Anti-Historical Scepticism

Anti-Historical Scepticism

However well attested a historical fact may be, it is never more than merely attested. It is always possible that it may be wrong ; we have no means of checking it ; it is always conceivable that evidence might turn up sufficient to discredit the best established historical belief.

And—still worse—the evidence might never turn up, and we should simply go on believing what was totally untrue. Seeing, then, how desperately uncertain history must always be, can we, dare we, use it as the foundation for all our creeds ?

This argument introduces a new form of scepticism, which we may describe as anti-historical scepticism. It is in essence a statement of the unknowability of past fact simply as such, on the abstract ground that failure of memory, breach of the tradition, is always possible.

Anti-historical scepticism

Anti-historical scepticism

This is entirely parallel to the anti-philosophical scepticism which declares that no inference is sound because of the unavoidable abstract possibility of a logical fallacy. Each is a fantastic and hypercritical position, and neither is really tenable. If inference as such is to be distrusted, the evidence that leads us to distrust it is discredited with the rest.

If attested fact as such is liable to be misreported, the facts on which we base this generalisation are as doubtful as any others. Indeed the theory puts a stop to every kind of activity ; for if the human memory as such is the seat of the supposed fallacy, we cannot count upon any continuity whatever in our mental life ; it may always be the case that my memory of five minutes ago is completely misleading.

If I may not base a theory on facts reported in books of history, am I more entitled to trust those recollected by myself ? Plainly there is no difference of kind here. But if the sceptic falls back on a question of degree and says that some facts are better attested than others, then of course one agrees with him and admits that one is always bound to ask whether these facts are well enough attested to serve as basis for this theory ; whether the facts are two thousand years or two minutes distant in time makes no real difference.