Trapped Within History?: A Process Philosophical Refutation Of Historicist Relativism

by Nicholas Rescher

Nicholas Rescher is author of more than eighty books in various areas of philosophy. He is University Professor of Philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh. E-mail: rescher@vms.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 66-75, Vol. 29, Number 1, Spring-Summer, 2000. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Dr. Rescher refutes the idea that humans do everything within a setting of place and time, only viewing things from where they are, seeing things only from the particular perspective they happen to occupy. The idea that we can be cognitively trapped within history by a relativism that tethers us to our time and culture founders on fundamental considerations of process thought.

I. Stage Setting: Historicity

Process philosophy represents a philosophical approach that is of substantial interest and value in its own right. However, the object of this present discussion it to exhibit its substantial instrumental value. For, as will be argued here, it is also of great utility for the clarification and resolution of philosophical problems which do not overtly lie in its own characteristic domain. In this regard the specific object of present concern is the much debated issue of historical relativism.

Everything that we humans manage to do is done within a setting of place and time. The historical process envelops all our activities and dealings. Everything we do is a part of history, caught up in the grand macro-process of human development and finding its place there in some micro-context of era and culture. In thinking as in looking we can only get the view of things from where we are. Be it with the vision of the eye or of the mind, we can only see things from the particular perspective we happen to occupy There is, for us, no Archimedean fulcrum outside the spatiotemporal historicity of place and era for pivoting the lever of thought. As philosophers repeatedly insist, we have no possibility of achieving a "God’s eye view" or a "view from nowhere." Our activities -- alike physical and mental -- are inevitably part of that grand historical process, subject to the relativization of era and culture. We are trapped within history. The inexorable contextuality of things inescapably tethers our thought to our spatiotemporal placement in era and culture even as it ties our shadows to our physical placement on the earth’s surface.

All of this is central to a historicist view of the world. And it must, I submit, be taken as a given, a fact of life, a straightforward statement of the way things are. This aspect of historical relativity has to be acknowledged as pretty much undebatable and indeed virtually truistic. The real question -- and what indeed is debatable in the matter -- is what follows from it. Given that our human existence is unavoidably subject to historical conditions, just what conclusion can be taken to follow?

II. Epistemic Relativism

The main conclusion that is commonly drawn from the fact of historicity is epistemic relativism. The line of thought at issue here runs as follows:

Theoreticians insist that the real truth of things is timeless and placeless -- that what is indeed true is so always and everywhere. But human thought and acceptance are always historical, always issuing from and based in a setting of era and culture. And this means that we have no way to determine what actually is true but only what people in certain places and times think to be such. Everything we assert and accept is accompanied by the ubiquitous Kantian I think. We only have and can only ever achieve opinion and putative truth: the real article -- the truth as such -- lies outside our grasp. Belief and thought in general is always history-bound, while the real truth as such (if such there is) will be something that transcends history The unavoidable conclusion here is that we cannot capture the truth as such. We cannot escape historicity: if timeless and placeless truth is where we want to go, then we have no way to get there from here.

So reason the historicist advocates of epistemic relativism. Their argumentation is tempting -- but at the same time profoundly fallacious.

III. The Perspective of Process

There is good reason to think that the fatal flaw of the indicated argumentation for epistemic relativism lies in its failure to give due heed to the dialectic of process and product -- and in particular the distinction between instances of the production of information and the items of information that are produced. Granted -- thinking, inquiry, assertion, and the like are all intellectual processes carried on by humans which, as such, must inevitably have an historical setting by way of place and time, of culture and era. But this is clearly not the end of the matter. For the reality of it is that there is no reason to think that there cannot be changeless patterns of stability within a changing historical process. And the nearer we get to communicative basics, the more stable. Cats give birth to kittens, not woodchucks, oxygen bonds with hydrogen to make water and not alcohol. The recognition of such facts is unquestionably a matter of place and time, but this does not hold for these facts themselves.

