What is Historical Realism?
Historical realism is the view that we can really know history, as well as study it. Philosopher William Lane Craig explains that “on the realist view such enterprises really do tell us something about the world we live in, as opposed to historical or science fiction” (1). Or, as a further commentator aptly explains, to be a historical realist “essentially means that I believe that history is a fact, and a fact that we might know, but not necessarily a fact that we can know we know – not something that can be proven as fact. That said, a historical reconstruction doesn’t have to prove itself, but merely be convincing” (2). This is opposed to the historical relativist who argues that there can be no objective standard of historical truth (3). By objective history one means that history exists independently of an individual’s conception, and that it is related to actual and external events as opposed to only thoughts, feelings etc. (4).
Being a historical realist does not deny that in many cases certain historical reconstructions will be undermined. That historians disagree with each other over historical reconstructions “in no way implies that there is no objective past or that in other cases where the evidence is clear we cannot know with confidence what really happened” (5). Historical evidence, to the realist, is important and therefore must be considered. The late philosopher Nowell-Smith points out that “Some results of historical thinking are so well established that it would be madness to doubt them; others have only the status of being a more probable explanation of the evidence than any rival hypothesis” (6). Smith emphasized the importance of evidence because it demands an explanation. For example, if “we took seriously the hypothesis that there never was any such person as George Washington, we should be faced with the problem of accounting for the existence of such a vast body of evidence—not testimony, but evidence, documents of whose existence and nature we are now aware – that it would soon become obvious that the task is impossible. To put it mildly, the hypothesis that there was no such person is in a very weak position vis-a-vis the hypothesis that there was; and that is all that the standard of proof in history requires” (7).
Arguments for Relativism.
There have been numerous arguments proposed to undermine a historical realist view of history. Our goal here will be to examine a few major ones, and subsequently provide a response to them.
Some have contended over the fact of a lack of neutrality. What the historical relativist is arguing is that we cannot reconstruct the past objectively because we are not neutral observers. We are 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” (8).
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” (9). Therefore, history can never be objectively written. Historical realist and philosopher Craig writes that “The historian always looks at the past through the colored glasses of the present, as determined by his society and environment” (10).
Further, a relativist might argue from the problem of direct access to the past. It is quite apparent that events of the past no longer exist. Events do, however, have certain lingering influences from historical instances (from wars, for example). But for the most part events of the past have ceased; they no longer exist and neither can they be directly observed. This asks a very good question, namely, how “can one avoid skepticism about the past?” Historian Patrick Gardiner captures this, asking, “In what sense can I be said to know an event which is in principle unobservable, having vanished behind the mysterious frontier which divides the present from the past? And how can we be sure that anything really happened in the past at all, that the whole story is not an elaborate fabrication, as untrustworthy as a dream or a work of fiction?” (11). Craig similarly explains that “Since past events and things are forever gone, the historian has no way to check if his reconstructions correspond to reality, that is to say, are true. Historical realism and historical truth are otiose for the historian and should therefore be ignored” (12).
The historical relativist may also bring up science in order to bolster his point. He might point out that the scientist has the objects of his research right in front of him and therefore is free to experiment repeatedly in order to test his hypotheses. However, the historian’s objects of research no longer exist and therefore are not subject to either observation or experimentation. The relativist thus argues that historical knowledge fails to measure up to the standards of objectivity set by scientific knowledge.
The lack of direct access to the past has two important implications. First, it affects how one views historical facts. According to the relativist Carl Becker it means that historical facts are only in the mind. This is because the event itself is gone and all we have to go on is the historian’s statements about the event. To the relativist it is those statements that constitute historical facts, however, if everyone forgot about the event it would no longer be a historical fact (13).
Two sub-implications follow from this line of thought. The first is that historians must put their own meaning on the facts. Because the event itself is gone and the facts are only in the historian’s mind Becker argues that “even if you could present all the facts, the miserable things wouldn’t say anything, would say nothing at all” (14). The second sub-implication is that our interpretation of history is largely a result of the historian’s own biases, personality, interest, and so forth. Hayden White, a historian and literary critic, explains that “no historical event is intrinsically tragic… For in history what is tragic from one perspective is comic from another…The important point is that most historical sequences can be emplotted in a number of different ways, so as to provide different interpretations of those events and to endow them with different meanings” (15). Craig explains that “Because the historian determines the meaning of the facts himself, the history he writes will be just a reflection of himself” (16).
The other, second, implication of the historian’s not having direct access to the past is that there seems to be no way to test the truth of historical facts. A scientist, for example, has the method of experimentation to test his hypotheses whereas the historian cannot do that because the events are gone. So how can the historian test his hypotheses? As philosopher Patrick Gardiner explains that “We cannot reproduce what we believe to have been the conditions that determined the collapse of the Roman Empire and then watch for the consequences, in the fashion in which we can combine certain chemicals and then see whether the result agrees or disagrees with a prediction of the result of such a combination” (17). This, the relativist argues, is an unsolved problem of how to test for truth in history. On the extreme we have Jenkins’ argument that “history now appears to be just one more foundationless, positioned expression in a world of foundationless, positioned expressions” (18). This is to essentially say that a realist understanding of history is no longer tenable.
Responding to the Arguments.
There are two basic objections that we have looked at here. One being a lack of neutrality (which produces subjectivism), and the other that of a lack of direct access to the past (which produces anti-realism).
