Coincidence, determinism and free will
June 13, 2020
Truth and identity
July 11, 2020

History has been called “more or less bunk”, “fluid prejudice”, and “a version of the past people decided to agree upon.” History’s only lesson is said to be “that we never learn very much from it.” It is “a gallery of pictures in which there are few originals and many copies,” as Alexis de Tocqueville wrote. Whence history’s dubious reputation?


Even in prehistoric times there was history. The classical emphasis on history as written largely obscures its most original function, which is, first of all, to narrate on identity. Prehistoric oral tradition not only transmitted knowledge valuable for survival but also told people who they were, where they came from, how they got where they were now, how they related to the world. People passed on stories about the deeds of outstanding ancestors, of whom the listeners were the proud descendants. In the Greek tradition, traveling rhapsodes, professional storytellers, kept alive the name and fame of heroes like Achilles and Odysseus, fighting against Troy leading the forebears of their audiences into battle. The Hebrew Bible can also be read as the history of the shaping of the identity of the Jewish people.

Until the beginnings of academic history around 1800, most histories served to illustrate the proud identities of cities, religious groups, empires, dynasties, and so on. The rise of nationalism in the 19th century boosted accounts of the identities of language communities, while ‘world history’ remained essentially Europe-centered, identifying the old continent and the white race as the source and center of human civilization.

It is plausible that the shaping of group identities is closely related to the way our personal identities are being shaped, partly by conditions beyond our control, but also by the people we live with, by the language we use and by our own thinking. In all cases, we construct a narrative about ourselves that is necessarily incomplete. We don’t have access to everything that goes on in our own minds, let alone in the minds of others. We share it with people only partially capable of understanding it. Group narratives are only shareable to about the same extent, especially when they not only tell us about deeds but also about the motives behind them and their effects on our identity.

Because history was originally passed on in the context of all knowledge essential to life, already the ancients saw history as a pedagogic asset, the idea that humanity should learn from history’s examples, to not make the same mistakes over and over again. This turned history into “a race between education and catastrophe”, as H. G. Wells wrote. Almost as heavy a load to be carried was given in 1929 by Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, the author of Autumn of the Middle Ages: “History is the spiritual form in which a culture accounts for its past.” Here we see the obligation to not only learn about the shaping of our identity but also to give account of it. The original Dutch text shows better that every culture should give account of its own past first of all to itself. It puts itself on trial.

History and pseudohistory

However, account-giving and identity-shaping – of the group a historian herself belongs to – does not look like a favorable starting point to avoid bias. Questions are if historians can avoid bias at all, and if not, why not just drop that criterion. But society will not permit that: “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them,” as James Baldwin aptly wrote. Narrating on identity, history stands close to individual human life, an area where pseudoscience is flourishing in murky forms such as holistic medicine, alternative psychotherapy, parapsychology, astrology, and armchair theology.

Rewriting history for personal or political purposes is known as pseudohistory. It is mystical, uses fuzzy logic, and is full of moulding facts into speculative patterns. But defining pseudohistory by negative demarcation is fruitless since we can only distinguish science positively from what it is not. Pseudoscience can be defined as seemingly scientific, but not meeting scientific standards.  Since science should be objective, precise, falsifiable and unambiguous, history has a hard time being scientific. Scientific standards are relative; science can only be as objective, precise, falsifiable, and unambiguous as possible. But where do we cross the line? The natural sciences use models also. They not only tell how things are but also how they might have been, how they could never be, to arrive at how they most probably must be or must have been. After all, history is not the only science dealing with the past. But while astronomy or geology rarely draw fire, history does, just like evolutionary biology: both of them are about our identity.

Compared to physics or medicine, the situation with history is even worse, since it predicts nothing. Many other sciences produce knowledge that proves its worth in practical situations, even if not achieved by spotless methods. Historical findings cannot be tested, only criticized, but rather they are being cherry-picked for educational purposes and political propaganda, of which identity-shaping – again – is a prime objective.

Coming so close to identity, thinking about history is prone to cognitive dissonance, a symptom first explained by Leon Festinger in 1957. New information that conflicts with our beliefs causes psychological discomfort. If it challenges our world view, it may cause a chain reaction that blows our identity to pieces. To avoid discomfort, it is easier to first try to reason away the new information, and if that doesn’t work, to challenge its source, even going so far as to see a conspiracy behind it, such as school shootings to be staged by the anti-gun lobby, fossils supporting the evolution theory to be forgeries and the Holocaust to be a hoax organized by worldwide secret Jewish-Marxist-Illuminate forces.

History and fact

In 49 BC, Julius Caesar led his army across the Rubicon river in northern Italy to start a civil war against Pompey. Suetonius wrote that Julius Caesar said “iacta alea est”. Is this a fact?

One way to formalize it is: “Suetonius wrote p”, where p is the sentence “Julius Caesar said ‘iacta alea est’ ”– see Knowledge and Facts.  We see that Suetonius indeed wrote p, in the original Latin word order meaning “the die is cast”. But we may also formalize the fact to “Caesar said ‘iacta alea est’.” Such is still in object language; it can have only two truth values. But we cannot check if it is true. To make things worse, Plutarch, in his account of the same events, wrote that Caesar not only spoke Greek, but also used the conditional tense: “The die is to be cast.” Both Suetonius and Plutarch rely on the eyewitness Asinius Pollio, one of Caesar’s officers who wrote on the civil war but whose works are lost.

Sources happen to disappear or simply never existed. We may assume that 99% of what ever happened was never documented. People documented and saved what was important to them at that time, which is not necessarily what is important to us now. Therefore, knowledge of the past is necessarily incomplete.

