Image by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič



Updated: Nov 23, 2020

This talk was held in August, 2018, as part of the 4th annual History for Peace teaching history conference.

I am truly an outsider. I am not a historian—I don’t quite know what I am! I am supposed to be teaching philosophy. So, if you ask me what I am doing in a workshop meant for school teachers and those who deal with history books, my only response is that I have some interest in education. But for this particular talk, I have three reasons to give in order to explain why this issue is of deep interest to me.

One, my first engagement with related questions on history arose as a response to Professor Romila Thapar’s provocative piece on questioning and critical enquiry. I have been particularly interested in the question of critical thinking and the need for some notion of criticality in public history. What does the notion of critical enquiry in the subject matter of history—not necessarily history seen only as a discipline—actually mean? This question is much closer to my discipline of philosophy because it is about the nature of enquiry, the nature of knowledge and how different disciplines have different knowledge systems. So, that is an immediate connect to what I have been working on so far.

Two, there is the larger question of cultural histories—I am using it in a very loose sense here, not in the sense a historian would. Part of my work has been engaging with Indian philosophical texts and I have been working with a group for long now, the Sri Vaishnavas, related to Ramanuja’s ideas. My interest in them is not merely philosophical but also sociological, primarily to understand the social philosophy of Ramanuja as he was instrumental in challenging beliefs about caste order. In this particular tradition, there is an interesting problem related to history. According to it, there is a lineage of saints—the Alvars—who are regarded as the originators of the Sri Vaishnava tradition. We have similar narratives for the Shaivites. But, if you ask about the time periods of the Alvars, it often leads to disagreement and debate, because the time period by which the Alvars are located for them is drastically different from what historians would believe. The historians’ dating is nowhere close to the cultural dating of the Alvars. This is not special to the Alvars—it is just as true for the Ramayana, it is true for the Mahabharata, for many other ‘historical processes’. But how does one engage with these discrepancies? This cannot be reduced to a mere methodological, materially evidential or even a disciplinary question. And what is this cultural construction of time for people who want to talk about it in this sense of ‘cultural history’?

Three, the larger, broader question about school textbooks. What should the content of a history textbook be? You are specialists in this, but my curiosity about it stems from an earlier debate I had with some educationists on science education. The point I was trying to discuss was: What should a science textbook contain? Should a science textbook only have the content of science, what the scientists have discovered? Or should it, as an essential part of the textbook, have the ‘nature or science’ debate in it? This is a topic which, as I am sure many of you are aware, has been discussed quite a lot in education. Should teaching science not only be about the content of science but about the nature of science? To me, that question seemed to very relevant when I was trying to grapple with these questions on history. Does the teaching of history involve as much the nature of history along with the way history is presented in terms of whatever it is? I am not saying it isn’t. What does it mean to say that the nature of history is the only way by which people can understand what is being taught as history? And what would we mean by ‘nature of history’? Perhaps we would have some divergences there. I would like to suggest an approach to this particular question. The reason I do this in the context of debates in science is mainly because a lot of students in science learn science as a set of assertions about certain things about the world. And assertions, beyond a point, soon become ideological. It is good for school children to learn assertions as facts about which they can write exams, but the line between a set of assertions and ideologies is very thin. The point is to understand why and in what context those assertions are meaningful.

I really want to take Professor Thapar’s point about critical enquiry deeply into the self-critical enquiry of a discipline by itself, so that it recognizes that whatever assertion it makes is grounded on a particular kind of self-enquiry. In that sense, just using the term ‘evidence’ does not help me at all, because in these cultural historical narratives evidence is often used as a term and refers to a very different notion of evidence. The challenge is to be able to present our theory of evidence in a way which trumps their theory, or makes them understand that what they are offering cannot constitute true evidence. This is true in history as much as in the sciences. Often children talk about genetics. Genetics is a classic example of how ignorance can confidently underlie assertions. Children in the fifth and sixth standards will give you lessons on genetics: They have no problem talking about the reality of genes, genes doing this and genes doing that. But what is it to reflect on the nature of a gene? And why is it necessary to believe that something like a gene is meaningful within the discourse of biology? This is part of the problem in scientific texts. Just invoking the notion of evidence does not do the job and, therefore, philosophy of science has spent a lot of time trying to figure out what the nature of evidence is. Can we bring these ideas into the debate on evidence in history?

