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Christian Tractatus

(Text as at 12/08/2007 10:17:46)


Historical knowledge is a form of experience at second (or more remote) hand. The claims of historical science as to what happened in the past are validated by application of the reason to historical records.

  1. The availability of historical experiences1 for contemporary analysis is dependent on reliable records of them being preserved.
  2. The statements of history can be evaluated by reasonings based on common experience. These reasonings apply both to the evaluation of specific evidence adduced in favour of historical claims and to the general probability of such claims.
  3. The following items, at least, must be taken into account when evaluating specific written evidence adduced to support historical claims:-
    • The remoteness of the period.
    • The number & independence of the sources.
    • The contemporary publicity of the episode recorded.
    • The belief-set of the society in which the event in question occurred or by which it was recorded.
    • The general political character of the society, ie. whether it was a totalitarian society or one in which free expression of opinion was allowed.
    • The purpose for which the record was made.
    • The character of the witnesses, as in judicial proceedings, in so far as their characters may themselves be determined by reliable testimony or deduction.
    • The educational, literary & cultural background of the witnesses.
    • The general bias of the witnesses (eg. as displayed in peripheral matters).
  4. When evaluating archaeological evidence, we must take into account the following criteria:
    • The climatic & other conditions that have influenced the spectrum of objects available for contemporary study.
    • The number of similar artifacts preserved. Care must be taken to avoid extrapolating general theories from statistically insignificant evidence.
    • The general character of the culture under study. For instance, did it have an interest in, and the power to achieve, the suppression of evidence ?
    • Our general understanding of the particular culture under consideration. We are likely to misinterpret the use of artifacts, buildings etc. if we are largely ignorant of the aims & ethos of the culture. Archaeology is a cyclical, self-reinforcing (or self-correcting) study in which detailed findings are used to build up successive approximations which are themselves refined by new findings.
  5. Geological2 and palaeontological evidence must be subjected to the same statistical tests as archaeological evidence.
  6. With respect to the general probability of an alleged historical event, the following factors, at least, are relevant:
    • The more significant or unusual the event, whether political, social or physical, the more testimony is required to establish it.
    • In the case of political or social events, the more significant the event, the more likely it was to have been generally discussed, whether verbally or in writing, and the more likely permanent records were to have been made.
    • A general lack of recorded evidence for a significant event is evidence against its having occurred.
    • It is only possible to combine our knowledge of the world into a coordinated world-view if we do not allow our world-view to be disturbed by every new piece of alleged data. Hence, it is a good general policy to reject poorly substantiated events as fictitious, especially if they do not fit in to the model of the world that we have constructed from more reliable data.




Note last updated Reference for this Topic Parent Topic
12/08/2007 10:17:46 213 (Historical Knowledge) Empirical Knowledge

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Historical Knowledge - Experience Historical Knowledge - Geology      

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Summary of Note Links to this Page

Empirical Knowledge        

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