The Philosophy of History: On Bias

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To begin: I am not 100% certain this is the right place for this post. However, on reading some of Dr. Sciabarra's work, I realise that his thinking and mine are running parallels in at least one area.

Now: the big question is, "What is History?" The colloquial meaning in English for "history" is "the events of the past." A more academic interpretation would be "a written record of the events of the past, along with interpretations and evaluations of this record."

This leads us to the issue of "unbiased history," which understandably we all value. However, there is no such thing as absolutely unbiased history. The biases may be blatant, as in the case of North Korea and the North Korean government's official interpretation of the Korean War – not to mention the official interpretation on most anything. One should have a familiarity with the facts before visiting the DPRK's official website.

Such wilfull distortions of the past are legion, and we are reminded that "History is often (my amendment) the propaganda of the winners." Beyond that, there are the cultural biases in history.

As we approached a definition of "history," I will venture to propose a definition of "culture." I define "culture" as "shared patterns of beliefs and behaviour amongst a group of people, which define those people as united amongst themselves and separate from outside individuals and groups."

Usually, cultural terms are self referential. In particular, language: we define the "Yoruba language" in itself, as distinct from defining it in the context of other similar languages, as "that language spoken by the Yoruba people." Furthermore, one defining quality of a Yoruba man or woman is that he or she speaks the Yoruba language. The same may apply to religion (the majority of Somalis are Muslim) and customs (the majority of Japanese will not openly disagree with others).

All the above categories are generalisations, which are more or less true of individual members of any given culture; that does not mean they are worthless in general, but it does mean we should remember that everyone is an individual.

We can all see that culture produces its own biases. The Japanese culture is more conformist than many other cultures, in particular than American culture. We should expect that in evaluating history, in judging the right or wrong of any given event, we could expect a Japanese historian to argue that when people refuse to co-operate, there is strife. We might expect an American historian to take the opposite position.

In writing the above, I have underscored another bias of history.

Should we focus on the individual players of history – leaders such as Iosef Stalin and Nelson Mandela, on George Washington and Qin Shi Huang Di, who have (for better or for worse) changed events?

Or, should we focus on the broader events: the larger mass of people beyond the leaders, the common folk whom official history ignores; and of course on the cultural influences on the above-mentioned leaders?

At his website, Chris Sciabarra has addressed the issue, saying, among other things, that:

"The mature Rand argued, I think effectively, that culture is a complex phenomenon that affects people on a mostly tacit level. It is represented in predominating attitudes, in a general emotional atmosphere that becomes the "leitmotif" of a given age and society. People in that society tend to develop, as Rand would say, "the essentials of the same subconscious philosophy" from the earliest impressions of their childhood (Rand 1982, 251)…culture…transmits to individuals implicit beliefs about nature, reality, human beings, masculinity and femininity, good and evil, which reflect the context of a given historical time and place…  

"The absorption of dominant cultural trends by a society's individuals should not be viewed as deterministic, as an assault on the concept of free will. Rather, it is an argument for contextualism. Given Rand's historical and cultural specificity, I think she did a remarkable job of calling into question virtually the entire substance of the Russian "world-view"…ut nobody can question everything in their own culture. We are always a part of the culture we critique. In her cultural theory, Rand applies this principle to everyone but herself. If we are to accept what Rand says about the influence of culture on human beings, why must we exempt her from that very formulation?"

Lest it seem that Dr. Sciabarra is guilty of a contradiction, permit me to restate his thesis in my own words: culture influences individuals, AND individuals influence culture. BOTH are true, and without contradiction. To argue otherwise is to be guilty of a false dichotomy.

I may illustrate Dr. Sciabarra's point by returning to our hypothetical Japanese and American historian. The former would be generally more conformist in his interpretation of events; he will be generally be more inclined to agree with other historians than to propose, as Rand did, a challenge to "the moral code of the past 2500 years." Yet each Japanese is an individual; some are more willing to buck tradition than others.

We can recognise Rand's philosophical achievement at distinctly American. Few other cultures are so individualistic as American culture is in general. Most of us are Americans; we know, from personal experience, that not all Americans are as willing to do this. American culture also contains an element of conformity. This I know from experience.

In Ayn Rand's case we may recall that she did indeed challenge her culture, and was proud to say, as Barbara Branden relates, that she "chose to be an American."

The issue of individual versus culture underlines a common bias of historians, at least among the history I learned in school: an emphasis on the influence of groups and of culture, above that of individuals. An Objectivist approach, reflecting Ayn Rand's perspective, would be to take the opposite bias.

The last line would certainly bring criticism from "true believers" in Objectivism. How can Ayn Rand have a bias? But everyone has a bias: this applies to Ayn Rand as well as to Sir Arnold Toynbee and to Chris Sciabarra, to Plutarch and to Sima Qian. The statement applies to everyone, including myself. Everyone has a bias. That does not necessarily mean dishonesty and deliberately evading issues; it does mean that no one is omniscient.

This is only a beginning in the discussion of bias and history. More could be said, but I will close here. I must emphasise that I am responsible for my own opinions; neither Dr. Sciabarra, nor the administrators of this site, nor any other third party, necessarily agrees with me.

Chrys Jordan

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I don't have time for a detailed response to Chrys's post, but a couple of comments are in order:

1. Ayn Rand defined "culture" in one of her essays or talks. I think that definition is included in The Ayn Rand Lexicon, if anyone is interested.

