Gary North – November 08, 2021
The bits and pieces of records left from the past can be arranged into different and contending pictures. To be more direct, since human society is composed of relationships, many of them carrying implications of power and elements of concealment, one’s point of entry into a past moment will always affect one’s findings. No workable definition of objectivity can hide the likelihood that students of the human past will always have to deal with more than one version of what has happened. – Appleby, Hunt, and Jacobs (1994).
A. Covenant Model, Part 4
Part 4 of the biblical covenant model is oath. A covenantal oath invokes God’s sanctions in history, positive and negative.
Part 4 of biblical social theory is sanctions, positive and negative. It implies judgment, which is based on God’s imputation: good and evil, right and wrong.
Part 4 of humanist scholarship is nominalism: competing interpretations. These are judgments. There is no known way to reconcile them, for that would imply a uniform standard for settling disputes. Nominalism denies the existence of any such objective standard.
B. Realism vs. Nominalism
On what basis can men impute value to anything? Humanism has been searching for an answer to this question from the days of the pre-Socratics. Humanism has never found an answer that is consistent with its presuppositions about God, man, law, sanctions, and time.
I began this chapter with a quotation from their 1994 book, Telling the Truth About History (p. 262). The three authors made it clear that there is more than one version of what has happened. There are, in fact, so many versions of what has happened that nobody has a good enough memory to recall all of the competing versions of major events. Anyone who doubts this should try to compile a list of books on the assassination of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963. The three authors then asserted that this in no way undermines the coherence and accuracy of historiography. They wrote the following: “The fact that there can be a multiplicity of accurate histories does not turn accuracy into a fugitive from a more confident age; it only points to the expanded necessity of men and women to read the many messages packed into a past event and to follow their different trajectories as that events consequences contact and eight through time” (p. 262). The authors assumed that there are accurate histories out there, somewhere. On what basis philosophically could they legitimately assume this? In the mid-19th century, a few German historians did believe that there can be accurate historiography of objective past events. That faith was almost gone by 1920. It was publicly abandoned in the 1930s. The concept of objective historical accuracy did indeed become “a fugitive from a more confident age.” The last defense attorney of that elusive fugitive was Arnold Toynbee. He is forgotten by the general public and most practicing historians.
Men search for objective knowledge. Objective knowledge, by definition, is based on objective facts. Christianity teaches says that objectivity is based on God’s imputation, which is comprehensive. God created the facts, and He judges them in terms of His permanent standards. He is sovereign over history. His interpretation of history is objective because He has comprehensive knowledge of what has happened in the past, and He is in control of historical causation. He also has a perfect memory.
The humanist denies the existence of such a God. He thereby makes himself responsible for identifying objective facts in every area of life. The humanist historian must identify objective facts in the past. But he does not have comprehensive documentation of the past. How can he make accurate judgments about the objective past? How can he prove that his imputations of historical relevance are correct? What are the objective standards of imputation? There is no agreement among humanist historians regarding this issue, except to deny all objective standards.
I come now to realism vs. nominalism. First, realism. The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines philosophical realism: “Realism: in philosophy, the viewpoint which accords to things which are known or perceived an existence or nature which is independent of whether anyone is thinking about or perceiving them.” This definition excludes God, who perceives everything. All facts are interpreted by God. This is the basis of objectivity in every area of life. Deny this, and objectivity disappears—a fugitive in hiding.
In the history of Western philosophy, some humanists have sought objectivity outside of history. Plato sought objectivity in trans-historical conceptual forms. Behind every table in history is a conceptual form of a table that is outside of history. But Plato could not explain how the trans-historical forms are connected to the material realm of history. Aristotle also believed in forms, but he argued that they are embedded in the realm of matter. Both positions are called realism. The forms governing history are either transcendent to history or embedded in history. That is to say, they are either transcendent or immanent. Humanists have been unable to show how changeless transcendent forms are connected with the ceaseless change of history. How do people perceive these forms? This is the problem whose answers divided Parmenides and Heraclitus. Our minds are subject to change. How do we use our supposedly unchanging reason to identify that which is permanent—objectively permanent? There has never been any agreement on the answer.
