[Reading time: approx 20 mins.]
I was once a postmodernist.
I once believed that there was no such thing as truth, no such thing as certainty – no certain knowledge in fact.
I believed in those days that the enemy, in general and in my discipline of history, was the inclination to continue relying – childlike – on facts that appeared to exist on their own complete with meaning, out there in the world.
Now I am pretty sure I was wrong. Now I am embarrassed by the articles I wrote or to which I contributed during that time and for the simplicity of the arguments I used to run with students.
I wish I could gather them back together again – all the many students I taught over the years. I would apologise for having being so confident as to think that the story of knowledge could be understood simplistically as just interpretation versus facts. I would tell them that yes, of course all human knowledge has to be made – selected -by someone and in that sense it is certainly interpretation. That bit is easy, but it doesn’t mean we should take ‘facts’ as being a fixed given – just there – to be rubbished, as we did in those heady days when we happily junked knowledge itself.
I would emphasise that now, now that millions of ordinary people in the world are so much better educated than before, now they can easily communicate electronically with each other and now that when it is possible for ordinary people to free themselves from age old prejudice and with a bit of effort from propaganda and the political misuse of knowledge, That it is more than ever before crucial that we do not throw the baby of knowledge out with the bathwater of an attempt to modernise historical practice.
It is possible to have knowledge from uncertainty, knowledge from scepticism…knowledge out of nothing. And it is possible to speak of truth without apologetically waving double fingered scare quotes in the air… once of course that we have defined truth.
In this book blog I try to put things right, at least in my own discipline of history.
To do this, I attempt to provide a new answer to an old problem …What do we think we are doing when we make historical knowledge? How is it possible to know a past that has gone from us forever?
After all, we can use as many primary sources as we like, but we can never get back into the past to check that our interpretations of them are correct. Everything we do as historians is carried out in the present, with our present-day thinking, our particular attitudes and with our available knowledge. The idea of historical accuracy cannot refer to ‘what happened’ in the past in any real or substantial sense, for we have no means of knowing for certain what that was. It has to mean something else. This book blog will discuss what that ‘something else’ might be.
Modernising history – the challenge by postmodernists
At various times and in various places, people have provided different answers to this central question of history. In recent years many historians have taken the view that modern conditions of mass knowledge-making suggest that a re-examination of old assumptions is very much needed. Indeed, at the time of writing, the scourge of so called ‘fake news’ is focusing the minds of many – how, that is, questions about the extent to which we can rely on accounts of the past, and indeed how the present too, can be relied on.
The problem is that the last major attempt to do this, by postmodernists, has not been an unqualified success. This book blog starts from how that postmodern challenge, how it came about, for me at least…and how it went badly wrong. I then recount how I stumbled about trying to find another way of understanding interpretation, ultimately one that took me back thousand years or so and, to my astonishment, away from western culture, into India … in a sense with Alexander’s invading army.
The critique of traditional history by postmodernists has lessened somewhat in recent years, and some might conclude that it has ended – perhaps failed. After all, the practice of history continues much as it did before. Making sense of the past has not come to an end as some postmodern historians suggested it might. Nothing – at least nothing on the surface – seems to have changed.
Real divisions in the discipline
Whatever the views of traditionalists or of modernisers, they all still seem to make sense of the past in much the same ways. But the challenge does still lie on the table. There has been no general acceptance of what we might take the nature of historical knowledge to be – of where we stand on the central question of the debate about whether historical knowledge is found in the past or made in the present. An uneasy pause is perhaps all we have. And that is not good for the discipline, or indeed for any discipline.
The point about an academic ‘discipline’ arguably, is that it is concerned with a particular area of study approached rationally and, despite having occasional methodological debates, is carried on by a group of people who share in a more or less systematic manner basic ideas about that area of interest.
The situation that we have in history is not like that. It is that some historians think reliable historical knowledge simply cannot result from traditional practices, that history is a non-subject, merely a branch of fiction. That’s a long way from the traditional view that sees historical practices as being able to provide fairly reliable explanations of the past…or even by some claims, to find out what actually happened. It is not difficult to see how such a controversy can be a problem and perhaps even be corrosive of the whole historical enterprise. Moreover, as will be seen, these differences in the discipline have sometimes been expressed in a … well, less than friendly manner, to say the least. And that definitely is not a good example to new students of how academic discussion should be conducted.
What seems to be needed is a fresh understanding of history. And since history cannot be separated from knowledge in general, then a rethink of aspects of that too, seems necessary.
To be specific, what is needed is a closing of the gap between an awareness of thorough-going interpretation and that of reliable truth. To put it another way, what we need is knowledge from the deep uncertainty that we see if we start to think at all seriously about it, rather than knowledge versus uncertainty.
Actually you might have thought initially, that the title of this blog contains an error – a typo – in that perhaps I really intend to talk about knowledge and uncertainty in the sense that one is distinct from the other. That is not so. The title is correct…of course. This project is about establishing that knowledge actually emanates from deep uncertainty, from the kind often described as philosophical scepticism or, to use a more technical term, aporia. My view is that this is not odd, unusual or in any way quirky; our world would be unrecognisably different, if that were not so.
Whatever it is called, and there have been different ways of speaking about the relationship between knowledge and uncertainty over the past 2000 or so years, my purpose in writing this blog is to argue that without a basis of deep sceptical uncertainty, there can be no knowledge – knowledge of history or of anything else. To be absolutely clear, I am arguing that uncertainty is not opposed to knowledge, or corrosive of it as the postmodernists have argued; it is integral to it. It will be seen that there is a great deal riding on this difference from Postmodernism.
