Intuitive Paradoxes Essay

885 words - 4 pages

In his 1972 article On the Writing and Rewriting of History, L.O. Mink presents some of the intuitive paradoxical issues related to historical knowledge. The first intuitive paradox presented in his work, which I will henceforth refer to as the paradox of historical accessibility (PHA), deals with the difficulty of knowing. Through effective examples, Mink illustrates the difficulty and even impossibility of gaining a complete and accurate knowledge of the actual past. In On the Writing and Rewriting of History, Mink presents the following argument in which he refers to Caesar to support his claims of historical accessibility:
He [Caesar] did cross the Rubicon, and we know that he did, but there are many details about that action- how was he dressed? Was he shaved or unshaved? Did he hesitate and look around before the die was cast?- which we don’t know. But we don’t doubt that the event was detailed and determinate in innumerable such ways.
Here, Mink presents a valid point. There are many minute details progressing ad infinitum, the knowledge of which is essentially impossible at present and any claim to this knowledge would likely be unfounded and dubious. Spatial distance and temporal distance are obviously different forms of measurement, which indicates the differing nature and characteristics of the two ideas. Though spatial is physical in nature while temporal is abstract, temporal distance presents a more formidable barrier to historical investigation since modern modes of transportation grant us an almost unlimited access to any geographic location on earth. It would be hyperbolic to compare the decay of public roadways to the decay of historical evidence as the decay or destruction of original historical documents, for example, presents an impediment that cannot be easily overcame.
Leon J. Goldstein, a professor of Philosophy at the State University of New York- Binghamton, holds the view that historical knowledge cannot be understood through empirical research alone since empirical evidence relies on observations and accounts of the events and these methods are inherently flawed. Each account of a historical event is an interpretation of an event witnessed through the paradigm of the observer. Therefore, any historical knowledge acquired through empirical methods is purely subjective and thus highly moot. From this, one can infer that empirical methodology is imperfect and ineffective in the pursuit of historical knowledge and the only way we can being to approach any sort of historical knowledge is through the means, which we have come to know it. Goldstein goes on to explain in History and the Primacy of Knowing, that it is not necessary that “instances of knowing be always directed toward some purpose” (1977).
P.H. Nowell-Smith address the PHA throughout his response to...

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