History Itself Is About to Become History

by | Dec 27, 2001

History is, generally, a subject that studies what happened in the past and determines why it happened. When historians begin to say that nobody can be certain of anything that happened and that anyone’s guess as to why it happened is as good–meaning as subjective–as anyone else’s, it is safe to assume that history itself […]

History is, generally, a subject that studies what happened in the past and determines why it happened. When historians begin to say that nobody can be certain of anything that happened and that anyone’s guess as to why it happened is as good–meaning as subjective–as anyone else’s, it is safe to assume that history itself is about to become history.

This is the precarious position that the once-invaluable subject is in today. At universities across the country professors are telling their students that history is nothing but someone’s interpretation of the past and that anyone’s interpretation is as good as anyone else’s.

If they bother giving their students a reason for studying the subject at all they tell them it is to be studied because history is fun–and when this fails (because they don’t know how to teach it), they tell them that history is to be studied because without it they won’t graduate. Or: the subject is to be studied because someone “says so”–and that someone has the power to decide if one graduates or not.

For a subject that has offered so much in the past and could offer so much in the future, its slow descent back into the swamps of irrationality should not be allowed to happen without a fight. If the present trend continues, as it will with no one to oppose it, there will be nothing left of history–nor of the guidance that it once offered men.

To reverse that trend, the cause of its decline must be exposed. And so the question must be asked: What could turn a valid, objective science into a playground for mystics? The answer, in a word, is: philosophy. Only philosophy can give man the answers to “What do you know?”–and “How do you know it?” And without an objective answer to those questions, man–every man–cannot defend the validity of his ideas (whether it be the reason a rubber ball bounces or the cause of World War I). Once the objective nature of reality is thrown out of any particular field of science, the whole field follows soon after.

To those who care to look, the cause for the sad state of history today will not be hard to see. That cause is modern philosophy and, specifically, the role it has played in damning objectivity–which, in this context, means the power of man’s mind to grasp the causes of human events via a method of logic.

Modern philosophy states that man’s mind cannot grasp reality–either the facts of today nor of yesterday. Today’s historians, for the most part, are in agreement. They cannot name what makes history different from a work of fiction. Of course, the leading historians aren’t looking to identify what distinguishes the two subjects because the leading intellectuals have told them that it can’t be done. “All is opinion, nothing fact,” they’ve been told. And consequently, the only alternative most historians recognize today is the choice to flaunt one’s subjectivity by manipulating facts in favor of more entertaining theories or to try and limit one’s subjectivity by including only the surest of data.

Nevertheless some historians stand up to their peers and claim that what has happened in the past is a matter of objective fact and will remain so regardless of anyone’s feelings or intuitions to the contrary. To these historians modern intellectuals have a ready-made answer: “You’re wrong,” they’ll say, “but so what if you are right? Even if you could know the facts–which is highly debatable–reaching an objective conclusion from them is impossible.” And the leading historians of today, ever the faithful followers, have given up even the appearance of such an attempt (and are ready to ridicule their peers should they try it). The only alternative given to choose from is, again, to flaunt one’s subjectivity or to hide it.

This has created two warring factions within the subject: one that dispenses with conclusions and focuses only on amassing a stockpile of data; another that dispenses with the facts and focuses only on those theories that they feel are best for them.

As if this were not enough to wipe out any remaining vestige of rationality leftover in the subject from a previous (philosophically better) era, modern philosophy adds one important point. “Theory is, by nature,” they tell us, “inapplicable to life on earth.” They mean that whether a theory is true or false is irrelevant to guide human action–because theory and practice are two different, often contradictory, phenomena. (Attempting to prove their claim, they point to their theories that have not worked in practice, and then generalize that all theories cannot work, thereby attributing their failure as scientists to science itself.)

Do you want to know how to destroy a science? Here’s how: tell the men who practice in it that they cannot know what is factual from what is fictional. And even if (somehow) they could, their minds would not be able to derive an objective theory from the facts. To finish the job, tell them that theory is unrelated to man’s life on earth–so there’s no use trying anyway. Nothing else is required for the destruction of a subject. And this is exactly what has been told to modern historians.

The results of such philosophical corruption have been disastrous. The intellectual’s prophecy has, to a large extent, been fulfilled: today, history is a subject entirely unrelated to man’s life on earth, it has no guidance to offer man and no knowledge to impart–only a hash of contradictory opinions versus a mound of undigested, incomprehensible data.

But this is not history as it has to be–only the sad state of history as it is today. In the past, men studied history not because it was fun (which it sometimes is) or because the authorities said so, but because only history could offer man the guidance he so crucially needs to survive. This is the birthright that belongs to the once glorious subject of history but which has been stripped away from it by modern philosophy.

For history to once again achieve that status it must return to a philosophy of reason and reality–a philosophy that values man’s mind and teaches him how to use it. A philosophy that shows man the methods by which he can be certain, not only that something happened, but of the reasons why it happened–and will happen again, if the same causes are present. Only then will history regain its title as an objective science, which is the status of history as it has to be–if man is to have a future.

— Daniel Wahl is a student at UNC at Charlotte. This op-ed was obtained through The Ayn Rand Institute’s Reason On Campus program — a site for students worldwide to post their published or unpublished non-fiction writing.

Daniel Wahl is a freelance writer living in North Carolina. Currently in school, where he is studying history, Mr Wahl reads voraciously in order that he might gain enough knowledge to one day make it himself.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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