You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train

In honor of my historiography class in which we read That Noble Dream, and in memory of Howard Zinn, who passed away on Wednesday, I thought I would say a few words on the concepts of Relativity and Objectivity.

I am a relativist.

I do not say this because I intend to speak politically in class, or blatantly misrepresent history for personal or public gain, but because relativism is perhaps the best way to represent my own life philosophy. Before I dive too deeply into what relativism means for how I address history and life, let me first define objectivity and its realms for historians. There are three:

1) Teaching: This is the education ethics of history, calling into question what is being taught and why. Teaching history should teach how to research, how to think, how argue and how to write, as much as it should teach what happened in the past. Teaching should not be relative and the teacher should at least attempt to be objective.
2) Metholodogy: This is how research is conducted. Objectivity should be evident here, but people across the borders of philosophies will often appear objective in their methodology because that is the defining factor of a professional historian. If someone has a problem with someone else’s method they will call it into question, and if enough people agree, then that work can and will be discredited.
3) Philosophy: Here is where the real debate about Objectivity and Relativity come in, and refer to whether or not there is one universal truth in history that the profession is collectively working towards. The example of this that I keep using is Hegel and the universal truth that all of history is the work of God.

I am not objective because I inherently believe that true objectivity is only possible by a hypothetical, truly unbiased third-party, but that any form of consciousness inherently provides some bias. True objectivity is impossible, and for humans any sort is pretty much out of the question. I also believe Collingwood’s theory that the past does not exist and history is the past as relived by a mind in the present. Historians serve to build a collective body of historical work that supplements and builds on documents and mementos from the past which provide a framework for people of all stripes present and future to relive it for themselves. Since history is intensely personal, it is inevitably relative.

Let me be clear, there is a past that actually happened, but it is no longer real, rather an image or remembrance of that past occurs. For particular instances it is more accurate and close to the actual events, but it is impossible to be perfect.

If, however, a historian feels justified looking for a higher truth, or believes strongly in it or does so for any other reason, then I find no cause for anger on my part. If their work is good and methodology sound, then I have no issue with it. And if they find a higher truth in my work, though it will not be intentionally included by me, then I see no reason to dissuade them of it.

This spills over into the rest of my life philosophy, especially spirituality and religion, where each person has their own outlook and no two will be exactly alike. This is not atheist, since I do not necessarily believe that no god exists, nor agnostic, since it is not that we can not know about God, nor ignostic that the concept of God assumes too much, nor even really polytheist. The best descriptor I have is relativist
In honor of my historiography class in which we read That Noble Dream, and in memory of Howard Zinn, who passed away on Wednesday, I thought I would say a few words on the concepts of Relativity and Objectivity.

I am a relativist.

I do not say this because I intend to speak politically in class, or blatantly misrepresent history for personal or public gain, but because relativism is perhaps the best way to represent my own life philosophy. Before I dive too deeply into what relativism means for how I address history and life, let me first define objectivity and its realms for historians. There are three:

1) Teaching: This is the education ethics of history, calling into question what is being taught and why. Teaching history should teach how to research, how to think, how argue and how to write, as much as it should teach what happened in the past. Teaching should not be relative and the teacher should at least attempt to be objective.
2) Metholodogy: This is how research is conducted. Objectivity should be evident here, but people across the borders of philosophies will often appear objective in their methodology because that is the defining factor of a professional historian. If someone has a problem with someone else’s method they will call it into question, and if enough people agree, then that work can and will be discredited.
3) Philosophy: Here is where the real debate about Objectivity and Relativity come in, and refer to whether or not there is one universal truth in history that the profession is collectively working towards. The example of this that I keep using is Hegel and the universal truth that all of history is the work of God.

I am not objective because I inherently believe that true objectivity is only possible by a hypothetical, truly unbiased third-party, but that any form of consciousness inherently provides some bias. True objectivity is impossible, and for humans any sort is pretty much out of the question. I also believe Collingwood’s theory that the past does not exist and history is the past as relived by a mind in the present. Historians serve to build a collective body of historical work that supplements and builds on documents and mementos from the past which provide a framework for people of all stripes present and future to relive it for themselves. Since history is intensely personal, it is inevitably relative.

Let me be clear, there is a past that actually happened, but it is no longer real, rather an image or remembrance of that past occurs. For particular instances it is more accurate and close to the actual events, but it is impossible to be perfect.

If, however, a historian feels justified looking for a higher truth, or believes strongly in it, or does so for any other reason, then I find no cause for anger on my part. If their work is good and methodology sound, then I have no issue with it. And if they find a higher truth in my work, though it will not be intentionally included by me, then I see no reason to dissuade them of it.

This spills over into the rest of my life philosophy, especially spirituality and religion, where each person has their own outlook and no two will be exactly alike. This is not atheist, since I do not necessarily believe that no god exists, nor agnostic, since it is not that we can not know about God, nor ignostic that the concept of God assumes too much, nor even really polytheist. The best descriptor I have is relativist

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