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Bose, S.

Table of contents

Sen and B. Subbarayappa, eds. Kelkar also recommended the institution of another Centre dedicated to the Study of History of Civilization. Robert William Fogel and G. Elton, Which Road to the Past? Rodolfo Llinas and Patricia S. Churchland edited. Also P. Churchland's article in that book. Toward a Neurobiology of the Mind', pp. David J. Hameroff, Alfred W. Kaszniak and Alwyn C. Scott edited. Carr's What is History along with a critical introduction to Michel Foucault's notion of genealogy' as opposed to causal explanatory history.

Moreover the reader is likely to End it uncomfortably epistemological in its focus and concern. What then is its justification? Its justfication, if any justfication is at all possible, rests solely on the fact that it seeks to introduce the uninitiated to some of the basic epistemological problems associated with the notion of history. Coming as it does as an introductory topic in a history of science progTsanms it intends to shake any false certitudes that the participant may entertain regarding our knowledge of the past as well as our knowledge of past knowledge.

The presentation is not at all comprehensive, it is frankly introductory. It will have achieved its purpose if it succeds in generating in the mind of the reader a certain degree of confusion. For confusion that comes through the destruction of complacency is the grandma of all intellectual yearnings. And that precisely is as it should be. There is always a need to distinguish between the two senses of history.

Carr wrote an authoritative history of the Bolshevik Revolution". Now 'history' in the sense 1 may refer to any particular course of past events while 2 usually refers to accounts of past human events. Thus when we say that a particular college has History Department we are not implying that the college offers courses in the geological history of our planet or the evolutionary history of anthropoid apes but rather that the college provides its students with the opportunity of dwelling on accounts of our ancestral deeds and misdeeds.

To belabour the point further we might say that Aurangzeb made history as in 1 but Jadunath Sarkar wrote a history as in 2 of Aurangzeb and his times.

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If you think that I am harping too long on a rather obvious distinction please bear with me for a few more moments. To my mind this tqrparently trivial distinction conceals beneath itself the most difficult problem of the philosophy of history. If I say that 2 depends on 1 you will immediately agree, for that is obvious.

But if I say that, in a very important sense I also depends on 2, you will, unless you have already played around with epistemological problems, be perplexed.

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But since I have made it my business to perplex you I hereby declare that in a very profound sense I does depend on 2. There are a things and events and b our decriptions of them. No one disagrees that the elements of b are shaped and conditioned by elements of a.

But I am saying that it is equally true that elements of a, as we know them, are selected, toned and coloured by elements of b. If you are a good polemicist you will immediately see that the catch is in the clause "as we know them". But I will not give you the opportunity of quibbling now and proceed with my arguments. This distinction of his rests on a simple argument. We do not and cannot know the things of the world as they actually are, but as they come to us filtered through our senses and cognitive apparatus.

We are lifelong prisoners of our cognitive setups and so we cannot know the things in their pure non- apparent forms.

Kant's distinction is peibaps valid, yet extremely problematic. But we shall come to these problems a little later. Now let us get back to history. Most of the information that gets relayed down to us gets filtered and toned through the senses and brains of 'observers' in series, and in most cases personal corroboration is impossible. So even if we mie out conscious deceit, it is quite understandable that the bulk of my information is by no means objective but coloured and shaped by the consciousness of others.

But what about the things and events which I perceive directly? Is not my own perception equally subjective and coloured? Kant would have nodded his head in agreement but I shall shelf both this and Kant and continue with testimony. Which is why not every thing 'important' that happens gets carried or is given 'due' weight and one needs to survey any number of newspapers to get a 'balanced' view of things. If this is true of the present it is of course truer of our knowledge of the past.

We have no direct access to the world of the past. We are told that the present is shaped by the past but is it not equally true that we of the present shape our past according to our own likes and dislikes? In studying history what is the epistemological status of the past that we study? Say you are interested in knowing all the 'facts' releyant to the decline of the Mughal empire where would you come across such 'facts' today? As a beginning you might try to read up all that has been written on the subject since JadunaA Sarkar. If you do manage to accomplish such a formidable task of digestion you will be rightfully treated as highly knowledgeable in the area but you will still not be taken as an expert.

This is because you have still not visited the 'facts' themselves and have had a genuine taste of historical reality — i. You can of course improve your qualifications by doing all this and establishing your credentials by contributing to a number of learned journals. Now of course you will be considered a member of the 'experts' club.

Can it be said now that you have a more or less correct and objective view of the period you have so laboriously studied? Let me explain.

Their contemporaneity solves nothing, for the writers are persons caught in the web of history and imprisoned by their own subjectvities and perhaps worst, being contemporary they lack the distance and detachment necessary for evaluating the events they observe. But what, when we get down to it, do these documents — the decrees, the treaties, the rent rolls the blue books, the official correspondence, the private letters and diaries — tell u?

No document can tell us more than what the author of the document thought — what he thought had happened, what he thought ought to happen or would happen, or perhaps only what he wanted others to think he thought, or even what he himself thought he thought So much for documents. Recent debates in archaeological theory show that the bulk of current research is pestered by problems of perspective and interpretation and that archaeological 'facts' no longer enjoy the secure sanctity that they seem to have enjoyed in a positivistic age.

Such is the character of historical objectivity. An undeigraduate student of history quickly learns that historians never seem to agree among themselves. And this is precisely why, while reading history, one should also try to read the historian. For, to paraphrase Kant, we do not get to know the past-in-itself, but the past as it appears to us through the constructions of historians and archaeologists. The latter in their turn are dependent on literary and archaeological sources the epistemological status of which we have already examined.

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  • Now let us get back to Immanuel Kant's thing-in-itself, that inscrutable entity that is the source of our impressions but which we never get to Imow as it actually is. What then is Ae moon- in-itseip. We do not know and cannot say for we do not perceive it. It is the supposed source of our perceptions, not the perception itself. Yet does this entity, so irretrievably beyond our perceptions, hold any meaning for us? No and yes.

    It holds no experiential meaning for us, only perhtqis a conceptual one. The moon-in- itself is the moon absolutely independent of us and our perceptions, the moon that we cannot experience and hence for us an experiential zero. But if we are realists, which we aU are in practice, we know conceptually that there is a moon independent of anybody's perception, but which acts as a source of all our moon-perceptions. This immediately recalls to us the renowned Tagore-Einstein discussion but we cannot go into that here. There is conceptually, a past in itself, the 'real and objective' past, the course of 'real' happenings and events.

    If this be so then what can we say regarding the truth- value of historical accounts?

    Is it possible to say that iftis account of events is truer than that? If "real reality" is irretrievably beyond us then how can we compare the truth-value of one narrative with that of another? In the Kuhnian vision the 'progress' of science is not a sequence of steps proceeding towards greater and greater approximation of truth but a series of paradigm shifts, successive paradigms being simply different from their predecessors rather than being epistemologically superior. In fact paradigms resist being compared in terms of truth value for 1 the paradigms have different presuppositions and concerns : 2 die terms and concepts employed in different paradigms are often incommensurable and 3 comparison between paradigms cannot be achieved from a transcendentally impartial position but has to be done from within a certain paradigm.

    The same approach may be profitably employed in a historiographical discussion, b comparing Herodotus to Braudel it must be borne in mind that these historians are operating under different paradigms and indeed they have quite different ideas about what constitutes history. That most of us would find Braudel's approach closer to what we could call our own, stems largely from the fact that we share Braudel's epoch and milieu and not those of Herodotus.

    Many branches of the physical and the natural sciences have one advantage that history as a discipline lacks.