The domains which both history and science talk about have an interesting aspect in common: the domain that a very large part of science talks about is the invisible world, a world that is not accessible to perception in the way the macroscopic world is. The domain that history speaks of is not just invisible—it is not even ‘present’ in the way the invisible world is present in science. The domain for history is the past, that which is already gone. The invisibility of the past is different from the invisibility of a world beyond our perceptions. It is the similarity of the domain of the unperceived that raises the need for something akin to scientific method in history. For both history and science, the task is to make sense of that which cannot be made visible in the ordinary sense of the world.

However, the domains are invisible in two different ways and you will see that it is related to an essential question about the very idea of time. This is where I want to begin. There are two very important functions of culture. One, to create a sense of what has gone by, a sense of connection to something, through legends or stories or narratives about individuals, communities, the world and the cosmos. Two—and this is an extremely important part of any idea of culture—every culture creates its own sense of time. This is very well known to sociologists because one of the defining ways by which we understand societies is through the way that society creates its own sense of time, a social sense of time at each new epoch. These two features of culture are also important in the context of history, especially in the academic practice of history. This also leads to a conflict between culture and history in the way that each understands time, in the way each narrativizes what we might call ‘temporal sequences’. Although this conflict on the surface seems to be about the idea of time, it is really about the representation of time in two different domains. Here is where philosophy plays a mediating role between culture and history.

If there is a topic that philosophers love, it is Time. What I meant when I said that different cultures (including different disciplines) have different senses of time, I was referring to the model of time each uses in its specific domains. For example, in physics they will talk about nanoseconds. We do not know what nanosecond is except that it is a kind of a measure/count of a particular thing, but I presume historians have not moved to the domain where nanoseconds becomes important for them. Geology has a scale of time which is millions of years and, again, for history, that ‘millions of years’ does not make sense to the narratives of human history that historians talk about. The notion of indigenous is very closely related to the scale of time, more than time itself.

So, disciplines create their own construct of time in order to be able to do something with it. And if we accept that, then we recognize something very simple: notions of time—very loosely I will refer to them as cultural time and historical time—culturally have much in common. Especially their basic problem in conceptualizing time. This is a fundamental problem of human cognition. If you want to say something about time and the past, you have to be able to conceptualize it in some sense. And, interestingly, time seems to be most dominantly conceptualized through spatial metaphors. We tend to talk about time more in the way we talk about space—our awareness and discourse about time is often through the imagery of space. This has deep implications in the definition not of time per se but of what we mean when we speak of ‘the past’. If you ask somebody to say something about ‘time’, they will in general draw on the images of space. The implication is that there is no single idea of past which is available to all cultures in the same manner, and different cultures can produce different ideas of the past, of ways of talking about the past.

The influential work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson on conceptual metaphors tells us a lot about the way in which spatial metaphors are used to talk about time. For example, two holidays can be described as being close together—here, although holidays are separated by time, they are referred to as if they are spatially close. We talk about  deadlines as ‘rapidly approaching’, we look forward to ‘a brighter tomorrow’, troubles ‘lie behind us’ and so on. There is an interesting experiment which I will very briefly mention here, which indicates how complex this problem of talking about the past and the future really is. Typically, we talk as if the past is behind us and the future ahead. We even tend to gesturally point to the future and the past—by spatially pointing ahead of us (future) and pointing behind our back (past). However common these gestures may be, we should remember that they are representative of only one particular conceptualization of the future and the past. Some might even call it a very modernist conception of time. Rafael Núñez, a cognitive scientist, shares an example of talking to some people at the hillside in the Yupno valley, a remote nook high up in the mountains of Papua New Guinea. When he requested them to talk about the past and the future, they used gestures to do so. When an interviewee uttered yesterday, his hands were backward; when he mentioned tomorrow, he leapt forward. Núñez and his team were recording him, and then they had to change the camera angle as the light faded. In doing so, they discovered that they were ‘looking at a steep slope towards a jagged bridge’. They asked the same question about yesterday and tomorrow. And Núñez reports that ‘now when he talked about yesterday, he gestured forward not backward and as he explained tomorrow, he gestured back over his shoulder, up towards the ridge’.

