Values and limitations of sources

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Another way to explore my second question on the consequences of shared knowledge shaping personal knowledge, in light of the bandwagon fallacy, is through looking at the area of knowledge of history. Historian Jacob Burckhardt has said that “history is the most unscientific of the sciences” since it an investigation of “what one age finds most remarkable in another” (qtd Kitsch 140). Every era was defined by a certain zeitgeist, a school of thought that dominated the time period and influenced the people. It is this zeitgeist that historians seek to record and understand, however they themselves are under a certain influence as well. It would seem that “to understand the past we view it with the same eyes we understand the world around us” (Weber). History is subjective to the times they are written in.

As an IB HL History student, I have had to assess the values and limitations of sources. One of the topics our class covered was the Vietnam War. During and directly after the end of the Vietnam War, interpretations of American foreign policy was greatly critical. A great amount of emotion after the devastating loss of the the Americans led to great criticism. Through the way of knowing of emotion I understand how their perspective had been shaped by the mood of the nation, the shared melancholy towards the seemingly ignorant American intervention. The first great change in historiography, the revisionist view, came about towards the end of the 1970’s.

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Historians believe that “this reinterpretation of the war reflected the desire of conservatives to overcome the country’s fear of ending up in another overseas debacle” (Catton 9) in lieu of the economic decline the United States was facing. Thus, historiography on the Vietnam War changed as the emotions from the defeat in the conflict subsided and were replaced by fear of the domestic condition of America. Less critical of the United State’s intentions in Vietnam, revisionists looked at how American defeat was not a loss to the Vietnamese but a loss in Washington within themselves. Historiography shifted it’s focus and beliefs as the social atmosphere shifted. The way of knowing of perception allows us to derive at the implication that historians individual view of the past is shaped against the backdrop of shared knowledge, the zeitgeist.

An implication of informational social influence is that it leads to stagnation of thought and lack of progression in society. For change to occur, society needs to find a way not to be constrained by the paradigms of the majority. However, this implication forms the basis of my counter-claim, my previous argument having been grounded by the assumption that historians cannot detach themselves from the times. If that assumption results in the implication of stagnation then it cannot entirely be true due to the numerous schools of thought: orthodox, revisionist, post-revisionist and so on and so forth. Historians are able to reevaluate history due to their ability to detach themselves from the influence of their time and shared knowledge, rather than in spite of it.

What I learn in history class are an accumulation of the personal knowledge of all these different historians. It would seem that shared knowledge can be shaped in some part by personal knowledge, rather than just a one way street and that a “multiplicity of perspectives contributing to the collective historical knowledge” (Stahl 188). Through the way of knowing of reason, the implication of shared knowledge being shaped by personal knowledge influences how our entire knowledge throughout the world is constantly being reformed and reinvented.

The way we view our world, and thus where we gain our personal knowledge from, is not independent of the shared knowledge of society. The larger institute, our society, influenced the individual, whether we are aware of it or not. The conclusion that this leads to is that our shared knowledge changes as well, as shared knowledge is derived from the people as a collective. This loop leads to shared knowledge influencing personal knowledge, which, in turn, endorses the shared knowledge. Throughout history and throughout life, ideas are mere repackages of old ones.


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