N. T. Wright on the Objective/Subjective Knowledge of History

March 08, 2019

“History finds itself stuck between the two poles. Is it a sort of ‘objective’ knowledge, or is it all really ‘subjective’? Or is this a false dichotomy? What sort of knowledge do we have of historical events? On the one hand, historical knowledge is subject to the same caveats as all knowledge in general. It is possible to be mistaken. I may think I am holding a book when it is in fact a lump of wood; I may think Caesar crossed the Rubicon, but it may in fact have been conceivable that someone else got there first. When, therefore, people talk anxiously about whether there is ‘real proof’ for this or that historical ‘event’, usually concluding that there is not, the chances are that they are at least dangerously near the edge of the positivist trap, the false either-or of full certainty versus mere unsubstantiated opinion. The evidence for Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon is ultimately of the same order as the evidence that what I am holding is a book. Very similar verification procedures, in fact, apply to both propositions. Neither is absolutely certain; neither is so uncertain as to be useless. If we do not recognize this fundamental similarity, we may find ourselves ignoring Cartesian doubt in everyday life and embracing it uncritically for more ‘serious’ issues. In the New Testament field, some critics have made a great song and dance about the fact that the details of Jesus’ life, or the fact of his resurrection, cannot be proved ‘scientifically’; philosophical rigor should compel them to admit that the same problem pertains to the vast range of ordinary human knowledge, including the implicit claim that knowledge requires empirical verification…

… Over and against both of these positions, I propose a form of critical realism. This is a way of describing the process of ‘knowing’ that acknowledges the reality of the thing known, as something other than the knower (hence ‘realism’), while also fully acknowledging that the only access we have to this reality lies along the spiraling path of appropriate dialogue or conversation between the knower and the thing known (hence ‘critical’). This path leads to critical reflection on the products of our enquiry into ‘reality’, so that our assertions about ‘reality’ acknowledge their own provisionality. Knowledge, in other words, although in principle concerning realities independent of the knower, is never itself independent of the knower.”

-- N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 34-35.

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Michael Helvey

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