Objective discovery, subjective interpretation?

My latest read was Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman’s Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It? (University of California Press, 2000). They counter the falsehoods of Holocaust deniers.

(I’ve written one, two, three, four prior posts for this blog about conspiracy theories.)

I picked up Denying History because I’d read some comments by Michael Shermer on an entirely different topic and I disagreed with him strongly on that other topic, and I wanted to learn more about what else has interested him over his career. So, although you should not understand me as endorsing anything in particular that Shermer has recently said on any of a number of topics, nevertheless I do want to point out a helpful framework within this 22-year-old book Denying History.

Historical objectivity

The 19th-century German historian Leopold von Ranke explained this approach.

History is outside our minds; we discover the past and discern its causal structure; we can know the past; we can become objective; we should describe what really happened.

The hardest part of this approach is denying how we are influenced by our own standpoints. How can we pretend to be objective, when it’s obvious that we have biases?

Historical relativism

In the early 20th century, thinkers like Friedrich Meinecke, Benedetto Croce, Carl Becker, and Charles A. Beard took a more relativist approach.

History is inside our minds; we construct the past and assign it causal structure; we can know the past only through what’s documented; we’re always biased; we should present our own interpretation.

The hardest part of this approach is maintaining that nothing can be known. If that’s the case, then why attempt to present history at all?

Historical science

The authors believe that this approach, having evolved from and beyond the former two approaches, is the correct one:

History is both outside and inside our minds; the past has a causal structure, which we discover objectively and describe subjectively; our knowledge is bounded by the data available to us; we should examine our biases; our interpretations are provisional.

They note that James Kloppenberg (American Historical Review, 1989) has called it “pragmatic hermeneutics.”

I like the simplicity of the breakdown between objectivity and relativism and the presentation of a third approach that bridges them. I also like that they’re talking specifically about writing history.

I don’t necessarily agree, though, that the third approach is correct. The discussion is too short to persuade me (Chapter 2, pp. 19–35). From my own lifetime of thought, for my own reasons, I tend to come down more strongly on the relativist side. But I think it may be a fine place for someone to start exploring the question, and there’s room for discussion here.

If we don’t know what we’re promising, is the contract valid?

Do you read the internet’s endless pop-ups by which you’re asked to “consent” to “cookies” every time you visit a new website? You may know that “cookies” essentially mean you’re being tracked, and you may be aware that you’re passively receiving a report of this tracking rather than actively consenting to it. The tracking probably already started when you landed on the webpage and were first presented with the question, right?

You probably don’t read the pop-ups. I don’t. You probably don’t go to each website’s ten-page Terms of Service to learn more about the supposed rules of each individual webpage. I don’t. Reading those legal documents would require more effort than reading the brief article you showed up for.

We know we’re being tracked all the time, whether we actively consent or not. Why waste time reading documents that are designed to be impenetrable? Why try to memorize the stated legal differences between websites? Especially when those documents may be obsolete or false?

Shoshana Zuboff points this out in her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (Public Affairs, 2020):

“In many cases, simply browsing a website obligates you to its terms-of-service agreement even if you don’t know it. Scholars point out that these digital documents are excessively long and complex in part to discourage users from actually reading the terms, safe in the knowledge that most courts have upheld the legitimacy of click-wrap agreements despite the obvious lack of meaningful consent.”

—Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

She explains how this may be a devolution or degradation of the original idea of a contract.

“Legal scholar Margaret Radin observes the Alice-in-Wonderland quality of such ‘contracts.’ Indeed, the sacred notions of ‘agreement’ and ‘promise’ so critical to the evolution of the institution of contract since Roman times have devolved to a ‘talismanic’ signal ‘merely indicating that the firm deploying the boilerplate wants the recipient to be bound.’ Radin calls this ‘private eminent domain,’ a unilateral seizure of rights without consent. She regards such ‘contracts’ as a moral and democratic ‘degradation’ of the rule of law and the institution of contract, a perversion that restructures the rights of users granted through democratic processes, ‘substituting for them the system that the firm wishes to impose. … Recipients must enter a legal universe of the firm’s devising in order to engage in transactions with the firm.’”

—Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (citing Margaret Jane Radin’s Boilerplate)

When we don’t act consciously, we aren’t using our free will, and then it’s hard to describe ourselves as “agreeing” or “promising.” In this situation, what is a contract? Is it only an assertion of power? Someone telling us: By reading this, you agree…?

