observation must in principle change the object under study, not just by bringing in observational hypotheses, but to transform that object into something that is static and therefore measurable.

I raised the issue of the laboratory to illustrate a point: this ideal of bourgeois certainty in fact offers information about the world that is necessarily biased and one-sided. In the twentieth century, relativity and quantum mechanics drove the nail into the coffin of the quest for certainty. In particular, modern natural science shows that uncertainty is a fundamental feature of the world in which we live.

I approach this conclusion in terms of the physical sciences because they are central to bourgeois and European ideology. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the greatest certainty was to be found in the truth discovered through the laboratories of natural science. It is therefore indeed curious, that the most accurate of all the sciences, the one with the greatest success in precise prediction, is quantum mechanics, a world of uncertainty, where reality is merely a probability distribution of possible states. If that is true in physics, then it must be possible in all areas of human though (except, of course, religion).

The social sciences perpetrate the old quest for certainty

Just as social advance in the form of the bourgeois revolution, challenged the old metaphysically-based certainties, the advance of science itself eventually contradicted its own reductionist and sensationalist foundations. In a sense, it introduced a “relativism” that suggested the truth of things is not contained entirely within them, but is also a function of the other things to which it is causally related; truth is spread out to include the relations of things.

It is important to note that while truth therefore becomes relative, its by no means becomes empty or fictitious or in any way insensitive to empirical observation. Quite the opposite. It only says that truth depends on observing the whole as well as its parts. Truth, being divorced from the distortion of reductionism, acquires a far richer content than before. What is lost is a facile truth, a one-sided truth, an unequivocal certainty, a religious certainty. In short, it threatens the ideological utility of positivism.

What the mounting influence of the social sciences did in European historiography, thanks initially to the Annales School, was to represent historical truth as conditioned by circumstances outside the realm of narrow political history. It might appear that metaphysical certainty and the certainties of the scientific method (Wie es eigentlich gewesen) were under attack by the new historiography, but we need to understand that was not the case. Only to the extent these old certainties were a foundation of one's own sense of importance (where the historian served as the chief priest of the emergent 19th century bourgeois governments and constructed the nationalism needed by imperial armies), the new relativism was undoubtedly a threat.

But is this conclusion inevitable? Most people in our world, most of the time, enjoy a self esteem that is not so closely associated with the state. Their need for truth does not rely on an appeal to some external Absolute or internal reductionism. So why should historiography not embrace science and with it the new world of complexity and ambiguity? The historian's stories could still be told; the truth of the past still brought to light. I fear historiographic virtue was wedded to the old assumptions only because of their ideological utility.

I think here of Marc Bloch, who certainly appears an ambivalent figure in this context. On one hand, he was a master of the scientific method in historiography, able to observe a wide range of data with a fresh eye and draw from it suggestive inferences. An expression of this commitment to traditional methods is his book, The Historian's Craft.

But at the same time he was a principal figure in the early Annales School. He embraced the whole of society in his gaze rather than limit himself to the rarefied laboratory atmosphere known as political history. His brilliant Feudal Society drew upon all dimensions of life for a grand synthesis of Medieval Europe that remains a masterpiece.

The Annales School increased the scope of historiography to the point it became almost unmanageable for an individual, and Block might seem to have reconciled the certainty that arises from methodological reductionism with its totalizing purview, the very opposite of reductionism. Before considering the contradiction here, we must appreciate that his broadened scope was a struggle for honesty and an effort to liberate historiography from the stultifying constraints of a view necessarily wedded to the antics of the heads of state.

And yet, Bloch's endeavor was essentially contradictory. In The Historian's Craft, for example, he touches upon the difficulty of reconciling methodological certainty with an embrace of the whole of life. What can pull these mountains of excruciating detail about quite disparate aspects of life into an intelligible whole? His answer, I’m sorry to say, appears almost a retreat. What brings these facts together into a meaningful whole he naturally cannot find embedded in the facts themselves as long as they are the result of a reductionist methodology. His facts are based on an observation of what is isolated, not connected to what lies beyond, lest they acquire a degree of uncertainty. No, what makes the whole intelligible for Bloch cannot be something intrinsic to the object of study, but something outside it, what he called the “commonality of human nature.” It is the (ideological) uniformity shared by the observers of history that lends coherence to the incoherent objects of their study.