The importance of this observation is that the idea of past and future are not ‘universal’. What he points out is that the future for this person and the community represented something uphill. The future was something difficult, something they had to struggle through towards. The interesting point here is that the community’s conception of time was not anchored in the body as Western modernist conceptions are, but in the contours of their world. You can completely change the way you understand these questions about the past, the future, the back and the front, not by the relationship to the body, not even by reference to the world around you, but by relationship to the larger social structures around you!

In our new book (with Gopal Guru),  we discuss the notion of cultural time present in caste discourses in India. This is a completely different way of understanding how particular notions of social time are created through that concept. There are many such examples. I will give one of how these different formulations of past and future occur in different communities and languages. Languages which talk about the past and future have an important role in defining what the past and the future can be. So the belief that there is an access to the past and the future independent of the linguistic structure that you have, should be understood more carefully. For example, typically in English we say that the past is behind and the future is in the front. What is the basis of this metaphor? Why is the future in the front and the past at the back? The basis of this practice according to cognitive scientists, is a walking metaphor—you walk to the front, you move towards something. Yet there is nothing ‘obvious’ about this. For the Aymara, a South American tribe, the past is in front and the future, behind. The future is behind because you do not know what lies in the future. I am sure everybody in this room will accept that whatever concept of the future you may have, it is not something you know entirely. We do not know exactly what is going to happen one minute from now. Therefore, the image of having the future in front does not make sense to the Aymaras. So even with these very simple conceptualizations of what constitutes past and future, you can get a completely different set of relationships between history and culture.

Another interesting example is how writing systems influence our idea of the past and the future. For example, in English, the past is often represented as leftward and the future as rightward because we write from left to right. In Urdu or in Hebrew, the past is rightward and future is leftward because they are written in the opposite direction to English. In Mandarin, past is above and future is below. So, even more ways of talking about the past. I will share an interesting example of how much these linguistic practices of writing influence our historical consciousness: Asked to  arrange three temporarily ordered images—a banana with its peel intact, a half-peeled banana and a banana half-eaten—it was found that English-language speakers laid the three objects from left to right thus: first the unpeeled banana, then the half-peeled banana and then the half-eaten banana. However, Hebrew-speakers laid them out from right to left—in exactly the opposite order! For English speakers, the order of the objects is the direction of time as moving forward to the future whereas it is the reverse for the Hebrew speakers. Can writing practices have such a great impact on how we imagine the past and future?

I think there is something profoundly interesting in all this. Even if we ignore language, time, past, future, etc.—these are presumably difficult concepts—how can we ignore the different arrangements of the three bananas by different language speakers? If the experiment is robust, then it seems that we arrange these objects based on structures of language and  writing. In other words, the way in which we conceptualize these terms, especially time-ordering, is through these spatial images captured in writing.

There are important implications of such cognitive practices, one of which is the problem of causation. Causation is intrinsically related to time, and the first fundamental principle of cause–effect is a principle of time that is also spatialized, which means that the way in which we talk about the past and history also gets spatialized. Often, while talking to ordinary people and children who are learning history, we can see that they tend to visualize historical processes as places which you traverse. Years such as 1960, ’65, ’70, ’75, ’80 are spoken of as if they are different places we pass through. What really is the difference between coming from Bangalore to Kolkata and coming from 1916 to 2018—other than that the cities on the way are not called Bhubaneshwar, etc., but 1970, 1985, 2000, 2005 and so on? That picture, by which we commonly make sense of progress and movements and events, which seems to be about time is really not about that. In a sense, therefore, it goes back to the question of what, then, is this object of enquiry which these kinds of cultural histories are involved in? What do we really want to talk about? I am going to tie this in with the question about enquiry and method to show how there is this very interesting connection between cultural narratives of ‘historical process’ and the notion of scientific or larger historical method within history as a discipline.