On Meaning


  • Conrad’s intention.
  • In the center is Kurtz’s “The Horror; the Horror”;
  • Marlow’s telling of the story;
  • Then the audience on board the ship who have listened and reacted to the story;
  • The outer circle is the community of readers/critics of Conrad’s novel who interrelate;
  • Finally the story’s meaning to the larger society.

Emergent meaning

If something else had happened, life would mean something different now. But what happened is in the past, and the past can’t be changed. I have to accept what is.

Most of the time, we hear this as a truism. When we emotionally grapple with certain past events and their consequences, however, it’s a major personal victory when at long last we take a deep breath and resign ourselves to the realities.

Imagine I turn my vehicle left at an intersection and suffer an accident. My arm is broken. The car is totaled. My passenger is dead.

I might wonder what would have happened if I had turned right instead of left. Those thoughts might be intrusive, even obsessive. I will never find out the answer to What if something else had happened?

Some game pieces are still in play, and I can change those outcomes. I bounce back financially; I get a new car; my arm heals; survivors forgive me. But other outcomes are already set in stone. The old car, reduced to twisted pieces of metal, isn’t worth fixing and is sent to the scrap heap. The dead person does not come back to life. The meaning of these events is distressing; I resist the meaning, which leads me to resist the reality of the events that produce this meaning. I “know” the events were real and can’t be changed, but I wish that weren’t true and I search in vain for another workaround. The ultimate solution may be simply to accept what is.

In this hypothetical example, I am considering meaning as an emergent property of material reality. Emergence means that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A certain confluence of events in my life doesn’t leave me only with the events themselves, but it also yields meaning: psychological, social, financial, and so on. Wanting to change the meaning means wanting to change the realities on which the meaning is based. If I’m stuck with the relevant realities, I may be distressed at finding that I am stuck with the meaning, too.

Book cover: C. S. Lewis's Christian Apologetics: Pro and Con. Edited by Gregory Bassham.

I recently heard this described using the example of a mosaic. (It happened to be a mosaic of Darth Vader, which is appropriately dark.) David Kyle Johnson says in “Naturalism Undefeated” in the anthology C. S. Lewis’s Christian Apologetics that “it makes no sense to suggest that you could subtract Vader and yet leave all the individual frames of the mosaic alone. If the tiles are arranged just as they are, Vader necessarily exists.” Johnson is writing about the mind arising from the physical brain. I’m applying the same idea to deriving meaning from the world, a more popular daily concern. The world has given us a bunch of mosaic tiles and we see that they form an image. Sometimes we don’t like the image. If we can rearrange some of the tiles, great; but if all the tiles are glued and dried, we’re stuck with what the overall image means to us.

“Emergence” (or, similarly, “supervenience”) is an academic term, but it yields a practical insight for dealing with emotional distress:

If I want to change what my situation means to me, I have to take action and do something differently.

If I can’t or won’t change my situation or at least allow in new information and experiences, then I have to accept that the meaning isn’t going to change, either.

Letter from Sayward – 2

Community:  “a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.”

by Paul Stahnke for Episyllogism


Lately, I have been thinking a great deal about ‘community’. For me, ‘community’ is the idea of belonging, feeling at peace with other people, and with where and how I live. This is an odd concept because I often go for days on end without speaking to anyone beyond my wife, Michelle. Every Wednesday morning I drive into town in order to visit my mother who is slowly dying in a care facility. I usually buy a few groceries, woodshop products, or welding supplies. I also meet with a local discussion group for one hour. In addition to following a formal meeting format, about 45 minutes is spent discussing a scheduled topic. Sometimes, a member might talk about a particular family situation or experience that has been bothering them, but by and large the meeting topic organises the flow of ideas into a particular theme. There is no cross talk that might hijack discussion although the thoughts of one member might be taken up by another, and so on. There is no formal order of member participation.  Sometimes, there is silence. For unknown reasons, in this small group simple silence is quite pleasant and allows a time for reflection.  The experience can only be described as ‘intimate’, for we share our most private concerns and thoughts. The size of the group varies between 10-18 people, and usually I am the only male. The ages range from 40 – 80, and group members come from all walks of life.


Last Wednesday’s topic was, ‘belonging’. I found it pretty hard to separate the sense of ‘community’ from this theme.