Second, nominalism. The Encyclopedia Britannica defines nominalism: “Nominalism: in philosophy, position taken in the dispute over universals—words that can be applied to individual things having something in common—that flourished especially in late medieval times. Nominalism denied the real being of universals on the ground that the use of a general word (e.g., ‘humanity’) does not imply the existence of a general thing named by it.” This view insists that observers impute meaning to the world around them. There is no inherent meaning in the world. There is no inherent objectivity. Objectivity is a myth. There is no underlying reality. The only thing that matters is what individuals think matters. The problem here is that there are a lot of individuals who have opposing opinions about what really matters. There is no way to reconcile these competing opinions.
The humanist does invoke the God of the Bible to solve this problem. But God is the solution—the only solution. He interprets reality: objective. He speaks a word of judgment: subjective. He will impose final judgment at the end of time: objective. The humanist invokes mankind. But mankind is not unified. Individual imputations conflict. There is no agreed-upon way among humanists to determine which imputations are correct, and which are incorrect. As humanists have become more consistent with their philosophical presuppositions regarding human autonomy, there has been less agreement regarding objective reality and its interpretation. This applies to the study of history.
A major defender of nominalism in the writing of history is the French historian Paul Veyne. His primary work in this field is Writing History: Essay on Epistemology (1984). His main critic is Marcel Gauche, who defends realism. The debate is perpetual. This is because humanism is dualistic. Humanism is also dialectical: the attempt to hold two contradictory positions at one time. Neither Veyne nor Gauche defends a pure version of either nominalism or realism. Again, I quote Van Til, who said that scholars on each side of some irreconcilable humanistic dualism are like two washerwomen who make a living by taking in each other’s laundry.
In his important book, The One and the Many ( 2007), Rushdoony made this comment on nominalism:
If God has truly causally created all things and is himself sovereign, self-contained, and triune, then no fact is a fact apart from Him, nor can any fact have a valid interpretation in and of itself. God-created factuality means God-interpreted factuality. Apart from God, there is only the concept of brute factuality, facts in and of themselves and without any relationship or meaning in terms of one another, a sea of meaningless and unrelated particulars, or else the absorption of all facts into the ocean of being and their loss of both identity and particular meaning. The first means a world of anarchistic atoms or particulars, and the second means a totalitarian and obliterating unity (p. 16).
With this in mind, consider the 1933 presentation of a dedicated nominalist historian, Charles Beard.
C. Charles Beard on Imputed Meaning
1. Beard’s Influence
Two years after Carl Becker delivered his 1931 speech to the American Historical Association, “Everyman His Own Historian,” Charles A. Beard delivered what was essentially a confirmation of Becker’s thesis: “Written History as an Act of Faith.” It was published in the January 1934 issue of The American Historical Review, pages 219–32.
Beard was a far more prominent historian than Becker was. He was the most famous and the most prestigious historian within the Progressive movement. In 1913, his book, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, created a sensation. He argued that the Framers in Philadelphia in 1787 promoted a specific kind of ownership, which was not primarily land-based. They were part of the commercial class. They wrote the Constitution to benefit this class. He followed with this book: An Economic Interpretation of Jeffersonian Democracy (1915). In 1927, he and his wife wrote what immediately became the most prominent American history textbook in American colleges: The Rise of American Civilization. This book and its two sequels remained the dominant American history textbooks for the next two decades. In 1926, he was elected president of the American Political Science Association. This was unheard of: president of both societies. His academic influence was unique.
2. The Centrality of Man in History
I take seriously the title of the speech, “Written History as an Act of Faith.” This was religious language. Perhaps Beard was trying to be clever. If so, what was he trying to conceal by means of this cleverness? The content of the article indicates that he was struggling to provide answers to a series of epistemological problems that are the inescapable products of humanism’s rejection of Christianity.
