History

Reasons to Love History #8: Objective Reality

My Historical Methods professor would be tearing his hair out to hear me talk about objective reality. How many times has he said that history is all interpretation?

It is, of course. When you write an academic history paper or a book or anything, you’re doing it because you believe you have an interesting interpretation of some facts. Even if you’re trying to stick to the facts and be objective, a laudable goal in many endeavors, you’re still doing some kind of interpretation just by selecting the facts you want to present. I’m not trying to convince you that historians are all liars and manipulators, it’s just an unavoidable consequence of the nature of history. It’s a consequence of being a human being with thoughts and opinions, and being a human being who’s interacting with a world and a culture.

Why am I talking about objective reality, then? I guess it’s the public historian and museum enthusiast in me. Even in that morass of interpretations, the facts we’re interpreting are undeniable.

Egyptian Mummy
Wikimedia Commons

This is an Egyptian mummy. What is its significance? Well, we don’t necessarily know. We can debate why the Egyptians mummified people, who the mummy was, and who cares, but this is a goshdarn Egyptian mummy. It’s a fact, outside ourselves. Without it, there would be no significance to debate. Without it, and others like it, and the pyramids, and written documents, and oral histories, we’d have no idea this incredibly fascinating culture ever existed. This mummy could even be a hoax, for all I know, but even that would be something worth discussing.

All of that together is proof there’s a wonderful world outside of my head. That there are things in the world that I could never make up. Add a few thousand years of historians, and it also means that there’s a whole group of people talking about the same thing. For instance, there’s a thing called “Egyptology,” in which people have developed a whole vocabulary and context for discussing the same topic. There are always local variations in specific jargon, but if I read something an Egyptology book on an interesting topic, I can confidently assume that conversation is ongoing in many different areas. I can take a term and use it in a different conversation, because it’s a term that means something in the real world. It references an actual concept. It’s also what makes digital history possible, how a person can search for information in a database or online and expect to come up with something relevant.

So, that’s what I mean by objective reality. It’s about continuity of thought over decades, centuries, and the fact that the thoughts come back to the same objective items. I started this blog to have conversations, because that’s the kind of thing that makes me positively giddy… That we’re all having the same conversation.

My favorite example is how the first (only?) time I missed a history class, I realized I could actually look up Alexander the Great and learn real information that would be the same, even though I’d missed the actual class meetings. Has this ever happened to you? What’s your conversation?

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3 thoughts on “Reasons to Love History #8: Objective Reality

  1. One of the most important things to me is that knowledge — facts — don’t belong to anyone. Most of my education has taken place outside of a classroom, so yeah. You can totally look up stuff and learn about it yourself, but it’s also valueable to have a place where you can discuss and (hopefully) have a teacher help you learn more or point out things you might like to discover more about on your own. That’s the whole mindset I use with Thad and Philemon. (Or, Cleo now I guess too.)

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    1. Oh yes. There’s a reason I’ve only missed one history class. (I actually think it was two, it was that week I broke my ankle). Maybe my next Reason will relate to the atmosphere, although I’m sure that depends on different institutions.

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      1. Yeah, I think atmosphere is really dependent on the institution -and- the composition of your classes. I mean, I’ve had classes where I really like the subject and the teacher but all the students were kind of just putting in their time to get the credit. Then I’ve also had classes where I could have cared less about the subject, but the instructor and my classmates were engaging.

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