ON BELIEVING WHAT WE’RE TOLD.

The medievalist historian who writes the blog Blitztoire [defunct as of April 2012] has an entry [Google cache, which probably won't last long], “Du positivisme historique à la critique des blogs” [From historical positivism to the criticism of blogs], in which he quotes a trenchant passage he ran across in Introduction aux études historiques (1898) by Charles-Victor Langlois and Charles Seignobos:

La tendance spontanée de l’homme est d’ajouter foi aux affirmations et de les reproduire, sans même les distinguer nettement de ses propres observations. Dans la vie de tous les jours, n’acceptons-nous pas indifféremment, sans vérification d’aucune sorte, des on-dit, des renseignements anonymes et sans garantie, toutes sortes de “documents” de médiocre ou de mauvais aloi ? Il faut une raison spéciale pour prendre la peine d’examiner la provenance et la valeur d’un document sur l’histoire d’hier; autrement, s’il n’est pas invraisemblable jusqu’au scandale, et tant qu’il n’est pas contredit, nous l’absorbons, nous nous y tenons, nous le colportons, en l’embellissant au besoin. Tout homme sincère reconnaîtra qu’un violent effort est nécessaire pour secouer l’ignavia critica, cette forme si répandue de lâcheté intellectuelle; que cet effort doit être constamment répété, et qu’il s’accompagne souvent d’une véritable souffrance.

(Translation below.) He applies this to the uncritical transmission in blogs of anything found on the internet, but it’s something well worth bearing in mind in general. (Via Madame Martin.)

Man’s spontaneous tendency is to give credence to assertions and reproduce them, without even distinguishing them clearly from his own observations. In everyday life, do we not accept indiscriminately, without any sort of verification, rumors, anonymous and unverified reports, all sorts of “documents” of little or no worth? We need a special reason to take the trouble to examine the provenance and value of a document about what happened yesterday; otherwise, if it is not unlikely to the point of scandal, and as long as no one contradicts it, we take it in and hold on to it, we peddle it ourselves, embellishing it if need be. Every honest man will admit that a violent effort is necessary to shake off ignavia critica [critical laziness], that so widespread form of intellectual cowardice; that this effort must be constantly repeated, and that it is often accompanied by real suffering.

Comments

  1. Wonderful. Yes.
    & Most credulously & disastrously of all, we accept the stories we tell idly to ourselves, even when they are contradicted & unlikely to the point of scandal :-)

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