The first issue that he dealt with was omniscience. He used the word. He understood its centrality in both history and historiography. Without omniscience, the world becomes incomprehensible: chaotic. He wanted to avoid this result. “The hypothesis of chaos admits of no ordering at all; hence those who operate under it cannot write history, although they may comment on history” (p. 226). He did not explain how people can even comment on history. He rejected the Christian God. He said that all historians had done this. “Contemporary historical thought is, accordingly, returning upon itself and its subject matter. The historian is casting off his servitude to physics and biology, as he formerly cast off the shackles of theology and its metaphysics” (p. 225). What did Beard substitute for an omniscient God? History itself. “What, then, is this manifestation of omniscience called history? It is, as Croce says, contemporary thought about the past.” This laid the epistemological foundation of his speech, namely, the authority of human thought. He invoked the name of Benedetto Croce. Someone else who did this was Collingwood, beginning in 1935. Beard spelled out the implication of Croce’s theory of history: it is created by autonomous individual thought.
History as past actuality includes, to be sure, all that has been done, said, felt, and thought by human beings on this planet since humanity began its long career. History as record embraces the monuments, documents, and symbols which provide such knowledge as we have or can find respecting past actuality. But it is history as thought, not as actuality, record, or specific knowledge, that is really meant when the term history is used in its widest and most general significance. It is thought about past actuality, instructed and delimited by history as record and knowledge—record and knowledge authenticated by criticism and ordered with the help of the scientific method. This is the final, positive, inescapable definition (p. 219).
First, he limited his definition of history to human beings: their thoughts and actions. This limitation points to man as a sovereign. Nothing outside of man was an element of Beard’s definition of history. This idea was widely shared in his day. It was also Collingwood’s view. Second, thought is central to his definition of history, as it was for Collingwood. “But it is history as thought, not as actuality, record, or specific knowledge, that is really meant when the term history is used in its widest and most general significance.” Men think. This was the starting point for Descartes: “I think; therefore, I am.” This is humanism’s substitute for God, who thought before He created the world. This raised a serious problem: nominalism. Without God, there is no authoritative thinker. Men disagree. This leads to epistemological chaos: pure subjectivism.
3. The Need for Imputation
History is everything that men have ever done. This is beyond human calculation. How can historians provide a coherent narrative? How can they make sense of the immensity of the past? By a careful selection of facts. “Every student of history knows that his colleagues have been influenced in their selection and ordering of materials by their biases, prejudices, beliefs, affections, general upbringing, and experience, particularly social and economic; and if he has any sense of propriety, to say nothing of humor, he applies the canon to himself, leaving no exceptions to the rule.” This evaded the problem: the historians’ colleagues do not agree with him or each other.
What he called the omniscience of history in all of its complexity becomes selected facts by historians. God was once thought to be omniscient, and omnipotent as well. Christians believed that He has provided coherence to history, both objectively and imputationally. He has directed everything. He has imputed meaning to everything. But He is gone in modern humanists’ thinking. This puts history in charge. But history is not in charge. It is blind. It is silent. It does not impute meaning. Then what will replace history? Historians. Lots and lots of historians. They will select what they think is important for their peers to remember. They will impute meaning to whatever they have selected. To do this, they must also impute meaning to everything they decided not to select.
This introduced subjectivism into the discussion. Beard embraced subjectivism wholeheartedly. “Contemporary thought about history, therefore, repudiates the conception dominant among the schoolmen during the latter part of the nineteenth century and the opening years of the twentieth century—the conception that it is possible to describe the past as it actually was, somewhat as the engineer describes a single machine” (pp. 220–21). This repudiation of realism has created a crisis for historiography. “As Croce and Heussi have demonstrated, so-called neutral or scientific history reached a crisis in its thought before the twentieth century had advanced far on the way” (p. 221). The crisis is spreading. “This crisis in historical thought sprang from internal criticism—from conflicts of thought within historiography itself—and from the movement of history as actuality; for historians are always engaged, more or less, in thinking about their own work and are disturbed, like their fellow citizens, by crises and revolutions occurring in the world about them” (p. 221). Subjectivism is now dominant. “Once more, historians recognize formally the obvious, long known informally, namely, that any written history inevitably reflects the thought of the author in his time and cultural setting” (p. 221).