The very idea of a process involves trans-temporal constancies. Water evaporates. That is to say, water evaporates is a generic process. It has many instances, occurring alike after rainstorms in 16th century Lima and in 20th century Atlanta. One simply cannot identify a process that is not a process of a processual type and which, in consequence, is not at that level of abstraction capable of repetition. Any particular process -- and every such process -- is always an instance of a process type -- an instantiation of a general pattern. And so the concreta of history, viewed in an epistemic perspective, can in fact manage to transcend their space-time settings to instantiate general patterns. Although their manifestations are inevitably temporal and concrete, those processes themselves are atemporal and generic.

And of course different concrete instances of a process can produce products of exactly the same generic type. Different factories can and often do produce the same model of car; different cooks can produce the same variety of soup. And this is strikingly so when the product happens to be information: different presses can print the same text, different respondents can give the same answer to the same question; different mouths can utter the same sentence; different minds can think the same thought.

The point is that in the realm of informational abstractness products can escape the limitations of their (invariably relativized) productive origins. The historical relativization of the production process to a particular historico-cultural context -- the fact that the thinking or the assertion of a truth is so relativized -- of itself does nothing to limit the product (the truth that is so thought or asserted) to a historico-cultural context. Once produced it is generally available -- and (insofar as abstract) will be cross-temporally accessible via its exemplifications and manifestations at different times and places.

A currently fashionable position takes the line: Different individuals and different societies live in altogether different thought worlds. We contemporary Westerners live in a realm of physical and chemical causation. Our primitive ancestors three millennia ago lived in an animistic realm of nature-spirit-wind gods, cloud-spirits, and the like. There is no way to cross such conceptual gaps. Chronological impracticability apart, exchanging information by ordinary communicative processes would be totally impracticable. Every culture is entrapped in its own concept realism. The prospect of actual communication is inexistent. And so since there is no way to effect contrast there is no prospect of any agreement or disagreement. And as in matters of thought so also in matters of action. Here there is no objective right or wrong either. To each his own -- and to each his own is right and anything else altogether fallacious.

The fatal flaw of such a position is that is overlooks what might be characterized as the unavoidable overlap between any two conceptual realms that have concept manifolds of a complexity sufficient to deal with "the real world."

Consider an example: the famous duck-rabbit. You are schooled to see it as a duck; I to see it as a rabbit. And never the two can shall meet. Wrong! At the duck/rabbit level of conceptual complexity we indeed cannot come together. But when it comes down to more rudimentary talk about "A linear configuration that looks like that (pointing)" we are in coordination. You think of that object as a pencil, I (who know nothing about such writing implements) think of it as a hairpin. Conceptually we are miles apart. But both of us can agree that it is "A small wooden stick with a black something that comes to a point on it." I think the voodoo maven cast an evil spell on my neighbor, you think he suffered through imaginative autosuggestion when he learned about the doll with its pin. We are miles apart regarding how we think about the events at issue. But we have no trouble agreeing that "The maven stuck a pin through the head of the doll she used to represent the neighbor and he suffered illness as a somehow-produced result."

The point is that any complex concept scheme has internal resources through which the materials of another can be captured in a descriptively more rudimentary -- and thereby descriptively neutral -- manner so as to make communicative contact possible. Whatever is represented in the one can be represented in the other in sufficient detail to make communicative contact possible. There is never an absolutely unbridgeable gap, a total incommensurability of conception. Anything can be characterized at a sufficiently enough and rudimentary level to possibilize its accessibility to another scheme at that level.

In this connection an absolutely crucial resource is provided by the machinery of supposition, assumption, and hypothesis. Granted, there is just no way in which we can translate the machinery of the Galenic humors into the machinery of modern medicine. But this just does not render it conceptually unavailable to the moderns. We can say: "Let’s make an assumption. Suppose the heart were a furnace-type heat source, and that by its heating the blood warmth could be supplied to the human extremities. Then . . ." That is, we could unfold a story within a framework of assumptions that rendered the whole Galenic instrumentarium accessible to the modern mind. And inversely. We could not explain modern medicine to the Galenic physician within the concept machinery of his favored theory. But we could certainly go back and teach it to him beginning with the pre-systematic conceptual resource that we use in bringing the modern student-novice into the realm of modern scientific medicine.