However, in relation to the latter one might beg to differ (19). For instance, the historical relativist has argued that historians find themselves at a disadvantage to, say, the scientist because of the scientist’s greater accessibility to his objects of study. However, this is naive as scientists do not always have direct access to their objects of study. For example, there are things within highly theoretical fields like physics such as black holes, quarks, and neutrinos, all of which have been postulated as the best explanations for observable data that cannot be directly observed. A further point of interest is that scientists are very often dependent on the reports of others’ research which, interestingly, constitute for then historical documents.
Further, though it is true that historians do not have direct access to the past, there is a “residue” of the past that exists for him or her to study. In other words, things that have really existed are directly accessible to him. Thus, though sources of history are vital for reconstructing the past, the historian is not simply dependent on the reports of earlier historians, especially since archaeological data provides direct access to the objects of the historian’s investigation. Given this fact, historian R. G. Collingwood explains that “scissors and paste [is] not the only foundation of historical method. Archaeology has provided a wonderfully sensitive method for answering questions to which not only do literary sources give no direct answer but which cannot be answered even by the most ingenious interpretation of them” (20).
If we consider this then it would seem that the historian, like many scientists, often has direct access to the things he is investigating. However, it remains that archaeology is only one of the means to secure such evidence. Craig goes on to draw an analogy between the science of geology and history, saying that “The major difference between history and geology is the human factor, not the accessibility of the data. Whereas the subject matter of the geologist is the earth’s history, the subject matter of the historian is human history. Basically their task is the same” (21). Thus a historian’s work is the reconstruction in thought of a particular historical event whereas the geologist’s is the reconstruction in thought of a particular geological epoch at a particular place. Craig concludes, “If this is the case, then the relativists’ argument based on the inaccessibility of the past loses all its punch. For the subject matter of the geologist is every bit as indirect as that of the historian, and yet geology is part of science, which has traditionally been the model of objectivity to the relativist. Since lack of direct access cannot preclude geological knowledge, neither can it preclude historical knowledge” (22).
Where it concerns the lack of neutrality the relativist is making the assumption that historians can’t be objective. However, there is no barrier that somehow makes it impossible for the researcher and historian to examine a body of statements, behaviours, and contemporary cultural institutions, and make sense of them (23). Part of the historians arsenal is to try and be as objective as possible when dealing with history. Yes, historians can make mistakes, sometimes become too familiar with their biases, and so on, but that doesn’t mean that we should throw out the baby with the bathwater. Rather, philosopher Daniel Little contends that “There are plentiful examples of scientists and historians whose conclusions are guided by their interrogation of the evidence rather than their ideological presuppositions. Objectivity in pursuit of truth is itself a value, and one that can be followed” (24).
The relativist also argues that different historians may come to remarkably different conclusions from the same material. It is true that historians can differ, and we needn’t dispute this. But equally it is important to note the widespread agreement between historians that also exists. This is particularly helpful if the historians in agreement come from different theological backgrounds. There are certain historical facts that have been widely accepted by the majority of historians, for example, that Paul really penned several authentic letters in the New Testament, that Jesus really lived and ministered in 1st century Palestine, and so on. No matter how skeptical the historian is, these are facts that one could consider bedrock, they are undisputed, and they have been undisputed for centuries if not millennia. Why assume that this will change? After all, that some of the letters attributed to Paul are authentic has been held by scholars since the 16th century. That Jesus lived in 1st century Palestine is a fact affirmed for over 2000 years. It was affirmed by the early church fathers, by theologians and historians throughout history, and by all historians today. Why assume that these views will change?
So, I think that in the absence of a defeater we are quite justified in our belief that history and historical facts can really be known. The relativist’s argument to the contrary is not a very good one. I assume most professional historians would agree with that.
1. Craig, W. 2008. Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics. p. 481. (Scribd ebook format)
2. Responding to Skeptics. 2007. The Resurrection: What Do I know? Available.
3. Bunnin, N. 2004. Historical Relativism: The Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy. Available.
4. Kundra, S. Objectivity in History. Available.
5. Craig, W. 2008. Ibid. p. 482. (Scribd ebook format)
6. Craig, W. 2008. Ibid. p. 483. (Scribd ebook format)
7. Newell-Smith. 1977. Constructionist Theory of History. p. 4.
8. Pirenne, H. “What Are Historians Trying to Do?” in Philosophy of History. p. 97.
9. Popper, K. “Has History Any Meaning?” in Philosophy of History. p. 303.
10. Craig, W. 2008. Ibid. p. 476 (Scribd ebook format).
11. Gardiner, P. 1961. The Nature of Historical Explanation. p. 35.
12. Craig, W. 2008. Ibid. p. 471 (Scribd ebook format)
13. Craig, W. 2008. Ibid. p. 473.
14. Becker, C. 1959. “What Are Historical Facts?” in The Philosophy of History in Our Time. p. 130-131.
15. White, H. 1966. “Burden of History” in History and Theory. p. 84-85.
16. Craig, W. 2008. Ibid. p. 475.
17. Gardiner, P. 1952. Historical Explanation. p. 35.
18. Richard Jenkins quoted by Robert Burns in Historiography: Culture (2006). p. 472.
19. Craig, W. 2008. Ibid. p. 484 (Scribd ebook format).
20. Collingwood, G. 1939. An Autobiography. p. 135.
21. Craig, W. 2008. Ibid. p. 486.
22. Craig, W. 2008. Ibid. p. 486.
23. Little, D. 2016. Philosophy of History. Available.
24. Little, D. 2016. Ibid.