Sorry, but copying text is forbidden on this website!
It can certainly be argued that though language and emotion play vital roles within any area of knowledge, it is within history that it manifests itself the clearest. History as an area of knowledge presents an opportunity to explore the implications of both language and emotion, and their effect on interpreting history. The understanding of such information is integral to resolving one of the key knowledge issues regarding history: the question of whether it is possible to attain or communicate knowledge through history that is free from filters and biases. The answer to this question is crucial to the further comprehension of what is history as a whole.
But before examining language and emotion in the context of history, it is important to define what exactly these words are describing, and understand the values and limitations of both of these ways of knowing separately. Language is defined as a rule-governed, intended form of communication and is one of the main ways of attaining information of the external. It is useful for conveying concepts that are intangible, such as that of history. However, it is merely a tool, a vehicle by which information can travel, and is subject to ambiguity, vagueness, and bias. Emotion as a way of knowing is often defined as a mechanism which gives intuition and helps decision making, but is also commonly cited as an obstruction to knowledge. These two ways of knowing have a great impact upon the acquisition of knowledge in history.
One could argue that without language, there would be no history or historical knowledge. Such a bold statement can be made for a variety of reasons, one being primarily that unlike emotion and sense perception, two others way of knowing, language is the most ‘able’ tool in the transfer of knowledge across time. And unlike reason, language can qualitatively describe as well as outline the experiences of individuals in a way that reason cannot fully emulate. One does not need to be (or rather, cannot be) at the decisive Battle of Iwo Jima to know there was an Allied victory, knowledge that sense perception and emotion could not derive. The utility of language is that it enables us acquire knowledge of the external efficiently.
This is not to say that language is the perfect mechanism for knowledge transfer in history. As stated above, language is a tool that, once interpreted, will lead to biases as both the sender and receiver’s paradigm will contribute to a certain predisposition regarding any topic spoken. It allows us to label and generalize, to set up a conceptual framework based on relativity. Arbitrary time frames can be set up within history, such as Before Common Era, which when considered seem quite useful in that it allows for quick citation, but is also perplexing. How exactly did people define the ‘Common Era’?
To refer to a date in relation to the death of one man allows us to further question why this particular man was chosen. Again this ties into the bias with language, as anyone referencing BCE is undoubtedly predisposed towards Western thinking. Even I retain these biases as well, always confused momentarily whenever I am exposed to the time frame established in Thai culture, such as 2553 (which is coincidentally also referenced to the death of another man). It appears that although language can and does lead to historical knowledge in methods that other ways of knowing cannot, language can never lead to truly objective information precisely for the same reason that it is useful: it is all relative to the paradigm which one is under.
The impact of labeling and generalizations also touches upon the realm of emotion and its effects upon history. The age-old adage proclaims that “history is written by the victors”1 and the victors will more often than not think positively about themselves but not of their opponents. For example, during my Thai history class, my teacher will go at great lengths to explain the courageous nature of the Thai people and the savagery of the Burmese for invading our land, and yet do a complete about face and call the occupation of Malaysia and Cambodia as a noble conquest. This invocation of pride and patriotism is a variety of emotion known as nationalism. And it is this nationalism, or a similar emotional feeling of loyalty, that has fueled much of current history.
If language is the tool with which we talk about history, emotion is what caused us to talk about it in the first place. The statement that is being suggested is that the course of human civilization for the past ten thousand years can be charted with the emotions, on the basis that humans are not perfectly rational. Emotional attachments to kingdoms, countries, or governments caused many to go to war; scientific advances were fueled by the undying joy associated with innovation; Adam Smith proposed capitalism to compensate for the inherent greed within us all. Indeed, a more specific event would be the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001AD.
The attack upon the US caused uproar, an escalation of foreign policy security, and a worsening of relations with the Middle East. The many religious motives for such an event leave no doubt that it was based off of emotion, but it remains unclear what the main cause was for. Again, it appears that to mark history as objective facts becomes increasingly hard as the subjective emotions that one has muddle the cause for events. One cannot state that a certain event in history occurred because of another singular event; rather, one must say that it was the amalgamation of these that caused any event.
In essence, it appears that emotion and language both play a key role in history, one for it and one about it. However, it seems that these two ways of knowing interact with history in such a way as to make the objective deduction of historical knowledge difficult. Though one can argue that the imposition of conceptual frameworks and the emotionally fuelled decisions are not mutually exclusive with an objective history, it remains that within any human society there will exist a paradigm, a filter, a bias.
And in these items will lay prejudice. A quote by Friedrich Nietzche summarizes this: “To the extent that man has for long ages believed in the concepts and names of things as in aeternae veritates he has appropriated to himself that pride by which he raised himself above the animal: he really thought that in language he possessed knowledge of the world.” We may pride ourselves on being more civilized than animals and for having language, but it is foolish to assume that with only these tools that we have gained any knowledge of the world apart from our own.