Historians and Emotions

In this essay series, I will write down my own thoughts about Eliezer Yudkowsky’s essays on the Rationality: Ai to Zombies –series from the point of view of a historian. My reason for writing these is primarily to organize my own thoughts regarding the use of rationality as a mental tool in my own profession, and as such, I do not presume to even attempt to appeal to a very wide audience. However, if you are reading this disclaimer and find my essays insightful or entertaining, more the power to you and I implore you to go and read the original essays, if you have not already.


“That which can be destroyed by truth should be.”

– P.C. Hodgell


In his essay Feeling Rational, Yudkowsky touches on the perceived dichotomy of rationality versus emotions, and concludes that they are not opposites of one another nor should they be perceived of as separate but similar entities. Emotions can rise from both factual reality as well as from our biased perceptions of it, and their role is to guide our actions. Based on how true our map (model of reality) is to the actual territory (reality), the more warranted our emotions become.

…Anyway, I was inspired to take a completely different perspective on emotions and as such, I return to the analogy of drawing pictures of gardens based on views through smudged windows.

I propose that it is important for historians especially to be mindful of our emotions, as far as scientists and scholars are concerned. This is not because emotions have no place in science, but because we cannot escape our emotions at any stage of the research process. Unlike in sciences where you can go out and roam the garden to empirically test how accurate your map is, we will only ever have the view through the distorted window. An engineer will likely be promptly slapped in the face by reality if disastrously inaccurate interpretations make their way into his or her map. Meanwhile, if a historian makes an outrageous mistake, the worst scenario is that everyone will have the wrong idea and plan actions that are not based on reality – but then again humans are quite good at ignoring even the most accurate estimates when planning for future actions.

What drives historians to draw pictures of gardens (write history) is both our curiosity at what lies behind the windows and how we feel about the limited view presented to us. The amount of these garden views (historical contexts) to choose from is abundant, and the views through the windows (sources) are so imperfect that there are two separate points where historians should be particularly mindful of their emotions and bias.

First, when deciding on the view, we are usually completely at the mercy of our own biased interests. Even though it is not a crime to study what interests you, it is good to keep in mind that everyone either chooses the window that most interests them, happens to have most novelty value, or is easiest for them to reach from their current position. This leaves many views untouched, and consequently our knowledge of gardens at large (history) is skewed.

Secondly, when we are drawing the view and filling in the blanks, what we fill in is hopefully based on our best guesses of what would fit in the picture. We base our guess either on our prior knowledge of similar garden views we have gazed at ourselves, or on pictures that we have seen by colleagues. However, we are only human, and we may want to fill in the blanks with something that would make people notice us more, or by something that would make us feel smart. We can imagine a garden gnome where there is no proof of one and the probability is not high enough for it to be our best guess. Likewise, after looking at many similar views we may start seeing patterns. Patterns are especially exciting if you discover them yourself, and after becoming attached to a particular pattern you may start want to draw it in all of your pictures to make you feel even smarter and make others notice you.

Being mindful of our own emotions when writing history is behind the paradigm shift away from trying to write history from an ‘objective’ realist point of view, and towards a more post-modernist atmosphere, where the biases of individual historians are overtly emphasized. My own issue with this concerns the possibility of historians beginning to prioritize the maps over the territory. Since there are no tangible consequences of drawing in a gnome in your picture even though you cannot be entirely sure if it is there based on the view, the only actual deterrent to embellishing our pictures is the underlying reverence towards wanting to stay true to the actual garden. In this atmosphere of reverence, we do our best as a medium in transferring that knowledge to paper, giving our best guesses when they are required to fill in the blanks. Even if a gnome would look good in a picture compared to our best guess – that the red blotch behind the smudged window is probably just another poppy – we are deterred by the possibility that we might lose face if a colleague were to look through the same window and conclude that our interpretation is likely rubbish.

It is right that we would stay reverent to the territory rather than the maps, because all that can be destroyed by the truth should be, and in the end the territory is the only thing we have to anchor our maps. Interpretations can take any which turn based on the emotions of the historian, but we cannot actually go into the garden and twist it into our own picture.

As such, we should acknowledge that it is unavoidable that there will always be bias in our interpretations of history, rather than throwing our hands in the air and concluding that because we cannot get rid of the bias, we might as well put it on a pedestal.


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