Views on the Nature of Knowledge: Social Scientists vs. Natural Scientists
What is knowledge? A simple question, or so most people would think. Knowledge is the accumulation of information on a given subject or subjects. It is a collection of facts, of things known to be true...or is it? The closer one looks, the more one comes to realize that there are many different approaches to obtaining knowledge, and many different definitions of precisely what constitutes knowledge. One's use of the term varies with one's own background and objectives. To some, knowledge is an absolute, to others; it is that which is gained through long hours of observation and long years of experience. The facts that make up what we call knowledge may be composed of absolutes, or they may be composed of many opinions, opinions that we believe to be most accurate or most correct. But what then does it mean to say that an opinion is accurate or correct? Well...that it is true of course. But if a fact is in reality an opinion, then how can it be said to be true? At least, in an absolute sense. Most people believe.... Or, most experts are of the opinion.... Sounds a lot like majority rule, doesn't it? However. We all know perfectly well that the majority is not always right. History is filled with instances where the majority got its way, only to impose unethical, or even immoral conditions on the minority. Most people in the Antebellum South thought slavery was just, but they were White and in the majority. Today, there are few who would defend slavery as just or moral. Of course, this raises another question regarding the nature of knowledge: Is it possible for facts to change over time? Can a thing be true for one generation, and not for another? Such are the dilemmas that must be faced in the pursuit of knowledge. Fact must be sifted from fiction. But how? Do you use a ruler or a microscope? Consult a book or the Internet? Social scientists and natural scientists face very different choices when confronted with the question of "What is the Nature of Knowledge?"
For the social scientist, knowledge is much more likely to be composed of subjective determinations, or a combination of subjective determinations and objective evidence, rather than simply of what most would call objective fact. It is in the nature of the business. Historians, grammarians, literary critics, psychologists, musicologists, and so on study subjects that cannot really be measured or quantified, at least not in the fullest sense. A historian can compile lists of dates, kings' reigns and presidential terms, days of battles won, and political campaigns lost. He can look through the records of names and places and see what happened where, and what was done by whom. Clearly, these are abstract facts. Yes, if the information you are looking at is accurate. The Russian Revolution began on February 18, 1917. Oh wait a minute, or is that March 3,1917? It all depends on whether you are using the Julian Calendar, the one that was in use in Russia at the time the Revolution broke out - the February date - or the Gregorian Calendar that was in use in most of the rest of the world - the March date. These are not different facts per se, but they certainly can cause a great deal of confusion when it comes to one's knowledge of the Russian Revolution. Until one discovers the fact that two different calendars were in use at the same time, one could either think that mistakes were made in the recording of the date of the event, or one could simply get one's chronologies confused, and so alter the timeline of events. Yet, this matter of the precise date of the commencement of the Russian revolution is really a matter of different systems of measurement rather than a difference in actual fact. February 18th and March 3rd are really the same, just as zero degrees and thirty-two degrees are the identical boiling points of water in the Celsius and Fahrenheit temperature scales respectively.
Fantastic! Two pages in and we've solved the whole problem. This paper must be just about complete. The only difference between the social scientists - those pesky historians - and the natural scientists - those chemical and physical fanatics who forced us to plough through the metric system in the first place - is a difference in scale, measurement that is. But what about this? The Russian Revolution began on February 18th or March 3rd - same thing right? But, how do we know that this day, whatever we decide to call it, does in fact mark the actual beginning of the Russian Revolution? Father Time dropped a placard from heaven that read, "Today is the start of the Russian revolution." Well, that would be nice, but it doesn't sound very likely. Of course, you never know, there might be an old Russian peasant somewhere who can remember it happening...even has the old, yellowing paper somewhere underneath his horde of Stolichnaya. Assuming, however, that this will not turn out to be the case, there must then have been some other way in which this particularly day was determined to mark the start of the Russian Revolution. If not the date itself, then what was it that caused this particular day to be generally accepted as the start of the Revolution?
Obviously, something must have occurred on March 3rd, 1917 - we'll use the Gregorian date just to make it a little easier - that made people think that this was the beginning of a revolution. Marie Antoinette said, "Let them eat cake." No, probably not...don't think she ever visited Russia. On March 3, 1917, a provisional government was officially formed in Russia to replace the Tsar's administration. Now this sounds a bit more likely. The end of tsarist rule as determined officially by the end of the Imperial government, and its replacement by a new, republican form of government would appear to meet the qualifications for a revolutionary event. Out with old and in with the new. But must this event necessarily set off the beginning of the Russian Revolution for future generations of historians? Tsar Nicholas II abdicated the day before. Certainly, we could take that date - March 2nd - as the end of the old regime, that is, if we didn't have a few other pieces of information. Firstly, though the Tsar did indeed abdicate on that day, he was not, as most people incorrectly believe, the last Tsar of All the Russias. Definitely, Nicholas II was the last Tsar to actually rule over the Russian Empire, but he was not the last to reign. In truth, Nicholas abdicated in favor of his younger brother, the Grand Duke Michael, and it was the Grand Duke Michael who technically was the last Tsar of Russia.
Nevertheless if we are making a distinction between "to reign" and "to rule," then the collapse of Imperial authority that followed from Nicholas' abdication would seem to be mark the actual end of tsarist rule. So why March 3rd?
Apparently, historians have made an arbitrary decision to consider the beginning of the revolution not as the end of the old regime, but as the beginning of the new. They could just as easily have done it the other way, or they could have picked a different event entirely, and thereby a different date. Speaking of revolutions, the French did not begin with the end of the old regime, but rather a notable challenge to it. The Fall of the Bastille marked the capture of an ancient royal fortress, and potent symbol of the ancien regime, by the angry Paris mob. The rebels killed the Governor of the Bastille, cut off his head and impaled it on a pike. Gruesome and dramatic, yes, but the monarchy was not even abolished until more than two years later, and in fact Louis XVI and his Queen even remained at Versailles for another several weeks, leading the very same life they had been leading before. Likewise, the American Revolution is traditionally dated from the moment the "shot heard round the world" was first fired against the British at Lexington. Yet clearly, this was not the first overt challenge to British authority. We all remember the Boston Tea Party, and the Stamp Act Riots. And of course, the thirteen colonies did not finally throw off the British yoke until 1781 and the Battle of Yorktown, or was it 1783, when delegates of the Continental Congress, and their British counterparts signed the Treaty of Paris, and Great Britain at last formally relinquished control over its former colonies. Historians make many judgments in regard to facts, judgments that weigh these facts according to their relative importance, but these decisions in regard to relative importance are themselves based upon other facts, and even on opinions as we have seen…