Beard called history omniscient. This language was deceptive. Historians create history, he argued. He knew that historians are not omniscient. He had a word for them: guessers. “That this crisis in thought presents a distressing dilemma to many historians is beyond question. It is almost a confession of inexpiable sin to admit in academic circles that one is not a man of science working in a scientific manner with things open to deterministic and inexorable treatment, to admit that one is more or less a guesser in this vale of tears. But the only escape from the dust and storm of the present conflict, and from the hazards of taking thought, now before the historian, is silence or refuge in some minute particularity of history as actuality” (pp. 221–22). When omniscience becomes guessers, there is a crisis in men’s theory of knowledge.
4. The Desire for Meaning
He understood the psychological problem facing him and his peers: “. . . the historian would be a strange creature if he never asked himself why he regarded these matters as worthy of his labor and love, or why society provides a living for him during his excursions and explorations” (p. 222). I regard Beard as a salesmen of an idea: the nominalist view of history. A good salesman knows that one way to sell something is to remind the potential buyer early in the sales pitch that he has a problem. The salesman then offers a solution. Beard was doing his best to bring a message of hope to his fellow-guessers. But what was this hope?
He offered nothing. Not yet. Instead, he kept piling up the problems.
He insisted that there are no laws of history. This was his denial of realism. “Undiscouraged by their inability to bring all history within a single law, such as the law of gravitation, they have gone on working in the belief that the Newtonian trick will be turned some time, if the scientific method is applied long and rigorously enough and facts are heaped up high enough, as the succeeding grists of doctors of philosophy are ground out by the universities, turned loose on ‘research projects’, and amply supplied by funds” (p. 223). But without laws of history, there is no science of history, he said. This is a good thing, he said. This protects our liberty from the tyranny of historical laws. He was a junior Heraclitus warning his peers about Parmenides. “If a science of history were achieved, it would, like the science of celestial mechanics, make possible the calculable prediction of the future in history. It would bring the totality of historical occurrences within a single field and reveal the unfolding future to its last end, including all the apparent choices made and to be made. It would be omniscience. The creator of it would possess the attributes ascribed by the theologians to God. The future once revealed, humanity would have nothing to do except to await its doom” (p. 224).
What did he offer as a substitute? Something that sounded suspiciously like historical relativism. That had also been Becker’s substitute two years earlier. “Having broken the tyranny of physics and biology, contemporary thought in historiography turns its engines of verification upon the formula of historical relativity—the formula that makes all written history merely relative to time and circumstance, a passing shadow, an illusion.” But he immediately dismissed this suggestion. On what basis? Relativism. Relativism will fail—absolutely.
Contemporary criticism shows that the apostle of relativity is destined to be destroyed by the child of his own brain. If all historical conceptions are merely relative to passing events, to transitory phases of ideas and interests, then the conception of relativity is itself relative. When absolutes in history are rejected the absolutism of relativity is also rejected. So we must inquire: To what spirit of the times, to the ideas and interests of what class, group, nation, race, or region does the conception of relativity correspond? As the actuality of history moves forward into the future, the conception of relativity will also pass, as previous conceptions and interpretations of events have passed. Hence, according to the very doctrine of relativity, the skeptic of relativity will disappear in due course, beneath the ever-tossing waves of changing relativities (p. 225).
So, he invoked social evolution to forecast a world somewhere in the distant future that will abandon relativism, at least for a while. Then an absolute will appear, replacing relativism. And what will that absolute be? History!
