Russians are Relativists

I’ve been thinking a lot about a hypothetical creature. This creature lives for a thousand years, and has a memory of a thousand years. It watches humankind as generations upon generations pass. What does it see? To it, we appear to be a species that is constantly spawning like any other animal, and making the same mistakes over and over again. We as a generation must learn the very same lessons as the previous generation. So to this hypothetical creature, we seem a blind species, bumbling about in the fog of the limitations of our memory—but we have one defense: monuments. Through our monuments (whether they are architecture, literature, art, or now—the internet), we have the ability to set place markers, reminders which say “Hey there, next generation. Here is where we left off. Take a good look at this stuff and continue from this point.”

We humans are the only creatures on this planet that have the capacity for this sort of memory, and—unfortunately—we often fail to acknowledge that the very fact that we have this power means we have a duty to use it responsibly.

Is history just what we say it is?—or does it exist in a true form beyond ourselves?

It’s a really tough question to answer because, on the one hand, of course we as human beings write our own histories, and thus all our histories are inherently flawed and only portray the limited perspective of the author, or even firsthand participant. (Note: even the participant has a very limited perspective on what he or she has witnessed; history is the sum total of human choices, natural phenomena, and whatever divine phenomena—thus, even without accepting divine phenomena, we have too many variables for the human mind to fully take account). One can’t help but mention 1984 in this regard, where the argument between the captive protagonist and the authoritarian government hinges upon the retroactive creation of history: whether any history is indeed “true”, or whether it is just what we all agree to have happened. At the heart of this argument is the question of absolutism and relativism.

Acknowledging that humans can never know perfectly what has taken place, and therefore every history is to some extent a confabulation, we can nonetheless endeavor to write histories as accurately as we possibly can, given the resources available—which is exactly what Orwell’s thought police do not do; they, on the other hand, assume that since there is some subjectivity in the compilation of history, the slippery slope fallacy allows them to invent histories entirely. Thus, if everyone agrees the world is flat, then the world is flat. They see no responsibility to do their best to be as accurate as possible. They do not believe in any “true” version of history outside of human experience. And for them, inevitably, the ends always justify the means.


6 replies »

  1. it's weird, this relates to something i was thinking about yesterday. about “truth” vs. perspective and whether or not you can really separate the two. i don't think you can. i think past events are interpretations, there is no ultimate “truth” of what happened because even in the moment it's a creation of each individual's perspective.


  2. yeah, 1984 is amazing. when i read it i couldn't stop thinking about it. history will always be subjective, but i think consensus is good–a sign in the as-objective-as-possible direction.


  3. i don't know, according to who? something specific in the world happened, but the perceptual system is not capable of creating complete representations, and it's also flawed and tricks us in many ways. so yeah, something happened, but our understanding of it is a compilation of individual interpretations, thus there is no ultimate “truth” (at least not that we have access to).


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