The killing of History: why relativism is wrong
On The Killing of History by Keith Windschuttle... ("... he lands many solid punches, such as when he takes on the heavily published French scholar Michel de Certeau, who has called writing a tool of the power elite. "For someone who thinks writing is a form of oppression," Windschuttle twits, "he has done a lot of writing." " )
Accustom your children constantly to this; if a thing happened at one window, and they, when relating it, say that it happened at another, do not let it pass, but instantly check them; you do not know where deviation from truth will end. — Boswell’s Life of Johnson
There are no facts, only interpretations. — Friedrich Nietzsche
Where is Dr. Johnson when we need him? How well could we profit from his scruples when it comes to the question of truth. For we live at a time when truth is everywhere under attack. I am not talking about anything arcane or polysyllabic: just plain, factual truth, as in “The battle of Agincourt took place in October 1415” or (more generally) “The documents support my claim and do not support his.”
It is perhaps easy enough to discount some of the more florid examples of the assault on truth. I daresay that few sensible people take seriously the claims of Holocaust deniers. What is significant, however, is the way in which such extreme doctrines tend to be dismissed. Increasingly, they are repudiated not as pernicious falsehoods— the response that Dr. Johnson would have insisted upon—but as more or less unfortunate “perspectives” or “points of view,” the gospel being that everyone is “entitled” to his own such hobbyhorse, no matter how flagrantly at odds with the truth it might be. Never mind that such an attitude not only disparages truth, but also erodes the legitimacy of serious opinion.
Or take the recent movies directed by Oliver Stone. Anyone who looks into the matter knows that Mr. Stone’s portrayals of Presidents Kennedy and Nixon are exercises in (left-wing) political fantasy. Yet the popularity of such movies testifies not—or not only—to the political commitments of those who patronize his movies. It also testifies to the public’s capacious appetite for historical “reconstruction”: that is, its appetite for history glamorized and minus the burdensome requirement to tell the truth— history, to put it in a word, “lite.” Dr. Johnson would not have liked history lite.
There are no doubt many reasons for this development. One important reason is the degree to which Western intellectual elites —in the media, the world of culture, and above all in the academy—have reneged on their commitment to truth. This abdication has a long and complex heritage. And it comes in many forms and degrees of finality, from various modes of trial separation to, in extreme cases, irrevocable divorce. As always in the world of ideas, what matters is not so much the existence but the influence and prevalence of such commitments. In the present case, the cavalier attitude toward truth has reached epidemic proportions. It has, indeed, become part of the intellectual furniture of our age, presupposed rather than argued for.
One depressing sign of this situation is the absolute horror with which the idea of “objective truth” is regarded in chic academic circles today. Another is the widespread tendency to downgrade facts to matters of opinion—a tendency that follows naturally from the rejection of objective truth. This shows itself in the amazingly prevalent assumption that truth is “relative,” i.e., that the truth of what is said depends crucially upon the interests, prejudices, even the sex or ethnic origin of the speaker rather than—well, than the truth or falsity of what the speaker says. The basic idea is that truth is somehow invented rather than discovered. Typical of this position is the feminist complaint about “male-centered” epistemologies that make false claims to universality (another word that inspires panic) or objectivity.
The Harvard historian Simon Schama provided a more genteel expression of this attitude toward truth in the Afterword to his best-selling harlequinade, Dead Certainties (1991). “The claims for historical knowledge,” Mr. Schama assured his readers, “must always be fatally circumscribed” —fatally circumscribed, mind you—“by the character and prejudices of its narrator.” In other words, the limitations of the historian make the achievement of historical truth impossible. How many college-educated people today would dare to dissent from this assertion? Mr. Schama was at pains to deny that his was a “naïvely relativist position”; yet at bottom, his claim is little more than a chummy periphrasis for Nietzsche’s famous declaration of nihilism: “There are no facts, only interpretations.” It is unfortunate that we lack a squadron of Dr. Johnsons: they might remedy the situation considerably by applying a series of refutations like that delivered against Bishop Berkeley’s idealist philosophy. Except in the case of the Michel Foucault, who might have grown overly fond of Johnson’s method of refutation, the results would almost certainly be salutary.
Not surprisingly, the flight from truth has had especially devastating consequences in the academy. Among other things, it has undermined the integrity of many academic disciplines—has, in fact, done much to undermine the very idea of an academic “discipline,” that is to say, a field of study with a generally agreed upon subject matter and shared tools of inquiry.
The dizzy proliferation of “studies” programs is an important sign of this decay. Women’s studies, gay studies, Afro-American studies, Chicano studies, peace studies, textual studies: the metastasis of these and other such pseudo-subjects in the academy betokens not the extension but the breakdown of academic disciplines. It is worth stressing that such programs, though advertised as “cross-disciplinary,” are in reality anti-disciplinary; they require not the mastery of multiple disciplines but the abandonment of disciplinary rigor for the sake of fostering a prescribed ideology. The paradigm of all such efforts is “cultural studies,” an alarmingly popular intellectual solvent that is characterized not by its subject— which can be anything at all—but its attitude. The two mandatory ingredients for cultural studies are (1) political animus and (2) a hostility to factual truth; “content” is entirely discretionary.
To date, the assault on truth in the academy seems to have been most damaging to the study of literature—partly because departures from factual truth are not always so readily detectable when the subject is literature, partly because departments of literature were among the first to capitulate to such trendy and destructive fads as deconstruction, structuralism, and cultural studies in all its unlovely allotropes. But few if any subjects have escaped unscathed. Philosophy, law, art history, psychology, anthropology, sociology: all have been playing an aggressive game of catch-up with literature departments in this regard. Even history, whose raison d’être, one might have thought, was a commitment to factual truth, has suffered. So, too, the natural sciences: the theory and philosophy of science—if not yet the actual practice of science—have increasingly become hostage to sundry forms of epistemological incontinence, as the logic and substance of science is deliberately confused with the sociology of science. According to some observers, such ideas have even begun making headway in schools of business management and accounting—though regrettably not, it seems, among those accountants employed by the Internal Revenue Service. A splendid chap called Nicholas Fox, who lectures in English medical schools, may have provided this week’s ne plus ultra of social constructivism. In his bookPostmodernism, Sociology and Health (1993), Mr. Fox assures readers that such terms as “patient” and “illness” are “sociological fictions” that can be cleared up by “elements of feminist theory and Derridean concepts of différance and intertextuality.”