Date of Award
Doctor of Education (EdD)
College of Education and Human Services
Thesis Sponsor/Dissertation Chair/Project Chair
Bernard Williams (1985) begins his skeptical look at the history of ethical theory with a reminder of where it began, with Socrates’ question, "how should one live?" (pg. 1). This question is relevant to historians, who ask a similar question, “how did people live?” in their own work, To wonder “how one should live” or to make statements about the ways in which people have lived is to rely on the work of historians. The question of what historians can know about the past, however, is a very philosophical question, and it is dependent on our views about such things as what problem, if any, temporal distance poses to our ability to arriving at such knowledge.
In discussing whether temporal distance can be overcome in order to understand the actions and events of the past from the perspective of those who lived in it, philosophers have offered a wide range of arguments and have come to various conclusions. Skeptics, such as Williams (1985), have claimed that distance establishes a relativism, which, in a way, prevents us from looking to the distant past and asking whether that is “how one should live”, or whether a particular historical practice constituted "living well." In contrast, R.G. Collingwood takes a much less skeptical stance, arguing that he believes it is not only possible, but also necessary, to hold the beliefs of distant agents in order to do genuine history. Collingwood goes so far as to claim that in order to avoid “scissors and paste” history, or history that makes use of inductive generalization, historians must re-enact thoughts in their own minds that are identical to the historical agent or agents that they are studying.
Questions about whether it is possible for historians to really know the past and the ways in which people lived, or whether it is possible for two agents under very different contexts to hold identical beliefs, leaves historians in a very precarious place when deciding how to present material to students of history through textbooks or in classroom debates. It seems intuitive to make these statements because, after all, if we aim to address the question of “how one should live” then the work of historians may just be our greatest source of what Mill (1869, pg. 52) called “experiments in living” or narratives about different ways that humans have lived. It’s likely, however, that most people do not take up either the skeptical end of the spectrum held by Williams or the reenactivist end of it held by Collingwood.
An epistemological pluralism, which supposes that there are "many 'knowledges' (systems of knowledge or ways of knowing)" (Eldridge, 2007, p. 1) might be the most useful for these historians because it emphasizes that for different types of ethical statements and different uses of history, different "systems of knowledge or ways of knowing" and beliefs about the possibility of belief might be valid and useful. Historians ought to acknowledge that the types of ethical claims they are making are varied and may place different levels of burden on the historian to address the sort of skepticism raised by Williams. This acknowledgement would allow for the examination of various types and levels of ethical claims without a strict commitment to either skepticism or re-enactment.
In this dissertation, I explore this problem and also survey history textbooks that were published over the past seven decades to determine what types of moral statements are being made in them. I find that there are six types of claims that are commonly being made, and that they fit rather easily in to two categories. I explain these categories and types of claims, and also discuss the relevance of views toward knowledge to them. Because there is not much, if any, distinction made in the texts between the various types of claims that are made, I also suggest ways that historians might highlight these differences, paying attention, when appropriate, to Williams-style skepticism, in their writing and in their classrooms.
Perry, Alexandra Katherine, "The Problem of Moral Statements in Historical Writing" (2012). Theses, Dissertations and Culminating Projects. 20.