The Truth of Basic Historical Descriptions

in Journal of the Philosophy of History
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Most historians and many philosophers of history persist in believing that present evidence can warrant belief in the truth of descriptions of particular events in the past. In most of his books on historical knowledge and understanding Alun Munslow has expressed his faith in basic historical descriptions too. Recently, however, he has presented several reasons for doubting their truth. He sees all historical descriptions as nothing but literary creations, reflecting not only the language but also the beliefs and conventions of the historian’s culture. He can find no meaningful relation between texts and events, especially between historical texts and past events that are beyond observation. He allows that we often accept the truth of historical descriptions for everyday purposes, but he offers philosophical reasons for denying that they have any intelligible relation to the past. In this paper I consider the reasons for his scepticism, discuss several popular theories of truth, and then explain why, and in what sense, we are often justified in believing that historical descriptions give us a true account of what happened in the past.

The Truth of Basic Historical Descriptions

in Journal of the Philosophy of History

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References

2

Alun MunslowThe Future of History (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan2010) ch. 2.

3

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John Toews“Intellectual History after the Linguistic Turn: The Autonomy of Meaning and the Irreducibility of Experience,” The American Historical Review92. No. 4 (1987) 879–907; 882. See also 901–2.

16

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Nicholas RescherReality and Its Appearance (London: Continuum2010) 55. Rescher says that this is “a groundrule (sic.) of presumption that governs our epistemic practice” (56). He adds that we can retrospectively justify such faith on pragmatic grounds: its repeated reliability (57–9). He goes on to note that our faith in the reality of the world is “a working presumption that undergirds our very conception of the world.” (106).

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GormanHistorical Judgement158. It is interesting here to notice Donald P. Spence’s contrast between “narrative truth” and “historical truth” in diagnosing psychological illness. The narrative account of such an illness he said must possess “narrative truth” that is “self-consistency coherence and comprehensiveness” but it must also possess “historical truth” so that what is asserted to have occurred corresponds to what actually happened in the course of the illness. (Donald P. Spence Narrative Truth and Historical Truth: Meaning and Interpretation in Psychoanalysis. (New York: W.W. Norton 1984) 180).

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72

C. Behan McCullaghThe Logic of History (London: Routledge2004) 11. Chapter 1 of this book presents a detailed critique of naïve empiricism and a full defense of this theory of truth.

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