NT Wright is seriously wrong, part 2: does all history depend on interpretation?
In The New Testament and the People of God NT Wright offers an epistemological theory as a necessary prolegomenon to his overall work. This is quite an odd thing to do- other historians do not feel compelled to preface their works with thoughts about how we can know anything at all. They just get on with it.
However, Wright feels compelled to do this because he wants to defend the gospels against the charge that their value as historical documents has been fatally compromised by the interpretative framework in which the historical facts are lodged.
He does this by proposing that all knowledge (or as Wright calls it, the “process of knowing”) involves selection and therefore interpretation.
Wright’s theory, which he calls critical realism, can be briefly stated
1. All knowledge is based on a selection of the available sense impressions “at any given waking moment, I am aware of a vast number of sense impressions, out of which I make a very limited selection for my current focus of attention and interest”
2. But if all knowledge is based on sensation, how can we be sure what the sensations are sensations of? Do not the sensations cut us off from any knowledge of reality?
3. Wright’s response is that while we can never know anything with complete certainty, we do get at reality by an iterative process of hypothesis, framed in terms of the pictures we have formed of the world, about what exists ie., objects and events. Thus our access to reality is
“achieved along the spiralling path of appropriate dialogue or conversation between the knower and the thing known”p.35
Later he says his own view of “reality as we know it” is the Christian story of salvation. This story “fits far more with the real world than the usual post Enlightenment ones” p.98
The charge that the gospels are worthless as records of fact because they involve interpretation is thus defeated- all knowledge and hence all history involves selection, a point of view and interpretation. It is thus grossly unfair to exclude the gospels as reliable history because they do likewise.
However, Wright’s theory of knowledge is open to a number of criticisms.
Wright regards knowledge as a process in which we select from the sense data (or ‘raw’ data) presented to us. The notion that knowledge rests on sense data is heavily traversed territory within philosophy and has been strongly attacked, particularly by Wittgenstein. Wright does not canvass these objections to his theory and in fact seems to be unaware of them.
Secondly, Wright’s reliance on sense data threatens to establish an unbridgeable gap between the individual and the external world. Wright’s defends against this possibility by arguing that we fit the raw data of experience into a larger story and then check to see how it fits with reality. The idea of checking a model or hypothesis against the facts or reality makes sense within science or history but it will not serve in epistemology because epistemology asks how we can be sure that we apprehend reality so it may not assumeapprehension of reality as a given.
Wright’s suggestion that knowledge is a process and thus all essentially of the same sort rests on a certain picture of the knowledge “process” (largely derived from British empiricism) and completely ignores the logical grammar of the word “knowledge”. The “process” of knowing is assimilated to a process such as eating where I pick and choose between the dishes available at a buffet.
The verb ‘know’ does not refer to a process at all- it has no present continuous tense. It is a speech act in which I make a claim that X is the case and that I can prove it- that is, I can answer the question, how do you know? The proofs vary with the kind of knowledge claim it is (compare the difference in responses to the question “how do you know?’ in the case of the following knowledge claims: I know the names of all the Prime Ministers of Australia, I know how to count, I know where Smith is). In none of these instances of knowledge does the question of selection of raw data even arise.
Finally, Wright’s theory obliges him to claim that we never know anything with certainty. Wright is driven to this insupportable position because he believes that his claim that all knowledge involves selection of raw data entails that I can never be sure that the particular set of data I have selected accords with reality. However the claim is plainly untrue. For example, I know with certainty that Tony Blair is the Prime Minister of Britain; that the Great War took place between 1914-18; that the holocaust occurred during the Second World war. Somebody who denied any of these propositions would be considered to be mentally ill (persons being tested for Alzheimers are standardly asked whether they know the name of the current Prime Minister) or paltering with the truth in the service of ideology (David Irving). If we really thought we could know nothing with certainty, our behaviour would be very different. Wright’s claim is, in Wittgenstein’s phrase, a case of language idling.
Wright’s theory of knowledge is designed to allow him to claim that all knowledge and hence all history involves selection and hence a view point and interpretation.
What do we make of the claim that all historical knowledge involves selection.
In some cases we do select the facts on which to base history. Such selection depends on eg., the level of detail of our enquiry (life of Napoleon as against France in the 19th century) or a particular interest (economic history as against art history). This kind of selection obviously occurs in the gospels- for example, we are told only a little about Pilate or Herod but quite a lot about Jesus. Selection of this sort is not necessarily a criticism of an historical work, though you might say that the gospels take brevity to extremes.
However there is a pejorative sense of selection as applied to history- as when, say, David Irving, in writing history about the Holocaust, selects some facts and avoids others. We regard such selection as a perversion of historical enquiry and believe not only that it can be avoided but that it must be avoided. Those who criticise the gospels as historical records are thinking of selection in this latter sense. Their argument is that the beliefs of the gospel authors have so contaminated the story that it is impossible to recover the facts on which the story is based. This may or may not be so but it is not to be rejected by a spurious epistemological theory that all knowledge is based on selection of raw data.
And the praise that we confer on an historian for having provided a balanced account is, if Wright’s view is to be accepted, a logical error for it is an epistemic truth that no one can be neutral or objective. Good news for David Irving.
Wright wants to say that all history involves interpretation. This is simply wrong. Historical facts sometimes require interpretation, sometimes not. Within the intelligence community, a distinction is often made between the raw data and the interpreted data eg about what was happening inside Saddam’s Iraq. Interpretation is called for in such a case because information about what was happening was so meagre and agencies had to substitute guesswork based on snippets of information. Wright’s view of interpretation would assimilate that bit of history to eg Tony Blair winning the last UK election. But this is absurd: who in their right mind would suggest that the fact (as distinct from its implications) of Tony Blair’s electoral victory was open to interpretation.
The meaning or implication of events is much more likely to require interpretation but not always. Nobody doubted that defeat at Stalingrad meant a massive setback for the Wehrmacht. On the other hand, whether it meant the end of Nazi Germany was matter for interpretation.
In summary, the fact that the gospels mix fact with the faith and theology of their authors does pose questions about the historicity of the events the gospels record. These questions need to be settled on their merits not by an appeal to epistemology.