Language is not as simple or straightforward as it is considered. Sometimes it becomes very difficult to pin down the meaning of the words with complete precision. Language is neither innocent nor magical, and can be used to manipulate the way we see things. Language can also be used to influence and persuade people. It can sometimes be illusory if the historian uses weasel words or words laden with emotions. Language is power. If it can be used to educate or enlighten people; it can also be used to fuel the flames of hatred. For example, Hitler was a great orator, expert in turning the thoughts of people through his powerful rhetoric!
According to the “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the particular language we speak causes us to think in a certain way, and that speakers of different languages consequently perceive the world quite differently5”. Whorf argues that language shapes the way we think and different ways of speaking suggest different ways of thinking. Ludwig Wittgenstein7 the great twentieth century philosopher, suggested that language gives us a representation of the world, and the nature of this world is fundamentally limiting. He argued that defining what we mean is totally impossible! Misused words often generate misleading thoughts. George Orwell in his famous dystopian novel 1984 says “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thoughts7.”
The central doctrine of rationalism is that we can discover important truths about reality through the use of reason alone. Reason is considered as a strong way of knowing for the great power it has had in human history. Not to talk of history even all scientific theories and hypotheses are proved on the anvil of rational principles of coherence and consistency. It is the strength of reason that theories are repudiated unless they are accompanied by reason in support of their claim. A historian has to rely on his reason as history is all about the dark past without any ray of light; without any hope of miracle like resurrection or revivification.
But according to Chesterton, “Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all9” Moreover the rationalists are skeptical of knowledge based on perception and on the grounds that our senses can all too easily lead us astray. Thus reason and skepticism move hand in hand. More often than not a historian may suffer from confirmation bias while using his reason to write history.
It is claimed that children who are addicted to watching violence on television will become violent as the time runs on its merry speed. But does watching television have anything to do with violent behavior? I study in India where people are very religious and god fearing. The Indians believe that taking a dip in the river Ganges during the Kumbh festival will shower spiritual gains on the devotee. If once we start believing that the French are arrogant and the English cold, we will notice a number of examples that can confirm our prejudice. There is in fact no way we can justify our beliefs even on the basis of experience.
In my opinion a historical account based on reason cannot be considered true as reasoning is a complex process and reasoning modes are not universal. Most of the tenets of rationalism have evolved from Greek culture or Confucianism-without any convergence of a single set of common rules. Thus reason is nothing but our faith and faith differs from person to person. My reason says that it was Hector and not Achilles who was the greatest warrior as the former fought for his country while the latter for his pride. But will all agree with me?
To conclude I would like to say that although language and reason are very conducive to a historian in his quest for knowledge, they cannot be fully relied on. The historian being a man of flesh and blood may be prone to the venom of pride, prejudice, laziness and ignorance. Truth is stranger than fiction, and the historian may befuddle us through his biased language and imaginative thinking. Before coming under the sway of enticing history we must use our senses and put the historical account to the test of evidence and truth, always keeping in mind that history is nothing but a fable agreed upon. (Napoleon Bonaparte)