Can We Really Understand the Past?
Came across this passage in economist Daniel Kahneman's new book Thinking, Fast and Slow:
The idea that the future is unpredictable is undermined every day by the ease with which the past is explained. As Nassim Taleb pointed out in The Black Swan, our tendency to construct and believe coherent narratives of the past makes it difficult for us to accept the limits of our forecasting ability. Everything makes sense in hindsight, a fact that financial pundits exploit every evening as they offer convincing accounts of the day’s events. And we cannot suppress the powerful intuition that what makes sense in hindsight today was predictable yesterday. The illusion that we understand the past fosters overconfidence in our ability to predict the future.
The often-used image of the “march of history” implies order and direction. Marches, unlike strolls or walks, are not random. We think that we should be able to explain the past by focusing on either large social movements and cultural and technological developments or the intentions and abilities of a few great men. The idea that large historical events are determined by luck is profoundly shocking, although it is demonstrably true. It is hard to think of the history of the twentieth century, including its large social movements, without bringing in the role of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Zedong. But there was a moment in time, just before an egg was fertilized, when there was a fifty-fifty chance that the embryo that became Hitler could have been a female. Compounding the three events, there was a probability of one-eighth of a twentieth century without any of the three great villains and it is impossible to argue that history would have been roughly the same in their absence. The fertilization of these three eggs had momentous consequences, and it makes a joke of the idea that long-term developments are predictable. [Emphasis mine.]
So, Kahneman, perhaps unintentionally, brushes aside one of the core claims historians supposedly make about history: that we can understand it.
But do historians actually make this claim? I seem to remember being taught in school about the inherent limitations in understanding the past, both in terms of records (much of what we know about Rome comes from records that were preserved by Middle Age monks, for instance -- and they made choices about what to preserve and transcribe), and that anyway the past, as L.P. Hartley so wonderfully put it, "is a foreign country; they do things differently there." Modern historians, so the thinking goes, should always be aware of their own historicity.