And so while it may indeed transpire that concept-schemes may be so "disjoint" that one cannot be translated into the other, they are never so disjoint that one cannot find within the resources of each sufficient expository resources materials to render the claims of the other accessible at a level of generality that allows of an information transfer which -- however imperfect -- suffices to make communicative contact possible.

The problem is that the contemporary discussion of these issues only envision extreme options: either total concept-incommensurability or all-out concept identity. The intermediate situation of a halfway house that allows for a degree of concept-consideration sufficient to provide for communicative contact is simply ignored. And yet it is just exactly here that the realities of the situation lie.

Accordingly, the inevitable historicity of all human proceedings does nothing to show that various beliefs and behaviors cannot be more than the characteristic possession of a transient and temporary era in the history of a particular culture.

IV Transcending Origins: Escaping Historicity via Information

Two concessions must of course be granted to the relativist: (1) different bodies of evidence will be available at different times (in the wake, for example, of archeological research or of document discoveries), and (2) different frameworks of interpretation of available evidence will come to light (in the course, for example, of medical or psychological research). And, clearly; such changes in the volume or in the bearing of the evidence will change our views regarding what the truth of the matter is. But these changes of course affect just that -- our views. They do not alter the facts of the matter. If we should learn that Caesar has an egg for breakfast on that fateful Ides of March this discovery would relate to a change in our information about the thing, but would not effect a change in Caesar himself from a non-egg breakfaster to an egg breakfaster.

Information, in particular, is a special sort of product -- one that is inherently abstract. There is the actual making or staking of a claim (which is always biographical and therefore historical) and the claim that is made, which exists ahistorically outside of space and time.

Consider an analogy, the color green vs. green things (a leaf, a lawn), or again, the number two vs. pairs of things (twins, ears). Those concrete particulars are historically specific: they exist in particular times and places. But colors and numbers as such are ahistorically generic: they have historical instantiations and exemplifications but they themselves are outside of space and time. Human activities -- cognitive activities such as claims and contentions in particular -- are exactly like that. To historicize them is to treat them as concrete things, and thereby to commit the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, as Whitehead called it.

It is important here to bear in mind the distinction between the trans-historical (omnitemporal) and the ahistorical (timeless). Genuine laws of nature (fundamental physical laws) are omnitemporal: they hold always and everywhere -- they pervade space-time, so to speak. But purely abstract conditional relationships (for example) are atemporal. (Vertebrates and canines are historical entities, but conceptual facts on the order of if it’s a canine, then it’s a vertebrate are by nature timeless and ahistorical, holding always and everywhere, even when canines and vertebrates are absent.) The abstractness of information is something which, by its very nature, carries us outside the scheme of history. For while the learning or imparting of information is always historical, the information that we learn or impart need not be. Cognitive processes are indeed spatiotemporal, but the objects they involve can be abstract.

Some sorts of things exist out of space but not time -- one’s ownership of a piece of jewelry, for example, or one’s right to exercise an option to purchase a tract of land. Other sorts of things exist neither in space nor in time -- facts, for example. (The Eiffel Tower was erected in Paris in the 19th century, but the fact that Julius Caesar did not realize this is something that has no spatiotemporal emplacement. The horse that John stole is located in space and time but the fact that stealing is wrong has no spatiotemporal emplacement.) Some sorts of things -- numbers, facts, and generalized relationships are just by nature the sorts of things that have no spatiotemporal emplacement. And information is like that. The things that information may be about are spatiotemporal, as will be the speech or writing by which the information is conveyed from one person to another. But the information itself is altogether nonspatiotemporal. It simply lies in the nature of certain sorts of things -- information included -- not to be located in space and time -- to be "abstract."

