What makes you think you’ve got the faintest idea what’s going on in this world?

“They started for the Indies and found America. They diagnosed evil and hanged old women. They thought they could grow rich by always selling and never buying. A caliph, obeying what he conceived to be the Will of Allah, burned the library at Alexandria.” Lippmann, 1922

All students of history have to ask themselves, to what extent is it possible to know the past?

Before we can answer that question, we have to think about some others: to what extent is it even possible to know the present? We always assume that it is the past that is uncertain, while the present is knowable – after all, it’s right there in front of you. But is it really the other way round?

Walter Lippmann, in his book Public Opinion (1922), offers a model of reality-formation which might shed some light on this. He describes reality as a ‘great, buzzing, blooming confusion’, which is impossible to grasp without exponential simplification, the creation of a model or ‘picture in our heads’. What we call ‘reality’, then, actually refers to this model or image within our minds. And this model or image is of course almost infinitely simplified and reduced, just as a conventional map simplifies and reduces the terrain. We don’t map every blade of grass, every rock on the beach. And neither do we do so with our eyes and other senses. Instead, we create ‘stereotypes’ – used here in its proper, technical sense of a recognition template. Even if we see a new breed of dog, we recognize it as a dog – and that’s how it works with everything we can name, everything we believe exists. So in our immediate, physical environment, those names and categories are as important in the process of perception as the senses that feed our minds, and recent research shows that seeing is an active process, involving as much input from memory as from sensory input.

We think (and feel) in stereotypes so that we can identify and react fast to stimuli.

Beyond the range of our senses lies, of course, a wider world. We can’t see it, or hear it, or touch it – and yet it touches us, reaching deep into our physical moment, touching every cell, every fiber of our being.

Lippmann coins the term ‘pseudo-environment’ for the mental model we create of the wider world, the world which cannot be directly accessed by the senses, the world beyond the horizon, and beneath or beyond perception. When we speak of ‘the world’ or events anywhere in ‘the world’ apart from within the range of our senses, this is what we are referring to. The pseudo-environment too is composed of stereotypes, blocks of meaning, but now the act of composition, the modeling of reality involved, is especially vulnerable to interference. In the immediate environment, there are all kinds of limits, biological and social, to what we perceive and how we perceive it. When it comes to the wider environment, the stereotypes we create may have less connection with reality as it is – possibly none at all. The sense perceptions which feed them are now second-hand, or third hand, or hundredth hand, or thousandth hand.

And then there’s a time-lag: news takes time to arrive. Even in the satellite/digital era, we are always dealing, technically, with the past. The individual’s pseudo-environment is vulnerable to rapid obsolescence, leaving its inhabitant momentarily blinded. This factor of time-lag is crucial to the concept of the pseudo-environment, and indeed Lippmann starts his chapter on the concepts of the pseudo-environment and the role of stereotypes in thinking with this story:


There is an island in the ocean where in 1914 a few Englishmen, Frenchmen, and Germans lived. No cable reaches that island, and the British mail steamer comes but once in sixty days. In September it had not yet come, and the islanders were still talking about the latest newspaper which told about the approaching trial of Madame Caillaux for the shooting of Gaston Calmette. It was, therefore, with more than usual eagerness that the whole colony assembled at the quay on a day in mid-September to hear from the captain what the verdict had been. They learned that for over six weeks now those of them who were English and those of them who were French had been fighting in behalf of the sanctity of treaties against those of them who were Germans. For six strange weeks they had acted as if they were friends, when in fact they were enemies.

But their plight was not so different from that of most of the population of Europe. They had been mistaken for six weeks, on the continent the interval may have been only six days or six hours. There was an interval. There was a moment when the picture of Europe on which men were conducting their business as usual, did not in any way correspond to the Europe which was about to make a jumble of their lives. There was a time for each man when he was still adjusted to an environment that no longer existed. All over the world as late as July 25th men were making goods that they would not be able to ship, buying goods they would not be able to import, careers were being planned, enterprises contemplated, hopes and expectations entertained, all in the belief that the world as known was the world as it was. Men were writing books describing that world. They trusted the picture in their heads. And then over four years later, on a Thursday morning, came the news of an armistice, and people gave vent to their unutterable relief that the slaughter was over. Yet in the five days before the real armistice came, though the end of the war had been celebrated, several thousand young men died on the battlefields.”

Time, then, is one of the primary barriers between the pseudo-environment and the real wider environment, which we can know only indirectly. News of the real environment reaches us slowly at times, but ‘whatever we believe to be a true picture, we treat as if it were the environment itself.’ (Lippmann). Our actions stem from our pseudo-environments but occur and have consequences in the real world. 

So the attempt to know what is happening in the wider world in the present moment, is saddled with epistemological questions right from the start. We have to ask whether it is possible to know the present at all. In English the linguistics encode the timelag: if something is not present in your immediate environment, neither is it present in the sense of time. Indeed the word present encapsulates Einstein, referring as it does to either time or space. Perhaps we can refer only to the immediate physical environment when we talk about ‘knowing’ the present. While sense perception decodes aspects of our immediate environment needed for our survival, when it comes to knowing the wider world, and building a holistic model of the world, authority rules – authority constructs. It offers you a prefabricated model of its own. It insists you take it. No, really. Here – it’s yours.

Ingratitude for this favor is noted, and not appreciated.

So here are some knowledge questions: actually some burning knowledge questions.

How do we know the past? How do we know the present? Do we need to know the past in order to know the present?

To what extent does media-disseminated information about ‘current events’ become ‘history’? 

Does historical practice tend to correct errors and lies by contemporary voices, in the process of creating a narrative of the past?

What is that process?

And again, this: What makes you think you’ve got the faintest idea what’s going on in this world?


Author: Paul Dunbar

I have worked in international schools for the past 15 years, teaching English Literature and Theory of Knowledge in Amsterdam, Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City. I'm also a musician, and a bit of a writer. Since 2001 I have come to question literally everything, the default position for an uncrippled epistemologist.

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