Contemporary historical thought is, accordingly, returning upon itself and its subject matter. The historian is casting off his servitude to physics and biology, as he formerly cast off the shackles of theology and its metaphysics. He likewise sees the doctrine of relativity crumble in the cold light of historical knowledge. When he accepts none of the assumptions made by theology, physics, and biology, as applied to history, when he passes out from under the fleeting shadow of relativity, he confronts the absolute in his field—the absolute totality of all historical occurrences past, present, and becoming to the end of all things (p. 235).
When relativism is replaced by its successor, there will be three rival views of history to choose from: (1) history as chaotic; (2) history as cyclical; (3) history “on an upward gradient toward a more ideal order—as imagined by Condorcet, Adam Smith, Karl Marx, or Herbert Spencer” (p. 226). Beard rejected all three (p. 226). He then faced this challenge: you can’t beat something with nothing. What is the missing fourth option? This: the scientific method.
5. Deliverance: The Scientific Method
He had denied that history is a science, yet he was an apostle for the scientific method, which he did not define or even describe.
But members of the passing generation will ask: Has our work done in the scientific spirit been useless? Must we abandon the scientific method? The answer is an emphatic negative. During the past fifty years historical scholarship, carried on with judicial calm, has wrought achievements of value beyond calculation. Particular phases of history once dark and confused have been illuminated by research, authentication, scrutiny, and the ordering of immediate relevancies. Nor is the empirical or scientific method to be abandoned. It is the only method that can be employed in obtaining accurate knowledge of historical facts, personalities, situations, and movements (p. 226).
The scientific method preserves democracy and liberty. “It has a value in itself—a value high in the hierarchy of values indispensable to the life of a democracy. The inquiring spirit of science, using the scientific method, is the chief safeguard against the tyranny of authority, bureaucracy, and brute power” (p. 227). The scientific method is the barrier separating civilization from barbarism. “The scientific method is, therefore, a precious and indispensable instrument of the human mind; without it society would sink down into primitive animism and barbarism” (p. 227). Nevertheless, it has limitations. “So the historian is bound by his craft to recognize the nature and limitations of the scientific method and to dispel the illusion that it can produce a science of history embracing the fullness of history, or of any large phase, as past actuality” (p. 227).
Scientific history is the realm of realism. He had abandoned it. Scientific method presumably is in the realm of nominalism: agreement among historians. Yet he spoke of it as something real, something objective. Somehow, these supposedly antithetical concepts—scientific history and scientific method—can and must cooperate. This dualism must somehow become dialectical. First, there must be realism. There must be objective truth. There must be causation, even in the realm of ideas. There really are objective realities to investigate after all. “This means no abandonment of the tireless inquiry into objective realities, especially economic realities and relations; not enough emphasis has been laid upon the conditioning and determining influences of biological and economic necessities or upon researches designed to disclose them in their deepest and widest ramifications. This means no abandonment of the inquiry into the forms and development of ideas as conditioning and determining influences; not enough emphasis has been laid on this phase of history by American scholars” (p. 227). Second, there must also be nominalism: competing interpretations of history. Becker had announced two years earlier: every man an historian. Beard accepted this.
It is that any selection and arrangement of facts pertaining to any large area of history, either local or world, race or class, is controlled inexorably by the frame of reference in the mind of the selector and arranger. This frame of reference includes things deemed necessary, things deemed possible, and things deemed desirable. It may be large, informed by deep knowledge, and illuminated by wide experience; or it may be small, uninformed, and unilluminated (p. 227).
To sum up contemporary thought in historiography, any written history involves the selection of a topic and an arbitrary delimitation of its borders—cutting off connections with the universal. Within the borders arbitrarily established, there is a selection and organization of facts by the processes of thought. This selection and organization—a single act—will be controlled by the historian’s frame of reference composed of things deemed necessary and of things deemed desirable. The frame may be a narrow class, sectional, national, or group conception of history, clear and frank or confused and half conscious, or it may be a large, generous conception, clarified by association with the great spirits of all ages. Whatever its nature the frame is inexorably there, in the mind (p. 228).
