Is history, at least to some degree, objective? or is history purely subjective? May we find truth in history? Or is truth in history a myth?

There is a debate about this that has been going on for a very long time, with many claiming that there is no such thing as objectivity in history, nor truth, and some going so far as to claim that there is no such thing as objectivity, nor truth, in general.

What do you think?

For anyone unfamiliar with the topic, I recommend a paper by Christopher Blake, titled Can History be Objective?

Here are a couple of selections:

“Mr. Christopher Blake, in his article “Can History be Objective?” (Mind, January 1955),
argues that to ask whether history can
be objective is to ask an empty question: unless some history
were objective we should not know what the question meant.”
-William H Walsh, Philosophy, an introduction

“Finally one might observe, in the everyday uses of “objective ”, contains still unnoticed sources of difficulty. For instance
there is an interminable tendency to employ the word as an
encomium, any man’s newspaper is usually more objective —
to him — than is his neighbour’s , the word is used by editorial
writers as well as about them, and about reviewers as well as
by them. Also the noticeable indeterminacy of the usage has
already been remarked, r.e. we cannot say with any precision
what an objective account of anything would be like. For both
of these reasons there can be in practice many cases where the
objectivity of a piece of history is interminably disputed, and
the suspicion arises that perhaps we can never hope to settle in
favour of any piece of historical writing any such dispute. But
to accept this is to return to the irremovable, and therefore
self-nullifying, scepticism which is the philosophical temptation,
and for which the cure is to remember that, before we started
to wonder, we did know how to use the word.”
-Christopher Blake, Can History be Objective?

I’m a moral universalist and also like moral absolutism. There are some truths that are absolute, that are universal, regardless of culture, tradition.

For example, The Four Noble Truths.

The study and practice of history, unfortunately, is often politically biased.

When President Nixon left office, Kissinger told him, “history will judge you well.” Nixon replied:

“it depends on who is writing history”

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David (I hope that’s you, anyway, having read your intro post on this forum)! Good to see you here! You were always one of the best on Dhammawheel, and always were a voice of reason! Glad you’re here :heart:

It’s true that history can be influenced by subjective bias. I’m asking if history itself is objective/true, and can be conveyed as such? Like, for example, a very common modern position is that objectivity is a myth, and so is truth. Hence, for someone who holds this position, no one could ever accurately say “The great Sphinx in Egypt still stands today.” or even so simple as, “The great Sphinx in Egypt exists.” because no such objective facts exist, or, even if they did, it is impossible that any historian could ever state such a thing and it be taken as objectively true, because objective truth does not exist in history.

Or, to take your example: Nixon may be judged well, or negatively, by historians, but that’s opinion, and we all must admit opinion is not objective. However, it is objectively true that Nixon was impeached, thus, the idea that such an objective truth could never enter into historical writing, and must always remain a subjective idea, is a very bizarre position.

That said, knowing your position on reality, and the moon, for example, I know you don’t believe that history is purely subjective in this kind of sense. I’m just making a stark comparison to demonstrate the depth that people who promote the most extreme version of this idea go to, which is what I’m speaking about, generally.

My opinion, and, indeed, the only way for history to differ from pure fiction, and young Earth creationist type babble, is that history is objective, and listings of historical facts can be entirely objectively true. Historical reporting, when the historian brings in their opinions on who should have done what, what is right or wrong, and so on, is entirely subjective, of course. However, no such delineation is made by people who go all in on the idea that objectivity/truth in history is a myth. For them, the very idea of objectivity/truth in history must be abandoned as a lost cause, or an antiquated, naive idea. It comes from postmodernism, which is a philosophy that declares the very idea of objectivity to be false, and promotes pure subjectivity and relativism. But, if these are false, how can we argue with the flat Earther? If there is no objectivity in history, then the young Earth creationist, citing the bible to prove the Earth flat, and throwing out all other historical data, is just as correct as those of us using historical data that shows many layers of Earth, proving it is 4 billion years old. Sure, one is science, the other history, but this is also where they blur. The study of the past of the Earth is debatably history, and, if subjectivity is king, the bible is no less valid than scientific study. Unfortunately, this position is dominant today.

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Yes, it’s me, thanks for the comments.

