Food for Thought: The Illusion of History

Apr 27, 2024 | Journal

History is a narrative, our retelling of reality, of events. And it is a simulacrum, because it is only our relationship between reality and also the retelling of our experiences; thus it is not a direct link to reality, but only a simulation of it.

All this told to ourselves, similarly as culture.

“Culture is the ensemble of stories we tell ourselves about ourselves” as Clifford Geertz put it; and the narrative illusion of history and the events that we contemplate and interpret are only retellings. We were not there, we could not experience these events in real life. But we can make stories about them. Although, we can imagine to a certain degree, how these things transpired and how people understood these and saw them, but we cannot put ourselves into their shoes totally, because we lack the context. And that context is lost to us forever.

It is a narrative, because by telling it, we are not living it, it is not a direct link to reality. With History, it can happen that the person telling the story was there, but it can also be the case when it is a distant past with no direct connection to the narrator.

It is a simulacrum, for it is just an illusion about reality, our illusion or the illusion of the narrator. A virtual reality created by the mind to maintain a connection to reality. But it is only a simulation with various degrees of correlations with reality. There comes in either facts or fiction. Simply, because it is an interpretation of the mind about reality and the events; and not the events and reality as they are.

Facts (the sources that are re-traceable) are put up against fictions (where imagination can run wild and it can tell truths, but not necessarily needed to be rooted too much in reality). It is tied to symbol-making, which is crucial in our interpreting processes. We as humans fill everything with meaning; we see everything as symbols. Ernst Cassirer argues that “Man is a symbol making animal.” The gist of it is that we do not have the same understanding of the world around us as individuals, we as humans have an imaginary relation to reality, thus all of us have different understandings of our environment.

Nature in this case is also a concept, consequently, it is unconsciously understood as an artificial human creation; same as culture. Symbols and cultural foundations are needed to see Nature in different cultures. It is culturally defined and the human relation towards it is also understood in this context. Whether we are put under nature, or we are included in it, living in a coexistence, or maybe we are there to master it. All of these are examples for its conceptualisation.

But this philosophy of notions and imaginary relations are important to understand, because upon our interpretation and understanding of concepts of reality we make our decisions in life and eventually affect reality.