Today, while thinking more about this concept, I researched and subsequently read an article from a CS Lewis website. The author is Art Lindsey (senior fellow), and the article title is: “Community – and why we need it….Love is never stimulated apart from community”.  One particular quote caught my eye, “When we live our lives in isolation, what we have is unavailable and what we lack is unprocurable”. (Basil, an early Church Father). It goes on to say, “When we live our lives independently, other people are poorer because they cannot benefit from our gifts”. And, “When we isolate ourselves, we are poorer because the benefits of other’s gifts are lost to us, so what we lack, we cannot get”. [Source]

Why do people often feel isolated and estranged when living in large groups or in today’s western societies?

An excerpt from a Globe and Mail article states it this way:


“Chronic loneliness has roots that are both internal and external, a combination of genes and social circumstance, but something is making it worse. Blame the garage-door opener, which keeps neighbours from seeing each other at the end of the day, or our fetish for roads over parks, or the bright forest of condo towers that bloom on our city’s skylines.

Or blame an increasingly self-absorbed society, as John Cacioppo does. Prof. Cacioppo, the leading authority on the health effects of loneliness, is director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience. “One of the things we’ve seen is a movement away from a concern for others,” he says in a phone interview. “Economics basically says you should be concerned about your own short-term interests. There’s more division in society, more segmentation; there’s less identity with a national or global persona, but rather on the family or the individual. People aren’t as loyal to their employers, and employers are certainly not as loyal to their workers.”

Last fall, an old school friend came for a visit. It did not go well. I had really been looking forward to seeing him and made sure we had lots of food and wine. Michelle left to visit her sister and we were planning to fish, cook out on the fire, and generally get caught up. After a day I found myself wishing he would just stop talking. It was incessant, and while it was certainly company, there was absolutely no connection left in our lives. I tried to understand why I felt that way? I was also upset at my attitude. What had changed in the last 15 years? I’m not sure, but I did have a few ideas. One, in that time cell phones came into existence and have since morphed into the ever-present smart phones with camera; being connected, supposedly. Cell phones don’t work at our house but we do have Wi-Fi. He ran around taking picture after picture and continually tried to phone or text his wife. He would interrupt a walk or talk with, “Wait one second, I’ve got to ‘get’ this”. He brought up other people from our past and I had only a vague recollection of what they looked like. Finally, I told him that I hadn’t really thought about school after I had left. I suppose the main reason for our bad visit is that I have changed; I am no longer the same person.

We no longer lived in the same ‘community’.

Continue reading

Letter from Japan #3

“Loneliness does not come from being alone, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important.”

Dear Bob,

This is kind of where I’m at now.

I swear it’s always the 3 month mark in any new situation where the novelty wears off and the challenges present themselves. And one of mine, it seems, will be loneliness. But not the kind that comes from being alone. I mean the kind that comes from being around other people all day long who you, for whatever reason, can’t be close to.

It doesn’t always have to be because of the language barrier, but in this case it is mostly that. And, yes, I know it’s part and parcel of the job, to be largely not understood and struggle to understand, but it got to me a bit this month.  I’m not sure why. I think it’s because I’m at the point where I’m building relationships with my students (the classes are so small) so there’s naturally more desire to connect verbally as we do non verbally, and it obviously does not come as easily.

It’s good though, the struggle. It means we’re trying. We know there’s something to try for and we know we’re far off. Like my post on self-loathing. I’m very much a people person in that I want to and need to feel close to people I spend a lot of time with, and so the trying and failing can be draining, like a negative on the social scale where at least being alone is a peaceful 0. But I must remember, this isn’t supposed to fulfill me socially  – this is my job!

Anyway, it’s ok with my adult students. We have to work at it, but we do get there eventually. My company man tries so hard to explain his work drama, the nuances of which are pretty complicated even in the same language, but he does it! Through blood, sweat, tears and translator, we did it! And we were closer after that. Only to start at square one from the next week’s lesson, but we got there and that’s what matters.

It’s not so possible with the kids though. At least not verbally. My littlest ones keep forgetting I don’t speak Japanese and I’m not sure realize quite fully that it’s a class where we come to learn English and I’m allllll the way from Canada for you, so please try. They feel comfortable with me now so are always rambling on to me in Japanese assuming I understand, and I have to interrupt them with sad eyes and “nihongo wakaranai” (“Japanese don’t understand”). Then they kind of deflate and go “senseiiiiiiiii” and I know exactly how they feel. It’s funny, if they could speak English I think I’d know what they’d say. Kids are easy like that. But the CLASSES, my god, are the most challenging part of the whole job. In order to keep the class afloat (as in not descending into total chaos) I must use shamefully cheap tricks and manipulation to get them to speak in English or to pay attention to me and I just can’t keep it up for an hour. It’s so stressful. I feel like I’m doing a bad job.

