04 June 2011

Philosophic Considerations--Do They Matter

This past semester, I had the privilege/punishment? of taking a class that discussed the topic of philosophy of history fairly extensively.  I must confess that I actually dreaded having to take the class based upon my slim introduction to the topic of historiography at Marshall University several years ago.  I found that it made my head hurt and wondered what the purpose of the whole topic was.  Who cares how we know what we know?  Who cares how this specific school of thought sees the world? What does it matter to the study of history.  All we need are the facts, right?

Well, this course in historiography, while some of the concepts actually did in a way make my head hurt, was, in fact, definitely worth the time (most weeks anyway).  I must confess that some of the books not only made my head hurt, but they also left me terribly confused.  My reading of Michel Foucault's The Archaeology of Knowledge especially left quite a bit to be desired.  I found his work quite obscure and difficult, and that probably skewed my opinion of the book.  This was not the only book that I had a problem getting through from a strict reading standpoint (gender and postcolonial studies were outside my comfort zone, as well), but I must confess that most of the in-class discussions definitely raised some interesting questions as to the philosophy of history.

I am not terribly concerned with questions of historical epistemology (i.e. how we know what we know about the past).  A somewhat existentialist standpoint can explain that.  For example, I know that I have a past.  Therefore, I can assume from my experience, that my father remembers his past (which he can talk about at length).  If his father were still around, he may be able to remember his past.  People in the past wrote down or left other sorts of traces (i.e. archaeological evidence) that represent fragments of past occurrences.  Therefore, I don't question my existence, nor do I question the existence of the past.  Frankly, I don't really have much patience for those who seriously engage in such speculations for long.

However, the idea of philosophy and history combined do bring up interesting questions.  Is there one unified history that humans can truly understand, or are our understandings necessarily limited by 1. our evidence and 2. our perspective?  I am not falling into the trap of moral relativism here.  I do believe that there are certain moral absolutes that are either right or wrong for all people in all places in all times.  For example, killing a human being on purpose for no good reason is always wrong (there is, of course, the argument for self-defense and/or just warfare).  However, there are certain "gray areas" in which our cultural and/or intellectual background can influence our interpretation.  The question is, how much do our backgrounds influence our understanding of history?  Also, can we get around our context and come to a better understanding of the past?  I believe that these questions are of importance even, possibly especially, when studying the topic of church history.  These will be considerations for future posts.  I would be interested in any input on the subject.

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