The whole is a product of our imagination. The whole of society is subject to study and development because our conceptions represent the interface between a human nature, which can only be uniform because it might embody a shared ideology, and the empirical specifics. So Bloch reaches back to a metaphysics, to superstition, indeed to religion, to lend a a degree of certainty about the whole of European feudal society that he could not discover in its parts.

It seems, although it pains me to say this about an historian for whom I have great fondness, that Bloch ultimately failed to salvage the historiographic enterprise. The point is, however, that someone who is very much a part of our modern world of social science, who had to endure the cruelties of our age in ways that few of us will ever have to face, was quite unable to “betray” the traditional sources of certainty. He can’t be faulted for his application of scientific methodology in his extraction of facts, and he also gained certainty from his metaphysical presupposition of a common human nature, which we know could only arise from a shared ideology.

Benda probably knew of Bloch, and I suspect would include him among his treasonous clerks (especially since Bloch was Jewish and therefore necessarily the enemy of the highest expressions of Western culture), but Bloch in fact defended the traditional order with remarkable skill.

I suspect that modern historians of the twentieth century have on the whole not at all betrayed the old certainties. It can be argued, although I won’t go into it at this point, that laboratory reductionism implies a metaphysics, and that the imposition of metaphysics to arrive at a meaning of a whole represents a kind of reductionism. Rather, it seems that the feeling of betrayal does not arise from any threat to traditional historiographic certitude (at least until post-modernism) in either its reductionist or its metaphysical foundations, but more from what is perceived to be challenges to ideological certainties.

So my proposition is that the “betrayal of the clerics” does not refer to a betrayal of the certainties associated with the scientific method nor the certainties associated with certain metaphysical presuppositions, but rather a betrayal of bourgeois ideology by those who bring into their work the fruits of scientific advance that contradicted the positivist foundations of bourgeois ideology.

If my proposition stands up at all, I suspect it leaves behind a very interesting question. Is the contradiction between the old scientific method of study and the drive for comprehensive totality in the object of study an inescapable contradiction? Does it spell the demise of modern (Western) historiography?

I don’t think so, but to explore this issue would take me beyond my theme. However, I don’t like to leave things on a negative note, and so I recommend a consideration of modern systems theory as a quite respectable effort to reconcile the whole with its parts. Put in general terms, it has shown, quite successfully, that one can make true statements about a whole that do not reduce to the sum of statements about its parts. Systems theory manages to avoid expressive totalization on one hand and reductionism on the other by looking at how systems behave, rather than in terms of static facts.

Another perspective is offered by quantum mechanics and thermodynamics, for they suggest that there is no fundamental contradiction between freedom and determinism, a problem which also arose out of the bourgeois problematic. The probabilistic language that historians invariably use is not merely an expression of their wise caution or a literary artifice, but reflects an objective truth about an object of investigation that is inherently ambivalent.

My own view is that if we were to view things as processes, it would force us to join together our knowledge of the particular fact and our knowledge of the social and natural whole, for a process can’t be separated from the whole of which it is a part. In thermodynamic terms, the essence of a process necessarily embraces the cosmos. A universality does not have to be metaphysical, but can remain empirical if all things are viewed as processes, and that engaging the whole in our conception of its parts offers a basis for truth that is no longer one sided or ideological.

These newer approaches don’t by any means contradict the importance of a reasoned handling of the evidence garnered through keen observation and the employment of the most advanced critical methods. By restoring a relation of the whole to the part, the newer approaches find ample basis for judgement. Although it might depend on the whole and therefore be “relativist,” situational ethics does not obviate moral responsibility, but refines it. It does not betray a quest for truth, but enhances it by a embracing a more realistic notion of the world. Our behavior and search for truth must now take far more into consideration than ever before. The greater awareness of world events brought by modern media may at times seem daunting, but it only broadens our moral judgement and our responsibility for action. Life rarely offers certainties, but that does not prevent our striving to act morally and to search for truth.

Haines Brown