When truth is not the truth

One thing that I witness in my own faculty’s history researchers more often than I would like is what I would call the pathological crutch of relativism.

I just recently gave my first-year history students the task of thinking about the concept of ‘truth’ as it relates to history, and in the answers I could see what this crutch has already done to them. Truth as a word is used by them interchangeably with fact, reality, experience, and belief, depending on the context. And while it is ‘sanctioned’ to speak of people’s personal experiences of the world as their own truths, for me it’s an abomination. Truth is truth, anything else is diluting the word. There is as clear a distinction between ‘past’ and ‘history’ – and somehow this difference is not difficult for historians to acknowledge. However, there is as great a difference between ‘truth’ and ‘experience’, yet as historians use the word ‘truth’ its meaning gets somewhat muddled in the minds of everyone. For something to be deemed true, it should be at least open to experimentation – and nothing in history is. We cannot even be certain that what someone claims in a written source is their honest belief.

I believe the route to the error of the pathological crutch of relativism and the subsequent confusion about the word ‘truth’ follows from the same cognitive paths, as does the adoption of relativism in beginning philosophy students, according to Michael Rooney:

When confronted with reasons to be skeptics, they instead become relativists. That is, when the rational conclusion is to suspend judgment about an issue, all too many people instead conclude that any judgment is as plausible as any other.¹

It is painfully obvious to even beginning historians that the past is something we can never really know the truth of, and as such, the history we write cannot claim to be truthful as those scientific articles of our colleagues from other experimenting fields can.

I myself try to practice humility in my day-to-day life not just in regards to my profession, but everything else as well. It both helps me appreciate everything a bit more, while also giving me a reason to strive forward. Admittedly I do have the help of a healthy amount of natural ambition and confidence to fuel this process, but I am quite sure that anyone would benefit from reminding themselves from time to time of the fact that no matter how knowledgeable or important they feel, there is a mountain of knowledge still for them to learn.

I try to maintain a mental picture of myself as someone who is not mature, so that I can go on maturing.²

I believe historians have a bit of an inferiority complex because of the way our discipline is categorized – standing against and among other sciences. Laymen consider it an academic pursuit requiring a degree of scientific rigour, and historians are expected to bear the burden of evidence and to adhere to the truth to the best of their abilities. Yet we are not dealing with truths, not by a long shot. We are trying to figure out what was true by examining sources from unreliable narrators owing to their flawed perception, flawed reasoning, and conscious agendas. We have to make guesses about the truth based on these accounts, and our guesses can never be verified.

This, I think, leads to the epidemic of sage proclamations of “multiple truths” existing in history. Referencing personal beliefs and experiences of the world as “truths”, and further allowing one’s own interpretation of the sources to be their own valid version of “truth” makes it all seem more credible and nice regarding one’s sensibilities of whether or not what we do has any sense in it.

The problem is that beliefs, no matter how fervent, are not ‘truths’ in the sense that the word is most commonly understood. There is a reason why the word ‘belief’ exists, and it irks me a bit to see beginning history students confusing themselves by attempting to understand the relation of truth and history while using the word in multiple different ways.

¹ https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/AdYdLP2sRqPMoe8fb/knowing-about-biases-can-hurt-people?commentId=Z9LacBsgsH7cPAnhu

² https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/rM7hcz67N7WtwGGjq/against-maturity

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