Anyway, this is my most negative view of it all and it only gets me down when I have what I am hoping is hormone imbalance. On the good days, which are most of them, I fully grasp that language is not the only important thing when it comes to making a connection and see what makes this job so fun and fulfilling. For instance, I am really enjoying trying to distill complex ideas into the simplest language possible. That’s just good practice always. Concepts and feelings are universal even if a language is not, and you don’t have to dress up your language to get them across.

One thing I’m doing now with my more advanced students is giving them Japanese words that have no English translation (that I find on the internet, or they teach me once they catch my drift) and have them try to explain/expand it in English. This is fun for all.

A few I’ve learned:

Otsukaresama desu: roughly “You must be tired from all the hard work.” said at the end of the work-day to a coworker as a goodbye. I also saw it used in a movie as a congratulations on your retirement.

Kuidaore: when a city (specifically Osaka) has a large variety of food for a reasonable price such that you spend a lot of money.

Sonnakotonaiyo: if someone accuses you of doing something wrong, but you really are innocent, you say this in protest.

Nori ga ii: to describe a feeling of good vibes between people or in a group.

Mononoaware: kind of old school, but it’s the awareness of the temporary nature of things which brings on a melancholy feeling.

Majime: If you can find the common denominator between serious, diligent, honest, earnest, reliable, and drama-free…that is majime. Doing what you’re supposed to, in a work-sense.


I had the perfect experience yesterday at the post office which was representative of this month’s frustration and release. I was trying to mail a package home and it is really not that simple. Neither I nor anyone there could speak anything useful in each other’s language, and even making do with the translator app it took a while to get that I had to write down everything that was in the package in great detail, which I did, only be told at the very end, the last item on my list, that I was not allowed to send natto. I had no time to repack so I translated that I’d come back later. The post office lady seemed truly embarrassed or something that she had put me through this for naught.  It was a bit much. Maybe she expected me to get upset, I don’t know. I wanted to tell her it’s ok, she’ s just doing her job, I’m not mad, it only took that long because we don’t speak the same language…. and then it came to me! “Shouganai”, which basically means “Oh, well. It can’t be helped; it’s out of our control; no use getting upset”  As soon as I said that, it being the only Japanese uttered during the entire charade, her and the staff who were watching collectively froze for a moment and then melted. That’s how it was. Just like that, no barrier. I understood. They understood. They understood that I understood. Etc. It was beautiful. I mean, it’s bullshit that they couldn’t just forget about the natto, but it’s not shitty of them and to get that across in one word so effectively, like a bridge from me to them, was so! Damn! Beautiful!

Ugh, I do miss instantaneous understanding. Closeness. I am so dramatic in my head and I would rather not lay it on the family here, the only English speaking people, so there’s no one here I can really tell these things to. And it’s important that I do. So thank you Bob for asking me to write these letters.  It sure takes the edge off.


P.S. This is my new favorite sweater to replace my old favorite sweater that says “Cheer Up”, which I bought ironically because it is in fact one of the most offensive things to say to someone sad. This one says “Majime” (backwards)!

Letter from Japan #2

Dear Bob,

Geez, it’s been a month already? I thought time would be going by a bit slower. That was part of the point!

This letter will probably be disappointing on the cultural-exposition front. The special circumstances I mentioned in the last have really cushioned the culture shock. But I haven’t really done much outside of home or work yet either, mostly due in part to my desire to be cozy. It’s FREEZING over here. This is the coldest and snowiest winter the locals have ever seen in something like 30 years.


It’s never too cool for school. Now where do I park?

Enter, the kotatsu. One of the many brilliant innovations to keep your body, not the room, warm. From the outside it’s just a low table with a blanket in between two slabs. But under that blanket is a tropical paradise. It is very difficult to part with in a world where I can see my own breath indoors.

Here’s my haiku on the matter:

 “Winter’s Journey”

electric Blanket

cold cold cold cold cold cold cold

heated toilet seat

Here are a few more of my favourite things so far, before I move onto the neurotic portion of this letter.