:+1:
I agree.

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I think one of the problems we end up with is, as you kindly demonstrated, it is very difficult to prove objectivity, and very easy to prove that things can be biased, and subjective. Hence, I’m interested in finding self contradiction, and paradox, in the very position that things, like history, are not objective. Kind of like, if someone says certain things, it’s very hard to prove them wrong, but very easy to prove that the statement is self refuting. I started writing an example, but then googled it, found a list of examples, and in that list are examples that are precisely what I’m looking for, and demonstrate that the position that history is not objective/true is self refuting. lol! Check it out, I bolded the ones most relevant, but the others are fun, too:

“There is no truth” (If there is no truth, then this statement is false, because there would be at least one truth, namely, that there is no truth).

“You should not judge” (This statement is a judgment, and so it refutes itself).

“There is no objective truth” / “Objective truth does not exist”
(Perhaps the most obviously self-refuting claim. Like all self-refuting claims, it can be cross-checked by simply turning the statement on itself. By asking, “Is that statement objectively true?” we can quickly see that the person making the claim believes in at least one objective truth: that there is no objective truth. See the problem?)

“If objective truth does exist, no one could ever know with confidence what it is” / “It’s arrogant to assume you know the truth with certainty”
(Once again, the professor who makes such a claim appears to be confident and certain of one truth: that no one can be confident or certain of the truth! The statement falls on its own sword the moment it is uttered.)

“History is unknowable” (If true, then this very statement would be unknowable. Why? By the time you read this statement and get to the last word, the first two words are already history. Thus, even comprehending this statement implies that at least some things from the past can be known in the present).

“You should be tolerant of views not your own” (Then what about this view, since its different than the view of the one stating it?).

“Language cannot carry meaning” (If language cannot carry meaning, then what about this claim? Is it meaningful?).

“Truth cannot be known” (If so, then how does one know this truth claim?).

“What’s true for you isn’t true for me” (If so, then this claim is only true for the one who makes it and isn’t true for anyone else. If so, then why is the person bothering to make the claim in the first place since he obviously believes it does apply to others?).

“You should not force your morals on others” (Is it okay to force this morality on others?)
“I have freely chosen to embrace determinism” (If determinism is true, then nothing is freely chosen. If you freely choose, then determinism is false).

I’d like to add to this one:

“There is no truth” (If there is no truth, then this statement is false, because there would be at least one truth, namely, that there is no truth).

Applied to history, it escapes the trap apparent in its current formulation, but it falls into the same trap as the one on history, above: “There is no truth in history.” Well, that couldn’t be true, If true, then this very statement would be untrue. Why? By the time you read this statement and get to the last word, the first two words are already history. Thus, even comprehending this statement implies that at least some things from the past can be known as true in the present.

Ditto for every other formulation used by postmodernists, and other self sabotaging historians, such as “There is no objectivity in history.” Self refuting, because the sentence itself wouldn’t be objectively true, by the same logic in the above paragraph, then. And if it were somehow argued, using textual gymnastics, or other silly techniques, that this is true, then it actually makes a great case for other statements, like history, to be true, too!

Essentially, ludicrously broad, sweeping blanket statements that attempt to destroy huge swaths of knowledge typically fail to escape the destruction they themselves seek to cause.

So, can we truly prove history is objective? Maybe. But that’s a really difficult task, and may fall into the many snares laid by people with the opposing view. Hence, we might simply say what we can say with total confidence: the idea that history is never objective/true is self refuting, and the more eel wriggling it does, the more incoherent it becomes, and thus, it is false.

Yes, those are good and fun to consider. Another brain teaser:

“This sentence is false.”

If “this sentence is false” is true, then it is false, but the sentence states that it is false, and if it is false, then it must be true, and so on.

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I once watched a documentary called the “Sky is Pink”. It is interesting how they explain how one can verify that the sky is really pink when several sources say it is pink. I think is happening in dhamma with people quoting each other on wrong ideas of dhamma.

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Indeed, Wittgenstein attacked some forms of idealism and demonstrated that they are fundamentally incoherent using similar, though more in depth logic.

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Thanks for sharing Venerable. What do you think the solution is?

