Monday, 23 October 2017

The Search For True History

 Posted by Thomas Scarborough
We are all familiar, on a personal level, with the problems of history.  In fact we continually revise the small histories which we ourselves create, with words such as ‘I misjudged him,’ ‘If only I had known,’ or ‘I can't remember it for the life of me.’ Our own practice of history, therefore, is contin-ually subject to review and correction.  
Much the same is true of history on a grander scale: revisionist history in the United States, postcolonial history in former colonies, the paradigm shift in Islamic Studies, and so on.  Everywhere, history is being reinterpreted and overturned.  Where then do we find true history?  A brief exploration of the problems of history promises to help us further.

There are various problems in the field of history which are fairly unique to itself.  History is unrepeatable.  We cannot retrieve the facts if we missed them the first time.  History, too, will always represent a loss of information—a reduction of the events themselves.  No written or oral history can truly encompass all that happened in the past.  Even if we should select a small and (seemingly) manageable part of history—say, regional history, period history, or military history—this is not isolated from the whole.  Any history, no matter how big or small, is ultimately an open system, and will always run up against the limits of completeness.

Worse, we find such limits to completeness within our very selves.  As we step back to survey the world as a whole, we observe that the facts in this world are infinite—yet we ourselves are finite.  And not only are the facts infinite, but they criss-cross each other in infinite ways. There is a mismatch, therefore—between the number of facts we find in this world, and the number of facts we can combine in our minds.  It is certainly impossible to combine an infinity of facts in the mind.  Our combination of facts is always incomplete and partial—and full of holes which need to be patched with hopeful, and believing, guesses.

An infinity of facts, then, leads us to another realisation.  While we cannot obtain a complete combination of facts, we do have a kind of completeness—a finite completeness—in every one of us.  We call it our world-view—and it is within such world-views that histories exist as a kind of sub-set, being knitted into their fabric. In short, history is as subjective as we are.  We may not recognise this in our present, but we see it in our past:

Historical perspectives which in the past were highly rated may now be so unfashionable as to raise eyebrows if one merely mentions them: that history serves the purposes of the state, for instance, that it is about great men, or that it has a goal. We also see the past reflect on the present.  In our common life, we have been plagued by massive oversight.  Among other things, we have championed ideologies without foreseeing their ruin, and announced progress without recognising its devastation. In the same way, history may be written with or without crucial considerations, and no one may notice at all.

This should not be misunderstood.  The historical record deals with crucial events: the discovery of new continents, for instance, crimes against humanity, or international treaties.  All are able to teach us.  Facts do exist—and facts should not be fabricated where they do not exist.  Yet wherever we combine facts, we are selective, and in the process de-selective.  The facts, wrote the historian Charles Beard, ‘do not select themselves, or force themselves automatically into any fixed scheme of arrangement in the mind of the historian.’  We need to combine the facts in our minds, by acts of choice, conviction, and interpretation regarding values. 

For all of its problems, history will be written, and history will be read.  The question then remains: on what basis may the truth of our histories be assessed?  Did Caesar cross the Rubicon?  Was Jesus Christ crucified?  Did Marie-Antoinette really tell them to eat cake?  What shall we write about colonialism?  Has racism been on the rise?  That is, when we have done our best to appreciate the ‘facts’, how shall we judge their adequacy as history?

We know it from the movies—and from books.  We say, ‘That didn't ring true,’ or ‘That was far-fetched’—or, on the other hand, ‘That was true to life.’  Similarly we may judge history on its truth claims—namely, whether we think it represents a credible and faithful interpretation of our world, or whether it does not.  That is, history needs to be credible not merely from the point of view of its factual content, but from the point of view of what is credible in itself.  In fact there is no other basis on which we may judge history, unless the facts should definitely show us otherwise.

At first glance, this might seem to be a negative finding—a defeat in our quest for a valid or objective history.  But far rather, it suggests to us positively that every history must be a questioning, a discerning, a reading between the lines, which at its best sets us free from presuppositions.  History cannot properly be taught.  History is intelligent judgement, and truth requires independent, impartial, robust thinking to discern those arrangements of facts which are sound and those which are less than satisfactory, which press in on us every day. 


  1. I much enjoyed your dissection of history, Thomas, and found it spot-on! I do have a question — to ask what you think. But first a little context.

