Standards of the Time: An Essay

Updated: Feb 11, 2020

Events and outcomes in any field are often solely judged per the standards of their times. While this is a valid analytical approach, it is only a partial one. To obtain a more complete assessment it is necessary to combine this approach with a consideration of what current standards can tell us about prior conclusions. Such a dialectical approach provides a more comprehensive judgement that becomes beneficial over time. To prove this assumption allow me to analyse three distinct groups along this line of thinking. In addition, I will supplement this analysis with reference to, in no particular order,  specific methods of knowledge we have used for knowledge acquisition:

  1. sense perception,

  2. memory,

  3. reason,

  4. faith

  5. emotion

These will allow for more informed, and comprehensive, judgements of said event in a given area that go beyond the standards of their time.

In the case of art, judgements about its quality can change per the standards of the time particularly as attitudes evolve. Vincent Van Gogh, Andy Warhol and Pablo Picasso are examples of artists whose work has been judged by different standards at various points resulting in different judgements. Emotion and sense perception can help inform our assessment.

When judged by the standards of his time, Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings were not widely appreciated. His art was judged as ugly, uninspiring and uninteresting. In fact, Van Gogh died in poverty. The emotional response to his art has, however, changed over time. More recent critics have admired his post-impressionist approach and his work is widely acclaimed. This evolution has significantly altered judgements of his art which today is considered to have been ahead of its time, with some pictures selling for millions of dollars. Van Gogh is regarded as one of the world’s great painters, despite being shunned by his contemporaries.

Unlike Van Gogh, during his lifetime Andy Warhol was celebrated for his art, even if at times it could be controversial.  His exhibit “Campbell’s Soup Cans” in New York, for instance, was very well received at the time. This was seen as avant-garde and a critique of mass consumerism and the bland “sameness” of modern society. Warhol was one of the first to use a form of pop-art to highlight socio-political issues. Conversely, by today’s standards, Warhol’s art-pieces appear to be less revolutionary. They do not significantly affect our senses or appeal to our emotions in the way that they once did. While Warhol continues to be seen as an artist who broke new ground, his reputation has declined. Warhol’s work is now simply one of many forms of art that criticizes consumerism and it therefore no longer provokes the kind of strong emotional response it once did.

The art of Pablo Picasso also generated a controversy when it first appeared. Paintings like ‘Guernica’ underlined the polarising emotions Picasso’s art could generate. Knowledge of this controversial aspect in his work influences how audiences react and judge Picasso’s work today. When I first saw ‘Dog’ by Picasso, my judgement was informed by an assumption about its controversial nature, as well as an appreciation of this minimalistic sketch of a dog. This was informed both by my emotional reasoning and my awareness of Picasso’s reputation for pushing the limits. This led me to interpret the picture in unintended ways, including as a contrast between the simplicity of pets and the complexity of humans. In fact, this judgment was wrong. Picasso had sketched the dog for an admirer as a favour. It had no controversial artistic meaning Nevertheless, I judged this picture by the standards of its time. By taking this assessment and combining it with my sensory perception of a minimalistic sketch, a more complete judgement could be made.  

History is often judged by modern standards, especially through emotion, memory and reason. Historical events like the Cold War are, however, judged in different ways depending on the time when such assessments are made. A good example of this is historiography – the study of historical writing based on the critical analysis of sources. The Cold War was a period of heightened tension between the United States (US) and the Soviet Union (USSR). Three perspectives have been used to identify the origins of this period: The Orthodox, Revisionist and Post-Revisionist.

Orthodox historians develop their judgements regarding available evidence in a historical context. They utilise emotional reasoning and memory to shape their judgement. Arthur Schlesinger, for instance, argues the Soviet Union started the Cold War because its focus on expansionism undermined the status quo in post-war Europe.  His judgement made during the Cold War was influenced by emotion, not least his role in developing US foreign policy.

Revisionist historians reinterpret the same evidence but rely less on memory or emotion because they were less likely to have lived through the Cold War, let alone its commencement. Such assessments produce judgements that are framed by modern standards, rather than those of the period under consideration. Many Revisionist historians contradict Orthodox historians, arguing that the United States rather than the USSR caused the Cold War through unnecessarily aggressive policies. Alternatively, Post-Revisionists combine the evidence of Orthodox historians that relied on emotion and memory with that of the Revisionists who drew on new reasoning and information to make their own judgements. Such an approach is both dialectical and more complete since it concludes both sides played a role in the origins of the Cold War.  

Natural sciences can be considered a branch of science dealing with the physical world that can be judged differently depending on when a judgement is being made. In this regard,  reason and faith can be utilised to assess whether key events in the historical development of Radium and Heliocentric theory should always be judged by the standards of their time.

The chemist Marie Curie discovered and worked closely with Radium. At the time, this element was not understood to have dangerous implications for health. Its properties were appreciated for their benefits – in which great faith was placed. The standards of today, however, judge Radium to be both radioactive and dangerous. The application of scientific reason, allowed scientists to mitigate the health risks from Radium while deploying Radium’s gamma rays in support of enhanced health outcomes. If Radium had been judged by modern standards in Curie’s time, she would have been more cautious when working with it. This would have retarded the development of modern knowledge about radioactivity and how to handle Radium safely. This example forces us to ask ourselves “how reliable is knowledge in science at the present time? Can we rely on our faith in scientists or do we need to retain some scepticism in our judgements?”

Thomas Kuhn suggests scientific knowledge progresses through a non-linear cycle – “paradigm shifts” – providing new approaches in scientific methods. Kuhn claims scientific rules are based on a subjective universal agreement which purports to create an objective approach to understanding science. He claims, therefore that an objective reason-based approach in science is insufficient. Instead, judgements should bring together subjective and objective reasoning.

The value of such a dialectical approach can be seen in the development of Copernicus’ Heliocentric Theory. This posited that the sun was the centre of the solar system and challenged the religiously based Geocentric theory that the Earth was the centre of the universe. Copernicus developed this through a combination of reason and faith. Had the standards of this period relied on faith alone, Heliocentrism would have been rejected altogether. By utilising faith as the foundation for his theory, but expanding this to argue for something at odds with the prevailing standard Copernicus produced a new field of natural science, one that modern science now hinges.

Developments like the use of Radium, or Heliocentrism, therefore, require a combination of approaches – both faith and reason in these cases. As Kuhn suggests, it is essential to combine subjective with objective reasoning to judge the reliability of scientific claims.

In conclusion, there is value in judging key events in the historical development of art, history and the natural sciences by the standards of their time. Such an approach allows us to learn from errors in the past and can assist in informing re-evaluations of an event. This is insufficient and may provoke more ambiguity resulting in an incomplete picture of the issue at hand.  There can be other perspectives to reflect on when considering judgements about the historical development of a given area. When considering the application of sense perception, emotion, memory, reason and faith – to the given areas – the art of Van Gogh, Warhol and Picasso, the origins of the Cold War and the development of Radium and Heliocentrism, it was possible to demonstrate the need for a comprehensive dialectical approach. This brought together the standards of the time, and modern assessments to better understand those events. This underlines the difficulty in definitively judging a key event in a field’s historical development by its contemporary standards. Dialectical and more comprehensive judgements can only be made by merging modern and past interpretations of standards at a given time.

The above could not have been accomplished without reference to the following sources:

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Gaddis, John Lewis. The Cold War: A New History. London, England: Penguin Press, 2005.

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