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The Truth of Basic Historical Descriptions

In: Journal of the Philosophy of History
Author:
C. Behan McCullagh La Trobe University Melbourne Australia behanmccullagh@netspace.net.au

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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.

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