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The solution is to thank your “lucky stars” that you know better… focus on what we have and ignore the rest. “The rest” is endless and so is saṃsāra.
Shouting on dhammawheel won’t work and shouting on suttacentral will get you suspended.
Posting valuable articles here focused on the Dhamma rather than the rest is a good start. Eventually it will get recognized.

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Thank you, Venerable. I have completely stopped bothering with debating on other Buddhist forums. Is there any approach to thinking, and apprehending things, in general, that you recommend? Some way, that if people approached life, and knowledge, that they wouldn’t be led astray, especially as they’re trying to navigate all the misinformation about Buddhism, and of course knowledge in general?

My method was to dilly dally, trying many different types of Buddhism for 14 years, not really rejecting any, and studied Theravada alongside Mahayana. Eventually, I decided to go full bore into Zen, and swallow the molten iron ball. I descended into absolute misery for a couple of years, and then realized how stupid I’d been, and finally started thinking rationally, and dropped all Buddhism but Classical Theravada. This thought process applied to everything else simplified the rest of my life, and views on philosophy, etc. as well. In a weird way, Zen helped me out. Its practices were so damaging, that they forced me to wake up to the fact that Mahayana is asinine, and only Classical Theravada is legitimate, and healthy. That, obviously, was a horribly long, and painful way to get to where I am now. It was only about seven or eight years ago that I finally got to where I’m at now. Hence, why I’m asking if you know of a more efficient way that I might suggest to other people.

It is difficult to suggest. I’m not sure.
In my day as a lay person, I was also caught up in many forms of spirituality. Conversion to Theravada was around the time when I was learning that The White Lotus Sutra allowed lying in the “Skillful Means” chapter, reading access to insight and Ajahn Thanissaro’s Wings To Awakening, and being scheduled to take a Goenka retreat the following week. These all played a great role in confirming myself as Theravada. However, I too as a newbie was convinced the vsm was wrong when I went to Bhavana Society only because a monk named Bhante Vimalaramsi told me to reject it. Perhaps it was just luck or remembering something I read in the abhidhammatthasangaha that related to an Operating Systems class I took long ago that clicked.

I think I remember asking where the meditation instructions were and how vague they were. Then I came across the vsm and later, Pa-Auk Sayadawgyi’s book, Knowing and Seeing. After that, it was all based on association with good people.

I think it is a trickier path to get to Classical Theravada today since there are so many English Variations of the “Theravada” teachings, usually EBT or anti-commentary. It is all the effects of time-and-place-kamma, but also kamma to recognize what is good. Some come directly as a first exposure… Others have had “a long and winding road”

I was ready to ordain at Wat Pah Nanachat working with the vsm and trying to make earth kasinas from clay. At that same time, a visitor who came from Myanmar had brought a copy of Knowing and Seeing and it was put in the library. I knew I had to leave and I did so within a two or three weeks.

The sources are out there. Pa-Auk is quite famous. Na-Uyana is quite famous. My website gets some good traffic as well. It is an acquired taste and eventually they will come. Perhaps it is easier today than in my time. Who knows?

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Thank you for your thoughtful, and interesting response, Venerable! I experienced a similar thing, but mine was frustration at the marked dearth of in depth meditation instructions in Mahayana. I spent a lot of time at Mahayana temples, since that’s, for whatever reason, what I was drawn to, and, what I happened to live closest to.

Dogen’s Fukanzazenji, for example is terse, to say the least, and could only lead to proper meditation with some luck. Koan meditation isn’t even meditation in any Buddhist sense that the Buddha would have recognized, it’s more like a bizarre self interrogation that could never lead to access concentration, let alone jhana, nor is it even supposed to. Some Vajrayana meditation is more akin to Hinduism than Buddhism, and on and on. Then there’s all the Mahayana quotes that say meditation isn’t even necessary, trying to meditate to become a Buddha is like polishing a clay roof tile to make a mirror, and so on.

And, so, I was very pleased when I discovered the Visuddhimagga, and works by Classical Theravadin ordained, explaining similar things to that work. Still took me many years to drop the Mahayana stuff entirely, but the Visuddhimagga was a huge boost along the way, and really made my meditation practice take off.

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