Can History Tell the Truth?

“I know it is the fashion to say,” George Orwell once wrote, “that most of recorded history is lies anyway. I am willing to believe that history is for the most part inaccurate and biased, but what is peculiar to our own age is the abandonment of the idea that history could be truthfully written.”

Charles Frankel in The Case For the Modern Man

An exciting Japanese movie of a few years ago, Rashomon, offers a peculiarly apt illustration of (Karl) Mannheim’s central thesis (that all social thinking is inevitably determined by unconscious assumptions and unacknowledged commitments – that is, everyone views events through a limited point of view.) The movie is in the form of a story told by a woodsman, who is in despair at what he has seen and heard, and has lost all of his faith in man. He reports that a Japanese lady and her husband have been set upon in the woods by a highwayman. The lady has been raped, the husband killed. And then he repeats in turn the accounts he has overheard at the police station, where the highway man, the lady, and the dead husband, speaking through a medium, have had to tell the events that transpired. Each participant tells a different story, each subtly arranges the events in a pattern that will put his own position in the best light. As each of these stories is re-enacted before our eyes, our tension mounts. We are not sure whether what really happened was murder and rape, whether the lady was treacherous or loyal, the husband cowardly or heroic, the highwayman an aggressor or a victim. Each time we move to the next story we hope to get closer to the truth, and each time we are put off. But suddenly we seem to see an opening. For it turns our that the woodsman, who has claimed to be merely repeating the stories he overheard at the police station, has been an eyewitness to the actual scene in the forest. So the woodsman tells his story. But, once more, we hear a story which has something subtly off-center about it. A dagger is unaccounted for. And then it turns out that the woodsman has stolen it. He has not been a neutral bystander; he too is a participant.

This notation that we are all participants in what happens in human history, and that there can therefore be no such thing as objectivity about history, is the central theme, and the central problem, in Mannheim’s philosophy of history. We never see what “really” happens, and in fact it makes no sense even to ask. The affairs of men take place in a hall of mirrors, each with its own angle of distortion; and all we can report is what we see in the mirrors, for there is nothing else to see. All social thinking is inevitably the thinking of men who have a role in events, feelings about them, and a limited perspective upon them. Every belief comes labeled with the date, place, and social pedigree of the man who holders it. And the idea that there is an objective truth about human affairs, independently of who asserts it, is only one element in the special perspective of liberalism.

Frankel continues

There can be no disengaged intelligence seeking a universal truth. Intelligence is inevitably earth-bound, practical and biased. The questions men ask about social affairs are always selected questions that are suggested by some particular point of view and serve some special interest. The answers men accept as satisfactory are always partial answers with an inescapable element of arbitrariness in them. And even the standards of truth that men employ are limited by the social perspectives in which they are framed.

Mannheim’s argument that we cannot objectively observe social affairs is based on two main lines of argument. “The first of these rests on a sharp distinction between the study of nature and the study of human affairs. The second rests on an assumption about the meaning of terms like “partiality” and “bias.” Frankel goes on to look at each of those.

We are putting the cart before the horse when we think that a science of politics must be different from other sciences because political behavior is random and haphazard. It is not because political behavior is random and haphazard that we do not have much objective knowledge about it. It is because we do not have much objective knowledge about it that it is random and haphazard.

Ultimately Frankel comes to doubt Mannheim.

There are obvious differences between the behavior of human beings and the behavior of physical things; but they do not justify setting these two in separate worlds, or suggesting that the ideals of truth and reason we apply to the physical sciences do not apply to the study of human history. The natural sciences after all, have also had social origins and social consequences.

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