This speech was a conceptual mess. He invoked epistemological salvation by an undefined scientific method, yet he warned against scientific history—the historiography of objective truth, of realism.
D. Multiple Imputers of Meaning
Collingwood insisted on the autonomy of the individual historian. The historian has to impute meaning to the past. He has to select from the vast array of historical documents those that are relevant to his narrative. Becker held the same view of imputation. The historian imputes meaning to the past. But he introduced the crucial fact of historiography: there are lots of interpreters. Becker multiplied them like locusts. Every man is his own historian. Beard also sided with subjective imputation as the substitute for objective history. Here was their problem. Mankind is not united. Humanism declares that mankind is autonomous. But this doctrine of autonomy does not stay bottled up in the concept of collective mankind. It spreads into every area of life. The many interpreters of the past disagree with each other about what was significant in the past. This is the curse of nominalism. The Bible describes it. There was initial agreement at the Tower of Babel, but God divided the people. There was a common confession, but God divided it. There was a common society, but God scattered it. This is nominalism’s problem. There is no way to reconcile philosophically the divided declarations of men regarding the past.
There are certain methodological agreements that enable professional historians to evaluate each other’s work. But footnotes do not unify historians. Footnotes are not in agreement with each other. Documents are not in agreement. There is no scientific methodology that enables historians to find objective truth. Their nominalist philosophy denies the existence of objective truth. This denial leads to relativism. Historians do not want to admit that their competing theories of history promote relativism. They protest are in vain. Their protests are denied by their subjectivist philosophy of history. They deny the legitimacy of nineteenth-century scientific historiography: realism. They invoke nominalism. But, with nominalism, it is every man for himself. It is every historian’s interpretation at war with every other.
Whatever unanimity exists among historians is a matter of convention, not historical truth, according to nominalistic philosophies of history. Historians within the guild band together to outlaw certain historical interpretations. In United States history, the most obvious of all the guild-banned narratives is this one: President Franklin Roosevelt lured the Japanese into the war in December 1941. The premier historian who promoted this view was Beard. In 1948, his final book appeared, President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War. It was published by Yale University Press. In it, he argued that President Roosevelt had adopted measures that deliberately provoked the Japanese government to attack the United States, thereby enabling Roosevelt to take the nation into the war. Instantly, he lost his reputation. He died in September of that year. He became a retroactive pariah after 1948. Had he not died shortly after the book was released, and before the savage reviews of it appeared in professional historical journals, he would have learned that scientific methodology could not save his reputation.
Postmodernism is an intellectual movement that has extended nominalism far beyond anything envisioned by historians in the 1970s. It is a view dominated by the idea that there is no objective truth. It is dominated by the idea that texts, including historical texts, must be interpreted entirely on the basis of their autonomous internal coherence, not social meaning imputed by self-interested outsiders. This view leads to radical skepticism. It is anti-establishment. The Wikipedia entry on postmodernism is accurate.
Postmodern thinkers frequently describe knowledge claims and value systems as contingent or socially-conditioned, framing them as products of political, historical, or cultural discourses and hierarchies. These thinkers often view personal and spiritual needs as being best fulfilled by improving social conditions and adopting more fluid discourses, in contrast to modernism, which places a higher degree of emphasis on maximizing progress and which generally regards the promotion of objective truths as an ideal form of discourse. . . .
Postmodernism is generally defined by an attitude of skepticism, irony, or rejection toward what it describes as the grand narratives and ideologies associated with modernism, often criticizing Enlightenment rationality and focusing on the role of ideology in maintaining political or economic power. Common targets of postmodern criticism include universalist ideas of objective reality, morality, truth, human nature, reason, science, language, and social progress. Accordingly, postmodern thought is broadly characterized by tendencies to self-consciousness, self-referentiality, epistemological and moral relativism, pluralism, and irreverence.