The point of the blog
The criticism of traditional historiography by the postmoderns has been useful, if only to the extent that it has jolted the thinking of traditional historians about the nature of their discipline. This is important because the postmodernists do seem to have put their finger on a weakness in traditional historiography. As will be discussed later, there is much evidence to support the criticism made for example by Prof Keith Jenkins that historians have shown a marked reluctance to explore epistemological bases of their disciplinary practices (Jenkins: 1991:2). Methodological practices in history do sometimes seem, as Jenkins has often pointed out, to have parted company somewhat, from other subjects in the arts and humanities.
To give credit where it is due, the argument that runs through this blog would not have been possible without having been set off and developed in proximity to the ideas of the postmodern challenge. Had it not been for the argued position of a group of postmodern historians – a position that as I have admitted, I once shared – I would still be thinking in terms of ‘knowledge versus uncertainty’ as I mentioned above. In this sense I am grateful to my postmodern former colleagues who I irritated so much, years ago, when my thinking began to diverge from the postmodern position we once shared and espoused.
I’ll be suggesting it is the case that a solution to the problem of knowledge raised by the postmodernists has been available within the literature of the Western Tradition, discernable in its Canon), for around two thousand years, but that it has long been forgotten. We are so used to our current approach to knowledge that we have come to assume that it is just the way the world is. We have stopped seeing it as a method – an empirical one – made by humans and moreover one that has been seen as a solution to a problem. Or, to put it slightly differently, the solution has been hidden in plain sight, having lain before us for generations, just not recognised as being a solution.
In short, what I’ll be suggesting is that a simpler and more practical response to these issues – simpler that is, than the apocalyptic solution of the postmoderns – is already available to us from existing scholarship. It is a response that transcends our political spectrum in the sense that it can be used by those on the left as easily as those on the Right. It is not oppositional to a sense of religion. broadly understood, and it doesn’t require us to give up on history or rational knowledge-making or indeed anything else. It requires only an enhanced sense of critical self awareness or, to use a term that we shall be discussing more fully later, self-reflexivity. It sound as though I am not suggesting much of a change, but actually…this is an attitude that can bring real every-day as well as academic benefits to those who embrace it. It represents more than the Postmodern aim of being ‘in control of one’s own discourse’ although it encompasses that admirable intention; I shall be suggesting that it could represent a step change – a step up – in the quality of historical and generic thought.
The solution lies outside the discipline of history
To show this, the blog will avoid the temptation of spending too much time going over yet again, a blow by blow account of the exchanges between postmoderns and traditionalists. Nothing is to be gained there and there are plenty of these readily available to readers. Instead, the blog posts will focus on trying to establish a fresh understanding of history-making. To achieve this it will step outside the confines of the discipline, to explore the historical bases of our commonly held (and perhaps not so commonly held) ideas about the nature of knowledge. It will then apply such understanding to improving how we might make history in our modern world – how we might do it, study it and teach it.
A twist to the tale – a bonus
In addition, since all ideas exist within experienced realities, the focus of the blog will explore ways of life that might have given rise to, or which have accompanied, various approaches to knowledge. I think this is important. I believe that there are social and psychological benefits available to us associated with the kind of approach to knowledge that I shall be arguing is appropriate for our modern online world. It came as a shock to me when I realised the possible connection I’ll be suggesting, and I think you may be in for something of a surprise too, since this is rarely ever discussed.
Not wishing to ‘give the whole game away’ so early in the discussion, we shall nevertheless see that our ordinary everyday, empirical way (to use the jargon again) in which we rely on our senses to understand the world, carries echoes historically of Buddhist thought and has already brought to the western world some important attributes from that approach to knowledge. It can do more now. It is possible to see some surprising – well they were to me anyhow – similarities with the approach to thinking nowadays known as mindfulness. That claim may seem a touch far fetched at this initial stage, but later on in the project when I have made the case for its significance for history-making, it will be something I hope readers will be interested to discuss.
Actually this is not really a blog
It must be apparent by now that this is not a blog that rolls along from one point to another, following current events or the weekly interests of the writer. Rather it is formed like a book, but written in episodes – posts.
I am writing this Knowledge from uncertainty using blog form so that each section of it is open to comment, debate, suggestions and feedback, should readers wish to participate in this way. The existence of blogs nowadays seems too good an opportunity to miss. To be able to explore the possibilities for producing written work that has the benefit of collaboration built into it – from other history teachers, students, history lovers and anyone interested in ideas – is a very exciting prospect.
The solutions I am suggesting here to the challenges that historians have been facing, result from many years of research, from my PhD study and from around 35 years of teaching at pre-degree and undergraduate level. Over the years my subjects have included history, arts, philosophy and critical thinking. And my ideas have been refined more recently by around 18 years of leading a largely post-graduate philosophy discussion group, within which many of these issues have been considered…and argued over.
I hope you find the content useful and I am hoping it will provide some interesting reader discussion in due course when there’s some content for readers to consider.
The complexity level of the blog posts is pitched towards first and second level undergraduates. I’ll include a glossary shortly in the resources section for readers unfamiliar with any of the technical expressions. Actually I will try to keep technicalities to a minimum – too much of the material in this area is in my view unnecessarily complicated. References will relate in the normal way to the bibliography (also in the resources).
To enable readers to locate works that appear to be in print or in other ways available online, I am adding appropriate (in some cases affiliate) links, If you encounter any technical problems with this site, or any difficulties at all, or you’d like to discuss further any of the points raised, do please get in touch via the contact forms, the discussion board (available from the ‘Contact us’ menu on the first page) or by email. Thanks.
Dr Pete Brickley February 2018, North Tawton Devon UK. [email protected]
[2631 words. Latest edit: 21 November 2018]