The overall situation in matters of abstraction is triadic (to use the term favored by C. S. Peirce). There are the various and sundry concrete green things: the abstract property at issue (viz., the property or characteristic of being green); and the mediative conception or idea of greenness which is the thought-instrumentability through which that abstract property comes to be imputed to those items that putatively manifest it. That third item -- the idea or concept -- is also historicized (it too has an originative placement in era and culture). But its nature is mediative since what is at issue are generic cognitive processes that enable that idea or concept to provide us with the (cognitive) means of linking the concrete to the abstract. And the abstraction to which it yields access is not something that it creates and whose reality is dependent upon it. The medieval metaphysical dispute between nominalism, conceptualism, and platonism needs to be resolved conjunctively: we require a nominalism for particulars, a conceptualism for concepts, and a platonism for abstractions. The situation is not one of either/or. We need to make use of all of those doctrinal positions, each in its own place.

The trouble with a narrowly rigoristic nominalism lies in its vitiatingly fragmented vision. True, universals may indeed represent features that separated individuals have in common. But of course those commonalties only exist because generic processes are at work "across the board" in point of space and time, processes that function so as to produce those commonalties. Those shared properties on which the nominalists rely are themselves clearly not nominalisitcally self-sufficient. They do not stand on their own but root in processual generality Were it not for generic processes that reach across the limits of space and time, those nominalistic commonalties would not, could not be there.

This line of thought has important consequences for our present problem-situation. Information as such is abstract: the believing vs. the belief; the theorizing vs. the theory; the assuming vs. the assumption. Different people at different times and places have the same beliefs, project the same theories, make the same assumption. The history-bound nature of the concrete-episode (the believing, theorizing, assuming) does not affect the ahistorical nature of the informative item at issue (the belief, theory, assumption).

Of course we have no way to get to the abstract (the belief) save via the historical (the believing). But what we achieve (the product) is something of a nature different and status distinct from the mode of its realization (the process). When we engage in intellectual processes that carry us into the informational domain we impel ourselves from history into an ahistorical sphere. The same idea (the same thought-process, the same belief) is accessible to people at different times and places. Were it not so, communication would be altogether impossible.

But how can temporalized thought deal in timeless information? How is it that particularized episodic thought can make episode-abstractive generalizations? That’s just how things work. It’s like puzzling about brass bands by asking how tubes of bent metal can make music. No matter how much we may puzzle at the phenomenon we have to accept it as part of the world’s realities.

Admittedly, when we are viewing something, the only views we can possibly obtain are views from somewhere (and views belonging to us and not to God). But where the viewing is done with the eyes of the mind, and its object is the realm of information rather than the realm of physical reality, then what the view is a view of is something ahistorical. For information as such exists outside of history even though our accessing it is invariably an historical transaction. We must avert the category mistake of confusing process with product here, of conflicting the information that we access with the historical actions and events of our accessing it.

V Against a Monistic Nominalism of "Concreta"

To make a success of the idea of being "trapped within history" we would need to be medieval-style nominalists who project an ontology of concreta alone, denying the conceptualists’ idea that universals (abstracta) can be manifested in such concreta in a way that enables them to reach into the realm of the general. The almost unavoidably sensible ideas that concreta can instantiate or exemplify transcending generalities would have to be abandoned. And from a process point of view this is eminently unrealistic. For processists do -- and, given the genius of their theory, must -- reject the idea that the atemporalities and trans-temporalities of the realm of abstractive generality at issue with processes as such cannot be exemplified in the world’s experienced concreta which, so to speak "participate" in them, (to use Plato’s term).

Human action and experience embeds us in a concrete order of particularized reality with its particularized setting in the spatiotemporal and causal order. But ideas and information carry us into a universal (abstract) order our experiential concreteness instantiates but does not encompass. And intelligence with its characteristically mental processes provides for a linkage that mediates between these two realms. It is exactly this -- intelligent thought -- that provides for the linking processes that conjoin and mediate between experiential concreta and ideational abstractness. It lies in the very nature of intelligent beings that they function as amphibians able to operate conjointly and concurrently both in the realm of concrete experience and in that of abstract thought.

