We must be careful, then, not to try and introduce into the humanities a false ideal of objectivity derived from the sciences; and yet, we shall suggest, it is just this that the historical-critical method seeks to do. But this striving after objectivity has another odd leaning in that it tends to lead to a kind of canonization of the present. . . . In the humanities, which are concerned with what men have thought and felt and done, time is the primary dimension: here objectivity is going to mean an attempt to overcome the effect of time’s flow, an attempt to achieve immediacy with the past. It is, then, the pastness of the past that presents problems to our understanding: it is the past that is the problem. But the past in contrast to what? Not the literally present, the now: for the present is fleeting, we cannot possess it or arrest its progress. It is then the recent past against which we are measuring the more remote past. The recent past is thought to be comprehensible and acts as a criterion for the more remote past. There is little logic in it, and yet this is the consequence of trying to elide the subjectivity of the present, which contains the one who seeks to understand, in an attempt to achieve an objectivity about the past thought to be possible if it does not contain the subjectivity of the one seeking to understand.
Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery. An Essay on the Nature of Theology, (Oxford: Clarendon, 1983) 28-29.
In the second chapter of Discerning the Mystery, entitled “The Legacy of the Enlightenment,” Andrew Louth traces attempts to deal with the differences involved in knowledge between the natural sciences and the humanities, and the split that has opened up between them. He discusses Vico’s work with its emphasis on human history as something that we know from within, and which requires a connection of the imagination that is prior to reflective intelligence. This is taken further in the hermeneutical work of Dilthey who calls for a process of indwelling in which interpretation becomes the process by which we attempt to enter into the mind of the writer. Nevertheless, both Vico and Dilthey maintain a distinction between subjective and objective truths and thus concede to the Enlightenment the idea that real truth is that which is discovered by scientific method: “what they are claiming for the humanities is not exactly that they uncover truth, but that they are worth while.” (24) They remain tied up in a sort of cultural relativism, which we also see in the work of Collingwood and Hodges.
Louth asks whether the distinction between the humanities and the sciences, and the emphasis on historical consciousness with which the humanities are concerned, necessarily leads to such cultural relativism. He highlights the distinction between subjective and objective truth and the privileging of the present as the most problematical presuppositions of such an approach. Instead of viewing subjective truth as somehow less than real truth, he points (referring to Kierkegaard) to the importance of truth’s significance for the one who engages with it. Thus “the humanities are not primarily concerned with establishing objective information (though this is important), but with bringing men into engagement with what is true.” (28) Moreover, if we are to truthfully engage with the past, then we should not assume that it is only the past that presents a problem and that the present does not also present a problem; the problems that the past presents to us also have to do with our problems in the present and with how we approach it.
This leads to Louth’s discussion of Gadamer’s work which I shall – hopefully – deal with in a future post.