We previously looked at a first objection that some have made to the historical method. There is a second objection from historical relativists that we cannot reconstruct the past objectively because we are not neutral observers. We are, says the relativist, the products of our time, place, culture, language, and so forth. The historian cannot “stand back” and describe what has happened from a neutral perspective because the historian, too, is caught up in the historical flow of events.
The prominent historian Henri Pirenne (1862-1935) explained that “Historical syntheses depend to a very large degree not only upon the personality of their authors, but upon all the social, religious, or national environments which surround them. It follows, therefore, that each historian will establish between the facts relationships determined by the convictions, the movements, and the prejudices that have molded his own point of view” (1).
Each new generation, argues the relativist, must rewrite history in its own way. For example, the history written today will be judged inferior and obsolete by the historians of the next generation. But the next generation and the work they produce will also be shaped by their culture and so forth. Philosopher Karl Popper explains that “There can be no history of the past as it actually did happen; there can only be historical interpretations; and none of them final; and every generation has a right to frame its own” (2).
Therefore, history can never be objectively written. Historical realist and philosopher William Craig writes that “The historian always looks at the past through the colored glasses of the present, as determined by his society and environment” (3).
1. Pirenne, H. “What Are Historians Trying to Do?” in Philosophy of History. p. 97.
2. Popper, K. “Has History Any Meaning?” in Philosophy of History. p. 303.
3. Craig, W. 2008. Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics (3rd edition). p. 476 (Scribd ebook format).