    One issue that parallels your discussion of history centers on today’s social media. I’m thinking, specifically, of how governments, organizations, and individuals may fabricate false narratives and, by extension, intentionally dubious history. To the extent history is being co-opted, some of what now passes as ‘history’ isn’t happening in natural fashion — whatever ‘natural fashion’ might be. Some of history-in-the-making getting placed on social media — which may never be rigorously curated with fact checking and source checking — is spurious. The aims may be any, such as to disrupt social order, to sow ideological positions, to serve revisionist purposes, or to stir antipathy. The overarching ambition may be to sway public opinion by planting false narratives on Facebook or on Twitter or other social-media platform, with the hope that some accounts will go viral and rope in believers. Accordingly, there’s a trust deficit — where these posted accounts may serve not only as the clichéd ‘first draft of history’, but final history. Although devices like propaganda have obviously existed throughout history, the obvious game changer today is the stunning reach and speed of today’s technology. It might be argued that the ubiquity of such unvetted, false narratives — and of disturbing, Orwellian-like boasts of a ‘post-fact’ and ‘post-truth’ world — are blurring the line between real history and pretend history.

    So, my question is this: How do you see the role of social media in the making and recording of history for ourselves and posterity? How about, in particular, the role of social media to aid the ‘search for true history’ — including to discern ‘those facts which are sound and those which are not’ and to ‘judge history on its truth claims’? Thoughts, Thomas?

    1. I'll address one aspect of this, which is fake news on social media, which seems to be accepted as true more often than not. Even true media reports may now be labelled fake, so that we have a situation of ‘who’s foolin’ who?’ Those who see through these things are those who have discerned truth (or merely doubt) through greater circumspection. I think that fake news on social media may finally mean the maturing of our attitudes to history and history-in-the-making.

      There is a danger besides, and this is an older one. People deliberately compile and file reports which are false, and when this is discovered, it generates great interest. This recently happened to our Minister of Finance, and it has happened to me. Or worse, those who would be important contributors to a balanced history are completely eradicated. I wonder, though, whether it is possible to eradicate history at all, in a sense. It lives on in those who survive, and this influences everything.

    2. Yes, Like Keith I see this essay as riding two horses (!) One task is to interpret events, to put them into a meaningful context.. this debate about history transcends questions about facts, for the key judgements are not factual.

      The other debate does seem, as Keith suggests, more contemporary. I was reading 'in another place' an essay today on how false information drove people's thinking on Brexit. People thought there were lots of immigrants using public services, that Turkey was joining the EU, that Muslims now made up one third of the population ("horror"!)... all false but all evidently real in people's minds.

      But in both the historical and the local frame, we have information, as Thomas says above, being twisted to support - what? Not 'the facts' but beliefs .. or 'prejudices'...

    3. The paradox of democracy perhaps. A decision may be based on an abstract majority (so many in favour, so many against, for reasons unknown), or one might try to get behind the votes, perhaps even weighting them (for all the right reasons naturally). My church tradition solves the problem like this: in certain forums, a vote is the will of Christ, a kind of override of whatever people thought they were really doing.

  2. In Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis, Tertius, Jorge L. Borges writes: All men who repeat a line from Shakespeare are William Shakespeare.
    No historian would be happy to hear that we deal with imaginative possibilities, also in regard to history. (?)

  3. Mmm... actually, I gather there's a very influential set of historians who do just this. Actually, there are good philosophical reasons to reject the idea that history is black and white, a collection of 'facts' divorced from interpretations - isn't there?

    1. It cannot be! What is a fact? Islamic religion seems to have sprouted out of nowhere, for a historian there is no proof ( no coins, representations etc) between the life of Mohamed and almost a century later when somehow the religion is appearing out of the blue. What does this mean? For many persons Islam exists. Telling there is no proof proves that proof does not proof the existence of something.

  4. "What is a Fact". Great topic for a Pi essay, big question, of course! But this is from an influential English book in the 1960s.

    "The facts are really not at all like fish on the fishmonger's slab. They are like fish swimming about in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean; and what the historian catches will depend, partly on chance, but mainly on what part of the ocean he chooses to fish in and what tackle he chooses to use – these two factors being, of course, determined by the kind of fish he wants to catch. By and large, the historian will get the kind of facts he wants. History means interpretation."
    E.H. Carr.