The Relativity Theory of History

HistorybooksThere are many running theories on how to appropriately record history for posterity’s sake. I would consider myself an armchair historian, not a scholar or professional but I have read or heard a lot of differing perspectives on the topic. I have recently finished two books on the history of the United States – the first “A Patriot’s History of the United States” by Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen, and the second “A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn. These two lengthy volumes represent two very different perspectives on the history of the U.S. and the experience of having read both has got me to thinking. Which version is the truth? Which author is being honest? I have come to the conclusion that both accounts are true as opposed to the common view that reality  lies somewhere in the middle of the telling. The issue is perspective. To assist in relating my veiwpoint on this topic I am going to refer to a concept in physics known as simultaneity which has something to do with Einstein’s general theory of relativity but which also provides a good metaphor for explaining what I mean when I say I think both perspectives are correct.

A popular thought experiment developed to assist in the understanding of the concept of simultaneity is known as the train and platform paradox. The experiment consists of one observer midway inside a speeding traincar and another observer standing on a platform as the train moves past. A flash of light is given off at the center of the traincar just as the two observers pass each other. The observer on board the train sees the front and back of the traincar at fixed distances from the source of light and as such, according to this observer, the light will reach the front and back of the traincar at the same time.

The observer standing on the platform, on the other hand, sees the rear of the traincar moving (catching up) toward the point at which the flash was given off and the front of the traincar moving away from it. As the speed of light is finite and the same in all directions for all observers, the light headed for the back of the train will have less distance to cover than the light headed for the front. Thus, the flashes of light will strike the ends of the traincar at different times. But which observer is right in their interpretation of the events? Well, they both are. It is a matter of perspective.

As this concept applies to history, I like to think of it in terms of attempting to describe the growth, development and ripening of an apple in terms of the movement of atoms involved in that process. Historical accounts of significant periods of time have a tendency to focus on the events considered most important for the teller’s perspective. The reason for this is because recording the multitude of details involved in the overall period covered would take volumes and prove somewhat useless for anyone not solely devoted to an in-depth understanding of the period. So historians are inevitably left to summarize the intricate details of a period of history to some end. That end depends on the writer’s perspective.

Its much like trying to describe the life cycle of an apple by describing in detail the movement of the atoms at the center of that process. If you are the apple, your description of the incorporation of nitrogen, oxygen and other elements would likely favor the sacrifice of independent elemental existence in terms of the benefit of the development process as a whole. But what if you are a community of nitrogen atoms or the apple blossom? Your description of the apple’s coming of age may be less generous seeing as it’s development ultimately calls for your dissolution or demise. However, at the center of it all the atoms move, collide, break apart, release energy and essentially do what the laws of nature tell them to do regardless of any implied end, i.e. growing an apple.

I am of the opinion that the discrepancies in the historical record are less a matter of who is right and who is wrong than they are a matter of who is telling the story because ultimately history is a form of art and not science, at least pure science as is often implied in rhetorical arguments regarding historical accuracy. And because the amount of detail needed to record history in a pure scientific sense would be too monumental an undertaking for the human capacity, we have made it an art form which has been and will always be widely open to interpretation. For example, have a pure scientist describe to you a piece of music, say Handel’s Messiah and she will likely use phrases such as the speed of sound, the Doppler effect, mechanical, longitudinal, and pressure waves, decibel, pitch and frequency. Then ask a orchestra conductor or jazz musician to describe the same piece and he will likely use more subjective terms. The difference between the two is that if you ask any pure scientist you will likely get a very similar answer. But request a description of Handel’s work from a variety of people less interested in how it works than what it means to them or how to interpret it and you will see a discrepancy in their descriptions. The discrepancy is not due to a lack of knowledge on the part of one person or another, but rather it is a matter of perspective. I may think Handel’s Messiah sucks while you feel it is a glorious masterpiece. In the end we are both right because our perspectives are not the same.

As human beings, when we can’t quantify something we typically resort to qualifying that thing. But to qualify something means to place value on it independent of an external concrete reality, it is based on our own personal experiences, who we are as people, what we value and why. There is no epistemological quality to this process. There is no ontological character to Handel’s Messiah that renders it glorious in everyone’s mind. There are social and cultural influences that may lead a certain population to have similar opinions. But those same influences, from a different sociological environment may yield very different results.

This leads me to my next point. Just because my perspective is different than yours does not mean I loath you as a person for the things you choose to place value on. We can agree that Handel’s Messiah is a piece of music but we may never agree on the quality of that piece of music. We can agree that an apple is a fruit (leave tomatoes out of this) but we may not agree on whether that fruit is good. And because we may disagree on those things we may also disagree on whether the effort that went into composing Handel’s Messiah was worth it or whether the energy expended and elemental resources used to bring an apple into existence produced something of value. In the end, history is the interpretation of events that produce an outcome. Your interpretation of those events will depend on the value you place on what ultimately was produced, and may differ from mine based on perspective. To assume history is anything other than a literary art form is to place it in an arena where it does not belong. However, because  history carries with it political and sociological implications, the perspective of the creator, unlike any other art form, must be well understood before value is placed on a particular piece.

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About jasoncbritton

I write because I think its the only sincere method of communicating emotion. I love my family. I struggle to be good. It does not come easy. View all posts by jasoncbritton

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