Within the guild of academic historians, there were few practicing postmodernists until the twenty-first century. They have since multiplied in the humanities. Defenders of the academic establishments were disarmed after 1820 by the prevailing nominalism that today dominates the humanities. Postmodernists are anti-realists, but so are virtually all of the other members on a faculty. Realism went out of fashion along with high-button shoes.
Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob identified the problem in Telling the Truth About History. They dated in four decades late. “Since the 1960s, all the regnant absolutisms of the nineteenth century been dethroned. A many-pronged attack coming from a variety of perspectives has zeroed in on the goals of objectivity and truth-seeking. A fluid scepticism now covers the intellectual landscape, encroaching upon one body of thought after another. The study of history has been questioned and its potential for truth-finding categorically denied” (pp. 243–44). Fluid scepticism is not a solid foundation for epistemology.
Postmodernist historians deny that historical writing is based on truth-seeking. They see it as defending existing politics and existing social structures. The three historians rejected this interpretation. But on what philosophical basis did they reject it? By something they called “practical realism.” They did not define this. They did not even explain it. They were trying to create a new theory of history. They called for “a different, more nuanced, less absolutist kind of realism than that championed by an older—we would say naïve—realism. The newer version—what is called practical realism—presumes that the meanings of words are never simply in our head, nor do they lock on two objects of the external world and fixed reality for all time” (p. 247). There was never any historiographical movement that described itself as holding to practical realism. Modernists denied realism. The philosophers also denied it. It is true that all groups attempted to import realism when they got into the bind of complete relativism. Nominalists for centuries have adopted this unofficial strategy. But there was never any developed, self-conscious philosophical defense of a middle ground between the two positions. There was dialecticism: back-and-forth invocations of each view. There was also informal borrowing from each other’s position. But there was never a self-conscious effort to develop a philosophy of historical interpretation that was a functional hybrid between the two systems. Realism and nominalism are mutually exclusive philosophies.
The chief problem for nominalist historians is to find ways to reconcile competing historical interpretations. This is the problem of the imputation of meaning. If God is not there to do this, then man has to do it on his own authority. But man does not have the capability of doing it on his own authority. So, the three authors wanted a middle position. But they did not want to take a stand against imputed meaning. They wrote this: “The realist never denies that the very act of representing the past makes the historian (values, warts, and all) an agent who actively moulds how the past is to be seen. Most even delight in the task” (p. 249). Yes, realists do delight in the nominalist task. That is because they are really nominalists.
The three historians wanted human autonomy. They wanted historians to exercise the power to shape the past. “Practical realists are stuck in a contingent world, using language to point to objects outside themselves about which they can be knowledgeable because they use language. This slightly circular situation in which the practical-minded find themselves may not make for heroes, but it does help locate truths about the past. More important, practical realism thwarts the relativists by reminding them that some words and conventions, however socially constructed, reach out to the world and give a reasonably true description of its contents” (p. 250). They called this a “slightly circular situation.” It is 100% circular.
The three then invoked the objective reality of language. (This is also what a Christian historian should do, on this basis: God spoke the world into existence. Next, God spoke to Adam. Adam and Eve spoke with each other.) These three historians also invoked a common language. But they had no metaphysical foundation for this invocation. They had no epistemological foundation for it. The best they could come up with is this: “reasonably true description.” By what standard? By whose imputation? Revealed by what methodology?
They offered what they called a new theory of objectivity. “We think that a case can be made for a qualified objectivity after this refurbished objectivity has been disentangled from the scientific model of objectivity” (p. 254). But they never offered any philosophical justification for their hybrid system. All they did was offer hope in some future technical reconciliation of the ancient dualism. They told us what scholars must do. They did not tell us how these scholars are going to do it. They did not tell us why they are going to do it. They also did not tell us why no historian has done in the past four centuries. As you read the following passage, listen for a faint sound of Judy Garland singing “somewhere, over the rainbow, way up high.”