A discipline is characterized by its own modes of enquiry. Obviously, when we want to say that there is a historical method, we also refer to particular kinds or ways of questioning. So if I want to have a discussion with someone who claims that the Alvars were born 10,000 years ago, then what kind of methods of enquiry do I expect that person to follow so that we could have a meaningful debate? An important point about the modes of enquiry is the accompanying aims of enquiry. What is it that you are trying to do when you do something in a particular manner? Typically, in the modern academic tradition, the aim of enquiry has always been to move towards a state of certainty. And that is why this whole question about questions and debate really becomes a starting point for particular forms of enquiry. You begin with a question, you want to move to the other question, and so on. But if you want a movement towards knowledge, if you think the aim of enquiry is to come to a piece of knowledge about something, certainty about something, the obvious question is this: Knowledge about what? And here the question of history becomes very important because when you ask the question ‘Knowledge about what?’, the ‘what’ is not given to us naturally. The ‘what’ of every discipline is constructed as objects of discourse which a discipline creates in order to be able to ask the questions it wants to ask of them. So, if history has to have a meaningful notion of enquiry, it is not just that we have something given to us as the past but that history has to create an object which you could call ‘the past’ or could call a ‘historical event’, or even ‘time’—and then address our enquiries to them in order to know something about that object which is of interest to us. So, the object of interest is extremely important, and it is not just about history. I will give you a classic example and I think a very insightful one.

If you look at science—again, I am looking at science because of the overlap between these methods—then it has a very simple definition for the object of enquiry. If you ask, ‘What is the object of enquiry for Physics, Chemistry or Biology?’, I would say, ‘Nature’. Nature is the object of enquiry for science, a simple fact taught from school onwards. But what is important—and something historically so influential in the development of a discipline—is that there is nothing ‘natural’ about nature. For science to be possible, nature has to be created as a concept. So, science creates a concept called ‘nature’ before it actually does any meaningful science. There are very good accounts of how in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, physics creates a particular view of nature that allows science to be practiced. As a consequence, the idea of nature in Physics is different from the idea of nature in Chemistry, different from the idea of nature in Biology although all of them are studying the ‘same’ object called ‘nature’.

Each of these disciplines creates its object of discourse which influences the mode of enquiry towards that. And if that is the case with disciplines like these, you can then imagine the problems with disciplines that deal with time and the past! What kind of an object of enquiry does history need, and how does it create its object of discourse? If the object of discourse is the past—I am not even saying ‘the truth of the past’—I quote Professor Thapar here ‘about understanding the past’—it need not be specific notions about the truths of the past, it could be some interpretation of the past. Whatever it is, that object about which we want to say something cannot be given to us independent of the disciplinary forces under which we operate, and only under the disciplinary matrices can we create that object which all of us can look at and identify as history. The object a discipline creates defines the method. And obviously, if we have a very different kind of an object of analysis, then the method we create is going to be very different as well. Thus, for history to be possible as a discipline, for historical method to be possible as a meaningful set of practices, we must assume that the historical object is something which is given to us as a stable, unified ‘object’ which allows various perspectives on it and is not temporal in itself.

I will give an example to make this clear. A historical object is open for evaluation and testing, it is open to disagreements between two people, but in order to have that argument, we have to do something to that historical object. The default mode, which is what happens with the idea of a scientific method, is to make the past in the mould of a visual object. We have to consider this possibility that the historical method spatializes the historical objects. Unless you have these kinds of stable objects in front of you, available for your modes of enquiry through which you can derive knowledge, it is not possible to construct what you would call a discipline in the ‘scientific’ sense.

One way of looking at it is to say that when we look at the past, we see the past like an ‘object’. One classic instance of this process comes from the analysis of sound. When does music, a piece of music, become an object of knowledge? What should you do to that transience—because music is the closest thing to the flow of time—that correlates to the idea of time? When we ask what it is to scientifically or historically or critically study music, we find that any form of putting it under that method is to spatialize it. We cannot talk about the time-like nature of music in that sense. So, I would say that the cultural ideas of time and history’s idea of method and enquiry are structurally similar. And that raises very important questions of how to deal with these challenges, how to deal with these questions of enquiry.