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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Can We Accurately Describe History?

by Seattle Jon (bio)

Trying to describe the past as it actually was is a real challenge. I put forward that it cannot be done. Why? Because of the limitations all of us share in approaching any past happening, limitations that no analytical skill or linguistic or statistical tool can transcend. Taken from Richard D. Poll's History and Faith: Reflections of a Mormon Historian, these six limitations are:

Perspective: Each of us looks at what is happening from a certain point of view; we cannot see it in the round. We have invented machines that do a better job of looking at a thing from all sides than we are able to do with our human perceptions.

Bias: We bring not only a point of view to every event but also prejudices. We may think our approach to books and articles is relatively neutral and dispassionate, but bias—prejudgment—concerning subject or author had something to do with our decision to read and it will certainly affect what we retain.

Memory: Each of us can remember occasions, either amusing or stressful, in which efforts to recall a relatively recent conversation generated differences about the content and even the conclusions reached. Memory affects all events.

Records: As time and distance affect our memories of an event, we confront our dependence upon documents and artifacts and the problem of the incompleteness and impermanence of all records.

Context: As we try to reconstruct the past, we find that we cannot deal with the whole situation. We look at a happening that has meaning, in part, because of the other things that were going on at the time, but we cannot take them all into account. Some have been forgotten, others have fuzzy details, and the synthesizing of others may be unmanageable.

Selective Remembering: We tend to remember some things—like pleasure—better than others—like pain. Sometimes, in looking back, we transform pain into a kind of pleasure, even spiritual exaltation. For example, some of the accounts of the Mormon handcart pioneers give an impression that as their feet froze, they lay in the snowdrifts quietly singing the fourth verse of "Come, Come Ye Saints" while waiting for deliverance.

Per Poll: "If all these limitations complicate the historian's reconstruction of a single event, surely he or she should speak of the causes, connections, and meanings of interrelated events and the personalities, ideas, and motives of people with even less certitude, for reasons that readily come to mind."

These limitations don't only apply to historians and mormon history, but in our own personal and family histories as well. Can we, as limited beings, get close enough to history for it to be helpful, or is getting close to actual history even important, especially when history is sometimes perilous ... what think ye?

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