It lies in the very nature of intelligence that it effects the transit from the episodically causal (the thinking) to the abstractly rational (the thought) -- and in matters of discourse also from the concrete declaring to the generic declaration. All such intellectual process involve the projection from spatiotemporal specificity to informative generality. In the domain of bodily action we are indeed trapped within history, but intellectual action provides us with an escape -- a means of entry into the region of abstract generality. For with thought -- unlike bodily action -- we can get beyond the present into the past and future and indeed from the realm of the real into that of the merely possible. Present action can only replicate but not actually repeat past actions, while present thoughts can not only implicate but even repeat past ones.

With rational creatures, then, the two factors of causality and justification can come together in a conjoint fusion. It is exactly here -- in explaining the modus operandi of rational beings -- that these two must not be separated. The "experience of having a cat perception of a suitable sort" -- exactly because it is a cognitively significant experience -- at once and concurrently constitutes the cause of X’s claiming that "The cat is on the mat" and affords X with a reason for making this claim. In the cognitive experience of intelligent beings there are not separable regions of causes and of reasons: one and the same of experience will at once provide for the ground and for the reason of a belief.

For intelligent beings whose modus operandi is suitably shaped by their evolutionary heritage, the step from experience to belief is at once causal and rational: we hold the belief because of the experience both in the order of efficient and in the order of final (rational) causation. With creatures such as ourselves experiences of certain sorts are dual-purpose; their occurrence both causally engenders and rationally justifies the holding of certain beliefs. Informatively meaningful perceptions and physical stimuli run together in coordinated unison.

Intelligent agency brings something new upon nature’s scene in the course of its own functioning. Consider the following exchanges: Q: "What causally produced his belief that the cat is on the mat." A: "He saw it there." "Why -- for what reason -- does he claim that the cat is on the mat" A: "He saw it there." His seeing experience is a matter of dual action in both modes of causality. Certain sorts of eventuations which are amphibious because they operate at once and concurrently both in the realm of natural causes and in the realm of reasons. My perspective experience of "seeing the cat on the mat" is at once the cause of my belief and affords my reason for holding that belief. With intelligent agents such as ourselves, experiences do double-duty as eventuations in nature and as reasons for belief.

Intelligent agents as amphibians: they operate both in the realm of the causality of nature and the causality of reason. And for them experiences such as "cat-on-mat sighting" have a double aspect, able at once to engender and (in view of imprinted practical policies) to justify suitable beliefs. Accordingly, such intelligent agents are able to have dual-function experiences that at once cause their beliefs and provide the reasons for holding them. Laurence Bonjour declares:

But while the actual occurrence of happiness or unhappiness, pleasure or pain, etc., is indeed beyond our control [. . .] the same does not seem obviously to hold for our beliefs about such matters. [. . . ]Thus beliefs or judgments [ . . .] can [. . .] be arbitrarily manipulated at will, so long as the other elements are appropriately adjusted. (721)

It would thus be contended that, for example, while the actual occurrence of pain, suffering, disappointment (etc.) may be extra-theoretical, nevertheless a person’s awareness of such things is not, but rather lies only in the area of belief -- of mere opinion. The two functions of experience and belief can thus be detached from one another. But this assumption of separability is deeply problematic.

The fact is that beliefs are concurrently produced and justified by experiences. My belief that the cat is on the mat need not rest on the further and different belief that I see it there, it can rest directly and belief immediately on my seeing it. Beliefs, that is to say, do not require a justification via other beliefs, they can rest directly on appropriate experiences -- and do so concurrently in the modes of. My reason for holding that belief is not yet another belief but an experience -- an experience which from one point of view produces and at the same time considered from another point of view validates and justifies that belief.

A concretizing particularism of the nominalistic sort ("there are no abstracta") is totally at odds with process thought. For a concrete process is always an instantiation or tokening a general process-type. It is axiomatic in process philosophy that "To be a process is to be a process of a certain specifiable sort." And in the setting of a process theory of mind this fundamental fact carries us from sporatic cognitive experiences to the abstractions of information management.