The sources we do have agree that Caesar was indeed at that place at that time with his army, but they all rely on just one, Pollio’s account. However, there is a logically coherent chain of events from the death of Crassus in the battle of Carrhae against the Parthians in 53 BC to Caesar beating Pompey in the battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC, with the scene at the Rubicon in between. In object language, we may formalize these three to: “After Crassus’ death, Caesar started a civil war against Pompey that he won.” Propositions like these are facts in the formal sense just like in the natural sciences.  Also there, facts cannot be checked by verification alone. Falsifying alternative hypotheses is equally important. But many people take verifiability as a demarcation principle for scientific knowledge, thus qualifying history as “more or less bunk”, as Henry Ford did.

Most historical knowledge depends on the reliability of sources. In the above case, Pollio may have made up the entire story, but we must realize that when Pollio wrote his history, other eyewitnesses were still alive. If we should wish to discard Pollio’s story of such a big event, large observational mistakes are highly unlikely. We can only base our doubts on secondary arguments, such as Pollio being a blind admirer of Caesar or eager to write a sensational story. Both will need proof, and if there are no sources confirming our suspicion, we can only assume from the principle of charity that Pollio gave a reasonably sincere account of what happened, since there is no evidence that falsifies it.

Motives and mentalities

Both Plutarch and Suetonius copied from Pollio, publishing around AD 96 – 98 and 121 respectively, and therefore they cannot count as primary sources. Both of them write that Caesar was in doubt, but according to Suetonius, a divine apparition snatched an army trumpet and blew the war signal, followed up by Caesar in acquiescence. In Plutarch, Caesar takes a moment of meditation, and then, “like one who throws himself from a precipice into a yawning abyss”, he “closed the eyes of reason and put a veil between them and his peril.” The two historians differ when picturing Caesar’s mental state.

Carpet picturing Caesar at the Rubicon, commissioned by Henry VIII, king of England around 1500.

Modern readers may easily dismiss Suetonius’ mentioning of divine interference, but Plutarch’s story is no less speculative. Any historian who accounts of Caesar’s mental state in this decisive moment is on thin ice, as is any historian writing about whichever historical figure’s mindset. A common error of historians is to assume that the mind and the logic of the historic subject worked like their own, neglecting differences both of personality and of historical context. An important question here is if human nature is universal or historically defined.

According to the 18th-century historian Giambattista Vico, the motives of people making history are explainable from universal human nature. He disagreed with Descartes on the nature of truth in a surprisingly modern way:

 “The criterion and rule of the true is to have made it. Accordingly, our clear and distinct idea of the mind cannot be a criterion of the mind itself, still less of other truths. For while the mind perceives itself, it does not make itself.” 

In modern readings of Vico, his societies are organic human constructs. Consequently, their history can only be explained from language, culture and social structure as people themselves create it. All civilizations go through similar stages of rise, prime, and fall. Johann Gottfried Herder however thought the other way around, namely that human consciousness is determined by history, a view known as historicism. In spite of his historicism, Herder saw belonging to a group as a universal need of humans. He emphasized language as the main factor in shaping identity. The contrast between Vico and Herder comes down to the degree of determinism they see in history, to people making history or undergoing it, to trap it or to be trapped by it.

Comparing and modeling

Vico’s theory of similar stages of civilizations is an example of one of the most frequent commonplaces about history: that it repeats itself. It is not only present in everyday language but also in the works of thinkers such as Polybius, Luke the evangelist, Ibn Khaldun, Macchiavelli, Burke, Hegel, Marx, and many more. They tried to explain history from some kind of model, a method prone to oversimplification, made possible by neglecting deviating sources. With historical modeling. the line between history and pseudohistory is easily crossed. The counterargument is that without some level of generalization, understanding is impossible, an argument not only true for history but also for the natural sciences.

Historical modeling roots in our universal inclination to systemic thinking, see also Coincidence, Determinism and Free Will. Its method is to compare events that resemble each other. Resemblance, however, is a matter of degree. Throughout history, all people and all societies had similar problems as well as unique solutions to those. Historical similarity is always true and not true at the same time. The representational power of a model is necessarily dependent on the degree of detail in the facts we use: the more detail, the more difference and the less elegant the model.

Theodor Mommsen,(1817 – 1903) by Franz von Lenbach

From the first half of the 19th century onward, historical modeling was opposed by a new school of German historians such as Leopold von Ranke and Theodor Mommsen. They were not stray philosophers, but philologists and historians. Ranke founded academic historic research, being one of the first to develop a method to analyze primary sources, the historical-critical method. For them, the essence of history became just to show what actually happened. Historians should abstain from moral judgments and only show “how it actually was”. Ranke held that history cannot be reconstructed: our best hope is to give a picture showing the leading ideas of a period:

“My understanding of ‘leading ideas’ is simply that they are the dominant tendencies in each century. However, these tendencies can only be described; they cannot, in the last resort, be summed up in a concept.”

Ranke held that each age is worthy of being investigated in and of itself. On this notion, history is essentially different from most other sciences, since these focus on what is universally, maybe even eternally true. But history cannot be universally true.

Once history becomes universal, it stops being historical, and what is worse, it stops being meaningful to identity.

But if all of history is essentially unique, how can it ever teach us anything? The point is, history doesn’t need to be instructive to be relevant. Calling history irrelevant would be the same as calling our own personal history, our own life irrelevant, and therefore everything that made us into who we are. The function of history never changed: it is there to narrate on identity.

If there’s one lesson in history, it is essentially metahistorical, coming from the history of history: from time to time, we need to take our history, our identity back from those trying to define it in our name. If they welcome us, they are true historians. If not, we’d better stop believing them.

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