Saturday, August 17, 2013

Why I don't like it when historians tell me what someone thought 1000 years ago.

Since Freud society has become more and more aware that much of our motivation is unconscious. We now have a long list of cognitive biases, all of which are unconscious. If a person him/herself is unaware of the way his/her brain comes to the conclusions which reach consciousness, how then is a historian to know their specifics?

We also know that in competitive situations, the best strategies are sometimes to choose at random among alternatives. The random choice makes it impossible for the opponent to calculate exactly what one will do. In the past people may have intuitively chosen to do act with such randomness. How is a historian to accurately portray such behavior by explaining what the subject of the history "really thought".

I just heard that the Romney family voted as to whether Mitt Romney would run for president in the 2012 election, and Mitt himself voted against the run. Then he ran. He certainly did not state while running that he had recently thought it a bad idea. Had he won, do you think he would have told the world later that he ran against his own best judgment? People sometimes make public statements designed to produce an effect that they desire rather than to "convey the truth". That is probably doubly true when someone is hiding a crime or a dumb mistake.

How about when a historian reads the memoirs of close associates of the subject of the history. Think of John Fitzgerald Kennedy's associates and their memoirs. Are you sure that they are writing what they really believe? Are you sure that what they believe is the objective truth?

How about the diaries of the person in question? It may be that a teenage girl confides to her diary her deepest thoughts, but does she do so if she knows that her parents are surreptitiously reading the diary? The question came up recently with respect to historians reading John Quincy Adams' diary. The Adams papers are extensive and have been available to historians. Are you really sure that JQA would share his deepest thoughts with his diary? Do you suppose that the son of a president, a president himself, and a member of a family that would have famous and important people in future generations would be unaware that there would be public interest in his diaries? Are you sure that he would not color his recorded thoughts for the consumption of others? Indeed, do our conscious minds always recall the full conscious motivation behind our choices?

Historians can tell us what someone is recorded as having done. Historians can tell us what they themselves think the motivation might have been, or what others have said or written about what they themselves think the motivations of a subject might have been, or even what the subject himself said or wrote about the motivations. I retain the right to be annoyed when a historian dares to tell me why a historical figure "really did something" or what that figure "really thought".

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