On the Very Possibility of Historiography

in Journal of the Philosophy of History
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The familiar challenges to historiographical knowledge turn on epistemological concerns having to do with the unobservability of historical events, or with the problem of establishing a sufficiently strong inferential connection between evidence and the historiographical claim one wishes to convert from a true belief into knowledge. This paper argues that these challenges miss a deeper problem, viz., the lack of obvious truth-makers for historiographical claims. The metaphysical challenge to historiography is that reality does not appear to co-operate in our cognitive endeavours by providing truth-makers for claims about historical entities and events. Setting out this less familiar, but more fundamental, challenge to the very possibility of historiography is the first aim of this paper. The various ways in which this challenge might be met are then set out, including ontologically inflationary appeals to abstract objects of various kinds, or to “block” theories of time. The paper closes with the articulation of an ontologically parsimonious solution to the metaphysical challenge to historiography. The cost of this approach is a revision to standard theories of truth. The central claim here is that the standard theories of truth have mistaken distinct causes of truth for truth itself. This mistake leads to distorted expectations regarding truth-makers for historiographical claims. The truth-makers of historiographical claims are not so much the historical events themselves (for they do not exist) but atemporal modal facts about the order of things of which those events were a part.

On the Very Possibility of Historiography

in Journal of the Philosophy of History



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Following Tucker (2004) I take ‘history’ to refer to past events themselves ‘historians’ to those who study past events ‘historiography’ to the collection of activities of historians which generates probable knowledge of past events and ‘historiographic interpretations’ to the final product of historiographical activities i.e. textbooks and the like to be read by the public. A sub-field of epistemology is the ‘philosophy of historiography’ which is analogous to the philosophy of science i.e. a field characterised by questions that arise upon reflection on historiographical activities and aims.


We owe the general point to Kuhn (1974).


See Blanchard (1941) for a discussion of the view that coherence is not just the criterion of truth but its very nature.


Ibid. p. 81.


See Rami in Lowe and Rami (2006).


See Boulter’s (2001) for discussion of the motivations and various formulations of the epistemically constrained theories of truth.

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