Epistemology is the study of how we as human beings know and are justified in having certainty about what we know. One’s epistemology influences their philosophy of history. Given the skeptical stance many scholars and lay-people have regarding Scriptural history, especially Old Testament historiography, it is safe to say they have a particular view of epistemology which engenders this skepticism (Provan 37-40). My purpose here is to analyze Rene Descartes’ epistemology and its impact on history. Before I proceed in that manner, a brief statement of how history is known with certainty is provided.
Philosophy of History: Distinguishing Historiography and Archaeology
The science of understanding and discovering what occurred historically is called historiography; simply stated, historiography is the study of historical writings in order to reconstruct the past. While some have sought to place a heavier emphasis on studying archaeological evidence to reconstruct history, the majority of one’s understanding of history must come from historiography (Provan 7-8). Archaeology should be utilized to verify the text, document, or stone tablet being examined; however, those studying history will not know the significance of such artifacts unless they have been recorded in a historical document. In essence, archaeology is fact without contextual interpretation. Written texts interpret the significance of archaeological facts. An example would be if someone were to find, years after I am dead, my wedding band, the person would be able to identify it is a wedding band, but the only way they would know if the band belonged to me is through a document which stated so or if my name was engraved on the inside of the band. Otherwise, without any written information as to who it belonged to, the person discovered a wedding band with no knowledge of the one who possessed it. Archaeology tells us about certain facts; historiography tells us what those facts meant to those persons engaged with them.
Cartesian Epistemology Stated
Rene Descartes (1596-1650) developed an epistemology and a method of epistemology which has influenced the study of history for the worst. Descartes’ most quoted saying, “I think therefore I am,” provides insight into the substratum of his thought. The epistemology of Descartes begins with the rational powers of one’s own thinking self. A reliance on testimony and information given through others is not the starting point of his philosophy. The aforementioned quotation, when unpacked in its full context, is saying one can have the indubitable certainty that they possess a mind and the ability to think. Descartes’ point of departure is the self as a thinking thing. He begins, certainly, with the self alone. The subject, therefore, can know, with epistemic certainty, that they exist in some form because they think (Stumpf 250-251).
However, at this point in Descartes’ meditation, it is impossible to know with certainty whether or not one has a body and whether or not the external world exists. For Descartes, the way one comes to a knowledge of the physical is through first acquiring a self-knowledge through cognitive abilities; in other words, the first step to knowing the existence of everything else is to know I, as a thinking being, exist. First, he establishes the indubitable: himself as a thinking thing. The second step then is to determine whether God exists. If God exists and He is good, then He is not deceiving me about the external world. Descartes explicates his own ontological argument which states that a finite, imperfect being cannot conceive of an infinite, perfect being on its own; therefore, there is an infinite being who is God (Stumpf 251-252). As one can see, Descartes was concerned only with a certainty of knowledge which stems from one’s self; given his concern, Descartes view of history was not particularly high, “Because historians employed observation and interpretation rather than logic and mathematics, the seventeenth-century philosopher Descartes, who rooted his thinking in self-evident axioms, proceeding to trustworthy knowledge and certainty by way of deductive reasoning and mathematical method, likewise did not think highly of history” (Provan, Long, Longman III, 20).
Cartesian Influence Upon Old Testament Historiography
At this point, the question must be raised, how does Cartesian Epistemology influence the study of historiography? More particularly, how does Descartes’ epistemology affect the study of Old Testament history? For Descartes, knowledge begins with the ability to know with certainty via self-realization or self-awareness in the process of systemic doubt. In essence, the result of his epistemology regarding the study of history is that everything must be held accountable to the indubitable individual and his reason. The result of such a system is a form of history which is only somewhat knowable – it is, essentially, a radically dubitable history. What is meant by this, is that the history can only be known through what actual, reasonable, scientific facts present themselves. In other words, what science can confirm as true, as a universal axiom based upon one’s own reason (Provan, Long, Longman III, 45-48).
The notion of, “I think therefore I am,” while it holds some truth, cannot be that which governs the study of history because it results in an extreme skepticism of external sources. The result is that history, as an inquiry, would be void of any deliverance. The problem here is that history requires testimony, which is not subject to the standards of autonomous reason alone. While there are objective standards which can be held, such as multiple eyewitness accounts and the support of archaeological evidence (Provan, Long, Longman III 25-27), historiography is ultimately a matter of testimony and written accounts which provide insight into historical events.