  1. Natto: is fermented soy beans, and simply one of the most delicious things I’ve ever tasted. I’m lucky to say so because not only is it the healthiest and cheapest food available, even many Japanese find it gross with it’s old sock-like smell and phlegm-like consistency. I eat it over rice with the same enthusiasm as cheese on pasta.img_20170117_230542_354
  1. Engrish: In Asia, English is the preferred language of consumerism. It’s all over clothes, stationary, gift bags, product labels. It’s not supposed to be perfect, or make sense, but the haphazardness often reaches levels of absurdity you just can’t make up. And sometimes, beyond the garbled syntax, there’s hidden depth lost in translation. I cannot resist. And so collecting Engrish is one of my greatest, simplest joys in life. In Korea, too, I shipped home about 5 boxes of the stuff. It’s how my zine was born (but here, weirdly, I can’t find A5 size stationary anywhere! So, R.I.P. The Free Wheel).


so close

  1. Private karaoke rooms: These are high quality. Even in a small town there is a surprisingly plentiful and current list of English songs. Yes, I anticipate spending a lot of time here.


It’s like they were expecting me

So I’m still learning Japanese, but at about the same rate as my smallest kids are learning English – which is to say only when disguised as fun (or necessary). Mostly I understand what I hear most often and have bothered asking what it means, or what I use most often when I have bothered asking how I say it. For example, “hazukashi”, which is roughly to say something is embarrassing; that I’m embarrassed. Or shy, awkward, ashamed, put on the spot, uncomfortable…I’m not really sure if it’s a catch-all or if the nuance is untranslatable and it’s the common denominator of all these feelings. And this is why new-language learning is incredibly intimidating for me. I WILL use the wrong word. I WILL NOT be understood! I have to get over that. Anyway, I also try to also learn the opposites at the same time, you know, to stay positive. But I do try to intentionally memorize at least 1 word a day, and watch one YouTube lesson a day, so here’s hoping it adds up into full sentences. I’m not happy with my progress here so far.

I wonder if my teaching reflects how I learn. No one’s really dictating how I do either. It’s all up to me. It’s a lot of pressure, but I would want it no other way. But is it because I’m stubborn, or because deep down I truly know what’s best?

One thing’s for sure – I am free. Maybe the freest person I know. Outwardly, my life is simple. I have no family ties. Very little responsibility. No major psychological restrictions (that I can tell). Privilege. But with freedom comes responsibility, and I’ve always had this pervasive sense of not doing enough; like, failing to live up to my potential. I would hate for that to transfer into my ability to teach, or into my estimation of my students.

I feel like my classes are going well. But it’s hard to tell with no feedback, and I can’t rely on my students to tell me what they feel or what they want from me. For instance, I was under the impression from the last teacher that the 1:1 classes are strictly conversation, which was all well and good for my more outgoing students, but when my more introverted ones started getting more nervous and skipping class, I asked and learned that there has to be more to it than that. So there I was thinking I’m doing a good job forcing conversation out of people who are clearly uncomfortable, when I was actually completely missing the point. I felt like an idiot. So I can never really trust myself to think I’m doing well. Which sucks, but it’s probably for the best.

When I assume we’re on the same page though (and I do feel it’s safe to say in most cases), I am finding this work so satisfying. There’s such a variety of personalities, levels, demographics to teach to, from a group of babies who just need to be entertained and showered in English (my most exhausting class, but only 30 mins once a week), to a couple of self-proclaimed hikkikomoris who don’t want to be here (YET), to a fluent company man to whom I explain the nuances of English communication even I take to granted while he vents about work issues, to a philosophy class with 3 old wise ladies. Very small class sizes means I will get to know them individually. As long as I stay on my toes I can’t see myself getting bored after my typical 1 year expiry date. If I do, it probably means I failed as a teacher.

Thanks for reading! ‘Til next month. This is where I’ll be


ATOP my electric blanket, NEXT to my heater, UNDER my kotatsu, hotpacks IN my clothes, ON my computer…

P.S. I’m back on Facebook now, back to being inundated with bad news. Wondering if it would be unethical to to ignore it. Feeling guilty for even considering it…”how dare the state of the world infringe on my own happiness?”

It does though. But maybe it should be the price I pay for being a member. I’d like some thoughts on this.

[Note: comments are welcome either here or on our Facebook page.]