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Language And Reason In History History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

Language and reason, two ways of knowing, play important roles in the area of knowledge of history. They are both concerned with the extent to which they provide objective knowledge in history. The role of language in history is to provide a clearly crafted unbiased account of a historical event which is described to people through language, whereas the role of reason in history is to help the reader in order to make rational decisions in evaluating the validity of a historical account.

Our first knowledge issue concerns the extent to which the language a historian uses, reflects their own paradigms. A historian must analyse information in the past accounted by other historians in order to gain insight into what has occurred, then pick and choose and organise in accordance with his insight as to what is significant (Abel, 1976, p. 165). As different historians will have differing perspectives about certain events, the history a historian writes about, “will be based on his particular interests, which are, in turn, partially dependent on his culture” (Alchin, 2006, p. 194). For example, a nationalist Croatian historian writing about the War of Independence in Croatia would hold a very different perspective to a communist Yugoslavian historian recounting the same event. One could argue that communism was not executed properly and therefore encouraged the rise of nationalism which slowly led to the dissolution of Yugoslavia, while the other would claim that communism is an effective sociopolitical structure and the war need not occur.

A counter claim of this is that scientists are objective as scientific measurement can be tested independent from the individual scientist who proposes them despite the language they may use. This is because scientific explanations are not as reliant on the use of language because in order for a scientific law to be discovered or proven, experimental results must confirm an initial hypothesis. Therefore scientific explanations are more successful in providing us with objective knowledge.

Similarly, another knowledge issue deals with the extent to which historians attempt to be objective. It could be argued that, since the past no longer exists, it cannot be changed and is therefore completely objective. However, as historians evaluate information based on their interpretations of the text through their own paradigms, the interpretation depends not only on the objectivity of the historian writing it but also on the person who reads it. This is evident in Russia in a new middle school history teacher’s manual by Alexander Filippov, which calls Stalin the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic’s ‘most successful’ leader and an ‘effective manager.’ Filippov believes, that “it is wrong to write a textbook that will fill the children learning from it with horror and disgust about their past and their people. And it is why we need to have a generally positive term for the teaching of history in the middle school which will build optimism and self assurance for their young people and make them feel as though they can play their part in the bright future of this country” (Josef’s comeback, 2010). Filippov is not being objective as he is writing ‘positive’ history influenced by Vladimir Putin, in order for the past events to not seem so daunting on the pupils learning about the history of their country. The implication of this is that Filippov is refraining the children from being able to fully understand and appreciate the events which took place, which has influenced how the country is today. These implications will be still present in one hundred years from now when there will not be any civilians alive who intrinsically know the full extent of Stalin’s impact on Russia and therefore can not equip the children with truth of events as they will be heavily influenced by the ‘positive’ history as written in their textbooks.

When a text is mistranslated from one language to another, this will hinder the extent of its objectivity. For example, when the Treaty of Waitangi in New Zealand was translated from English to Māori in 1840, in the Māori text of article one, British translators used the inadequate term ‘kawanatanga’, a transliteration of the word ‘governance’ (Meaning of the treaty, 2010). In the Māori text of article two, British translators used the term ‘rangatiratanga’, a transliteration of the word ‘sovereignty’. The implication of these mistranslations of the Treaty of Waitangi from English to Māori was that in article one, the English version describes that Māori completely give up their ‘kawanatanga’ (sovereignty) and power to the British Crown. The Māori version however only implies a sharing of power as they gave the British a right of governance. Another implication is that in article two, in the English version the Queen guaranteed to Māori the undisturbed possession and control over their lands, forests, fisheries, and other properties, emphasising property and ownership rights. The Māori version however, promises much broader rights in regard to upholding the authority that tribes have always had over their lands and ‘taonga’, this implies possession and protection of things such as language and culture (Tourism New Zealand, 1999). There would have been no mistranslation in the Treaty of Waitangi if the British translators had used ‘rangatiratanga’ in article one of the Māori text and ‘kawanatanga’ for article two, resulting in the problem of meaning and understanding from the misuse of language.

Furthermore, an additional knowledge issue deals with the extent to which reason helps us acquire objective information in history. As the historian never indeed knows all there is to be known about an event, the historian will then select their facts and decide how they will describe them. As a result of this, historical accounts may be confronted, compared, and contrasted, emphasis and bias may be made manifest; evidence may be scrutinised; arguments may be evaluated (Abel, 1976, p. 168). Often a historian will use both deductive and inductive reasoning to draw a conclusion about a historical event. Using these particular methods, a historian can, move from the general to the particular (deduction) and then from the particular to the general (induction), in order to state a conclusion that was previously unknown and help bring us closer to the truth. However, deduction turns out to be no more certain than induction. This is because the premises on which deductive reasoning about the world is base must be derived from induction. An example of this is that due to the use of fallacies when historians describe historical events in the past they make unwarranted inferences and draw a conclusion from something which does not follow from premises from which they initially drew it. Subsequently objective information is not always acquired. For example, “during the ‘witch hunt’ against communist in the USA in the early 1950s, Senator Joe McCarthy’s case against one alleged communist was that ‘there is nothing in the files to disprove his communist connection’ “(van de Lagemaat, 2005, p. 127). However, in order to show that someone is a communist; we need positive evidence of their political affiliation. This is because fallacies of this type occur if you attempt to “claim that something is true on the grounds that there is no evidence to disprove it” (van de Lagemaat, 2005, p. 127). When historians use such fallacies they do not allow the reader to obtain objective knowledge in history and are therefore not enabling the reader to obtain the inner truth about something.

Our last knowledge issue concerns the extent to which vague language can lead to poor reasoning in history. The role of reason in history is to make logical and rational decisions when it comes to evaluating sources and their validity. One of the main reasons of poor reasoning in history is the ambiguity of the language in which the historian describes a historical event. This is because, history is constantly being rewritten, not simply because new facts are discovered, but because it is always perceived by an individual as wrongly written. The past is in a steady process of reinterpretation and reconstruction as we want it to be meaningful to us in the present (Abel, 1976, p. 164). Historians use vague language in order to convey an idea to individuals as they themselves are not consciously aware of what happened in the past as they rely on primary and secondary sources to provide them with the information. In turn, however, “there may be more than one ‘true’ account of the past” (Abel, 1976, p. 168), as through the ambiguity of the language used, two historians of opposing views on a particular event could both be providing the reader with true information, but due to the vague language used, it leads to poor reasoning of which the historians are not able to make explicit claims of what occurred.

Both the roles of language and reason are important in acquiring the reader with objective information in the area of knowledge of history. Although language and reason differ in the way in which they help the reader obtain this knowledge, they both aim to provide an account which is true. As the reader, we hope that we will obtain a truth which is objective, however inevitably there will be elements of personal paradigms and bias which will hinder the extent to which the information in history is objective. Language and reason play an equally important role in history and as a knower I do not deem one to play a more critical role than the other.

In the late 1830s, there were approximately 125,000 Māori in New Zealand and about 2000 settlers. More immigrants were arriving all the time though, and Captain William Hobson was sent to act for the British Crown in the negotiation of a treaty between the Crown and Māori.


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