VI. Communicative Processes

Communication is by nature a process of conveying information. And information in its turn is by its very nature something general and abstract. If you are to understand me when I talk about apples, then the words that I use must apply to your concreta as well as mine. Information transfer could not take place between us if the concreta of my experience had to correspond to those of yours. And this means that the instrumentalities by which the process of communication works must transcend the limits of their historical foothold.

In matters of communication, subscription to an objective reality, abstractly independent of the historical vagaries of individualized discussion episodes, is indispensably demanded by any step into the domain of the publicly accessible objects essential to communal inquiry and interpersonal communication about a shared world. We could not establish communicative contact about a common objective item of discussion if our discourse were geared to our own historical activities and our personalized conceptions that are bound up with them. The conventionalized intention to take impersonal objects to be at issue is fundamental because it is overriding -- that is, it overrides all of our other intentions when we enter upon the communicative venture. Without this conventionalized intention we should not be able to convey information -- or misinformation -- to one another about a shared "objective" world that underlies and connects those historical discourse-activities of ours.

It is thus crucial to the communicative enterprise to take an egocentrism-avoiding stance that rejects all claims to a privileged status for our own conception of things as bound to our own particular historical position in the world’s processual scheme. If our communicative mechanisms were inseparably confined to the concrete conditions of their use -- to the space and the time of their employment -- communication would become impracticable. One could then never advance the issue of the identity of communicative focus upon a single item of mutual concern past the status of a more or less well-grounded assumption. And then any so called communication would no longer be an exchange of information but a tissue of frail conjectures. The communicative enterprise would become a vast inductive project -- a complex exercise in theory-building, leading tentatively and provisionally toward something which, in fact, the imputational groundwork of our language enables us to presuppose from the very outset.1 Only by using the resources of thought to free our communicative resources from the spatio-temporal processes of their employment can we manage to communicate with one another across the reaches of space and time. Subscribing to that fundamental reality postulates can we take the sort of view of experience, inquiry, and communication that we in fact have. Without this, the entire conceptual framework of our thinking about the world and our place within it would come crashing down.

The viability of abstraction as a process that transcends the limits of experiential concreta follows by a transcendental argument from the possibility of communication -- to the "conditions under which alone" communication is possible. And so, to whatever extent Cicero’s contemporaries can gain access to his thought via his deeds and his writings, so -- in principle -- can we. Communication and information transfer can take place to the extent – and only to the extent -- that we can reach out beyond the historical concreta of our experience to function at a level of processive abstraction.

It is time to summarize. The idea that we can be cognitively trapped within history by a relativism that tethers us to our time and culture founders on fundamental considerations of process thought -- and in particular the role of information in the communicative process. When evolution produces an intelligent social being on the order of homo sapiens, it thereby brings into existence a creature equipped with the intellectual resources to enter into the realm of communication process in a way that enables it to transcend the historical concreteness of its particular spatiotemporal context of existence. In virtue of being the kind of thing it is, such a creature is no longer "trapped within history." For if we indeed were so trapped in the way that a doctrine naive epistemic relativism insist upon, then any and all prospect of communication across the divide of space and time would be annihilated. To advocate such a position would be to fly in the face of the realities of the most fundamental aspects of the human condition -- the fact that we humans as homo sapiens are a creature that lives and breathes and has its being within the processual setting of a communicative community.2



1. The justification of such imputations is treated more fully in Chapter 9 of my book Induction.

2. This paper is a somewhat expanded version of an invited lecture delivered at the Center for Process Studies in Claremont, CA in November of 1998. I am grateful to John K. Roth for constructive commentary.


Works Cited

Laurence Bonjour, "Rescher’s Idealistic Pragmatism." The Review of Metaphysics 39 (1976): 702-26.

Rescher, Nicholas. Induction. Oxford: Blackwell, 1980.