2. Regarding "bias," since Chrys focuses so strongly on it in his piece, it would be helpful to define the term. I don't have a dictionary at hand, but I think it is imperative not to equate "bias" with "context" or "point of view." The usual implication of the term "bias" is that one is either deliberately or involuntarily ignoring some of the relevant facts. In other words, in being biased, one is either choosing or being caused to not objectively consider all the facts in a given context that bear on one's evaluation or opinion about that context.

But having a point of view or context of knowledge does not automatically mean that one is "biased," at least not in the sense that one is inescapably warped by one's being a non-ominiscient creature. "Bias," in the relevant sense, only has meaning in the context of a creature that is able to grasp all the pertinent facts, rather than air-brushing some of them out of the way. In other words, "we're all biased" is an example of the Fallacy of the Stolen Concept.


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Actually we agree. I will go ever further. Rand divided philosophy into 4 divisions:


Later she tacked on:


There are two categories running throughout her work, however, that actually need separate philosophical categories:

    Man's nature

I became aware of this with Nyquist's book that Fred Seddon reviewed.

Interestingly, Rand's first nonfiction book had the title essay devoted to the philosophy of history: For the New Intellectual. As an example of the kinds of issues a philosophy of history would deal with, as opposed to actual recounting of events, is dealt with in her identification of two archetypes (with Nathaniel Branden coining the terms) - and replacements of them - who cause events in human history:

The Bad Guys:

    Attila (rules people by force)
    Witch Doctor (rules people by faith)

The Good Guys:

    Producer (replaces Attila)
    Intellectual (replaces Witch Doctor)

As these are archetypes, mixtures of them can be seen in most world leaders over human history. Your point about the bias of the one retelling historical events is another important consideration for the philosophy of history.

As to the nature of man, Rand constantly wrote about this, but did not put it into a special category. For instance, her tabula rasa theory is an area more suited to philosophy than psychology, although it can be tested and validated or not by psychology (and biology).

So I see philosophy ideally having a minimum of seven basic categories and still being consistent with Objectivism (roughly in this order):

    Man's nature

I would also divide Metaphysics into Nonliving and Living.

There is another view of philosophical categories proposed by Rowlands on RoR where he considers Politics to be a "subset" of Ethics and Esthetics to be a "subset" of Epistemology. He gets really ticked and nasty when you tell him it ain't so and that this is not backed by Rand's works. He calls it integration of some sort. I believe this mistake is due to not taking man himself (human nature) into account and treating philosophy as computer code.

Philosophy is for and about living breathing people. That is why man's nature and man's history are so important to philosophy. When Chris uses the term "dialectical," I think he takes this whole picture into account on analyzing ideas or schools of thought instead of the "computer code" approach. (He especially avoids setting up incomplete dichotomies and treating them as if they were the whole kit and caboodle - he calls this "dualism.")

Also, his approach is not good, not good at all for creating goddesses (he is more human being oriented), so he ticks off certain people mightily just by existing and writing...


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Defining the word "bias" is bound to be a challenge. Roger's post addressed the way most people use the word: that having a bias prevents one from fairly evaluating the facts. As such, "bias" has become a loaded word. Conservatives use it to accuse liberals of dishonesty, and vice versa.

Let's think further towards a definition of bias with some concrete examples:

Sima Qian (also written Ssu-ma Ch'ien) has written the only surviving history of the Qin Dynasty. Mr. Sima portrays the cruelty of the Qin legal code, and describes First Emperor Qin as a monster: "As the silkworm devours the mulberry leaf, so the Tiger of Qin devours his enemies." Almost everything we know about First Emperor Qin is based on Sima Qian's writing.

Sima Qian wrote during the subsequent Han Dynasty, which came to power after the collapse of the Qin Dynasty, and he wrote for an Imperial court which hated the Qin. A proverb of that period states: "A kingdom may be founded on horseback, but cannot be ruled from the saddle." This is an implicit condemnation on First Emperor Qin.

Is Sima Qian biased?

More recently, we have Thomas Friedman, writing about Isræl and Palestine. This discussion forms the second half of Friedman's book, From Beirut to Jerusalem. I particularly recommend the chapter, "Fault Lines," wherein Friedman manages to portray each side of the conflict within its own context. Friedman also describes "Jewish religious terrorists" (my term) in comparison their better-known Muslim counterparts.

Friedman also tells us that the conflict between Isræl and Palestine demands that one takes sides. Not surprisingly, Friedman's final conclusions put him on the side of Isræl. Friedman admitted to his bias to begin with. Friedman was clear that he was presenting facts and his opinions; and he did.

Is Thomas Friedman biased?

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  • 6 months later...


~ Well, this thread dovetails with the question(s) I recently brought up in your main division About Objectivism. Interesting that you 'tacked on' her Aesthetics in your groupings.

~ Commenting on your thoughts here, I'm a bit familiar with that particular prob you had with Rowlands, but didn't comment then on it (that I recall). Gotta go with him (and, I believe, Peikoff who also commented somewhere on this subject.) Politics has to do with the Ethics of organizing the proper rules of force-use, ergo, it's clearly directly derivative from Ethics proper; prob with it is, it's got a whole set of additional questions specifically applicable to treating others, that it ends up deserving a place of it's own, category-wise. However, I see no reason to get rancorous over disagreements here; such was almost (since I read the disagreements you both had) like arguing the old angels and pins thingee. You disagree with me on this, hey, little point in getting heated over something like t-h-i-s. Interesting argument you got, though.



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