Take the following example: Surely most people have experienced rummaging through old photos of their parents, grandparents, or some loved one. When this experience occurs, there are usually two scenarios which arise: 1) the photograph one is looking at has the name of those involved in the photo, the date of its taking, and the location in which it was taken, or 2) the photo does not provide this information, and the person inevitably asks their parent or grandparent about the history of the photo. Even in scenario 1, usually, a conversation is still struck in regards to the photo taken. The objective standard would be what can be reasonably known about the photo; for instance, if it is a photograph of one’s uncle, it would be unreasonable to say the photo is of their aunt. However, the testimony of the uncle is needed to understand the history of the photo; the person looking at said photo cannot reconstruct an accurate history unless they were there themselves. And even if they were there, their perspective of the situation may be different then the uncle’s, and they may remember details the uncle forget or vice versa. Ultimately, the one looking at the photo will need to trust the testimony of the person in the photo to know what history occurred surrounding the photograph.
The way in which this form of epistemology influences OT history, and the history of ancient Israel, is by seeking to deny significant events within the OT due to the seeming absurdity of them or lack of archaeological or extra-biblical evidence. An example of this would be the skepticism as to the actual historicity of the patriarchal era by scholars due to a lack of archaeological evidence. In essence, because there seems to be no extra-biblical evidence of the existence of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, then a disbelief of their existence is in order. This is based upon a presupposition of the Bible as a non-historical book or a semi-historical book and an epistemology which states that nothing that can be assuredly known can come from the testimonies of others. Even those scholars who would consent to the context and cultural surroundings of the patriarchal era being accurately portrayed by the Biblical text, they would argue this is only partial history and the Biblical text does not accurately and completely portray a true and pure history (Hamilton, 84).
Take this quote for example: “Admittedly, the biblical story about Jacob and Joseph contains elements of folklore. It was intended to be an interesting and edifying story, rather than a straight biographical account… Nevertheless, the biblical account is more than fiction. In its broad outline, as well as many of its details, it agrees with the historical setting of the second millennium B.C” (Anderson, 30). The question which arises is why, if the account fits the historical context, is the biblical narrative contained with folklore. Additionally, why is the biblical narrative an edifying story? When one encounters the biblical narrative of Jacob and Joseph in the Biblical text, the story is presented to the reader as an actual historical event. So, why deny the testimony of the narrative about itself? All the evidence points to the account being historical, but those with a purely scientific, rationalist, skeptic method will not concede to the evidence of the text’s full historicity. Not only does the historical context and the text itself appeal to the accounts historicity, but there are a people who have been around for centuries— the Jews— who testify to the account. To deny the biblical narrative is to deny the history of the Jews and to deny the history of Christ.
The Christian Response: On Behalf of Testimony
The issue with Cartesian Epistemology for the study of history and historiography lies within the starting point of knowledge. If the starting point is me as a thinking being, the result is two-fold: 1) If I must predicate knowledge upon knowing myself as a thinking person, how am I able to come to a knowledge of myself? The answer is simple: It is through the testimony of others. How do I know my name? It is through the testimony of my parents who named me. How do I know a language? It is through the testimony of another explaining to me the language. How do I know mathematics? It is through a teacher testifying to the principles of math. Even though I am capable of knowing I am a thinking being, I am still incapable to know who I am without a higher, more objective standard governing me. 2) This results in a skepticism in all that is external to me as a thinking being; for, I cannot be certain of anything unless it rests within myself as the thinking subject.
In regards to the first issue which arises, no one is truly the starting point for their knowledge. In some form, all men gain epistemological certainty from the testimony of others. The only one who is His own self-sufficient starting point is God. Therefore, one must be an infinite being if they are to have epistemological certainty which is rooted in themselves. For, a finite being cannot manifest this form of epistemological certainty— God is the only one who is able to do so.
See, Descartes’ epistemology is backward; a certainty of knowledge does not come from establishing one’s own existence and working up to God’s, but a certainty of knowledge comes from knowing God and working one’s way down to themselves. In essence, the Christian is able to have epistemological certainty of the history of the Old Testament, of God’s creation, of God’s goodness, and of himself because God is the only being who is able to have certainty of knowledge within himself. God is the one who defines who we are (Gen.1:27), he is the one who ordered the created universe (Gen. 1:1), and he is the one who governs history. Our certainty of the scriptures as a historically reliable text is due to God’s governance over his redemptive plan in Christ, and his desire to communicate the history and development of the aforementioned plan to his people; as well as the reality that the Biblical texts have proven to be historically accurate, even though there are certain areas of uncertainty.
Bernhard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1966)
Iain Provan, V. Philips Long, and Tremper Longman III, A Biblical History of Israel, 2nd ed. (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015),37-40.
Samuel Enoch Stumpf, Socrates to Sartre: a history of philosophy., 2d ed. (New York,: McGraw-Hill, 1975)
Victor P. Hamilton, Handbook On the Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2005)