No longer able to ignore the subjectivity of the author, scholars must construct standards of objectivity that recognize at the outset that all histories start with the curiosity of a particular individual and take shape under the guidance of her or his personal and cultural attributes. Since all knowledge originates inside human minds and is conveyed through representations of reality, all knowledge is subject-centered and artificial, the very qualities brought into disrespect by an earlier exultation of that which was objective and natural. Our version of objectivity concedes the impossibility of any research being neutral (that goes for scientists as well) and accepts the fact that knowledge-seeking involves a lively, contentious struggle among diverse groups of truth-seekers (p. 254).
Their book describes many of the problems that humanist historians created for themselves when they abandoned faith in the Bible and faith in the providential God who created all things out of nothing by the power of His word. What the book does not describe is any philosophy that is half realism and half nominalism. It also does not describe the outline of a philosophically grounded methodology that will enable historians to bring forth objective reality out of the cacophony of competing autonomous interpretations by their peers.
There is a popular phrase: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but everyone is not entitled to his own facts.” In terms of humanist epistemology, everyone really is entitled to his own facts. This is the implication for every philosophy of autonomy. By the mid-1930’s, leaders of American historiography went public with respect to the impossibility of neutral historiography. This included the impossibility of neutral facts. All facts are interpreted, they admitted. But the inescapable implication of this admission is this: there can be as many historical facts as there are historians. Modern humanist historiography does not have a theory of objective historical events in the past, objective historical documentation, and objective interpretation of this documentation.
Rushdoony in 1968 contrasted the Christian view of history and the humanist view.
For the Orthodox Christian, who grounds his philosophy of history of the doctrine of creation, the mainspring of history is God. Time rests on the foundation of eternity, on the eternal decree of God. Time and history therefore have meaning because they were created in terms of God’s perfect and totally comprehensive plan. Every blade of grass, every sparrow’s fall, the very hairs of our head, all are comprehended and governed by God’s eternal decree, and all have meaning in terms of it. The humanist faces a meaningless world in which he must strive to create an established meaning. The Christian accepts the world which is totally meaningful in which every event moves in terms of God’s predestined purpose, and, when man accepts God as his Lord and Christ as his Savior, every event works together for good to him because he is now in harmony with that meaning and destiny (Rom. 8:28). Man therefore does not create meaning; instead, having rebelled against God’s meaning, having striven to be as God and himself as a source of meaning and definition (Gen. 3:5), man now submits to God’s meaning and finds his life therein. For the humanist, the dynamics of history are in titanic man, as he imposes his will and idea on the world. For the Orthodox Christian, the dynamics of history are in God the Creator, and man accepts those dynamics and rejoices in the blessings thereof when man accepts Christ as Savior and then follows the leadings of the sanctifying Holy Spirit (Foundations of Social Order, p. 8).
Consider this: “For the humanist, the dynamics of history are in titanic man, as he imposes his will and idea on the world.” But dynamic man, being dynamic, is always changing. He must impose his will on the world in order to keep rival dynamic men from imposing their will on him. In his 1945 novel, That Hideous Strength, C. S. Lewis has a power-seeking villain say this. “It does really look as if we now had the power to dig ourselves in as a species for a pretty staggering period, to take control of our own destiny. If Science is really given a free hand it can now take over the human race and re-condition it: make man a really efficient animal. . . . Man has got to take charge of Man. That means, remember, that some men have got to take charge of the rest—which is another reason for cashing in on it as soon as one can. You and I want to be the people who do the taking charge, not the ones who are taken charge of.”
Humanists find that they cannot exercise such control. They are not omniscient. The world is highly complex. This law of change confronts them: “You cannot change just one thing.” This is accompanied by the law of unintended consequences. This in turn is accompanied by Murphy’s law: “If something can go wrong, it will.”
What applies to planning for the future applies to our understanding of the past. The past was complex. Documentation is incomplete. It is often contradictory. Interpretations compete for public acceptance. Public agreement declines as the cost of producing and accessing rival interpretations decreases. Cacophony increases. Put differently, intellectual entropy increases. It increases when humanists become more consistent with their theory of the future: cosmic entropy. I cover this in the next chapter.