The Truth of History

The Truth of History

The Truth of History

The Truth of History


Modern relativism and postmodern thought in culture and language challenge the "truth" of history. This book considers how all historians, confined by the concepts and forms of argument of their own cultures, can still discover truths about the past. The Truth of History presents a study of various historical explanations and interpretations and evaluates their success as accounts of the past. C. Behan McCullagh contests that the variety of historical interpretations and subjectivity does not exclude the possibility of their truth.Far from debating in the abstract and philosophical only, the author beds his argument in numerous illuminating concrete historical examples. The Truth of History explores a new position between the two extremes of believing that history perfectly represents the past and that history can tell us nothing true of the past.


There are two important issues commanding the attention of philosophers of history today. One is the question of the truth and objectivity of history. There have been three major lines of attack upon the truth and objectivity of history. First, the facts of cultural relativism, and postmodern writing on the nature of language have cast doubt upon the possibility of written history being true. Every culture views the world differently, through the lenses of its own concepts and interests, so how can any account of the world be thought true? According to the postmoderns, language has no important or regular relation to the world, so we should not expect descriptions of what has happened in the world to reveal reality. Second, the fact that interpretations of past events and societies vary with the cultural prejudices and personal interests and convictions of historians seems to imply that none of them can be true or objective. Certainly many have drawn this conclusion. Finally, historians often describe patterns of historical events in metaphorical terms, for example, as the growth or decline of something, as a revolution or contest, and some philosophers argue that metaphorical descriptions cannot be true or false. Rather, they say, such descriptions merely suggest ways of viewing the events involved.

The second question being discussed today concerns the reality and importance of social structures and general processes of social change. With the failure of Enlightenment theories of progress and Marxist theories of emancipation there is a general scepticism about the reliability of any accounts of social structure and process. Instead, some historians believe they should focus on the particular, the unique, and account for historical change simply in terms of individual decisions and their sometimes unpredictable consequences.

These are the two central issues to be addressed in this book. I shall argue in Chapter 1 that the facts of cultural relativism and of the relation between language and reality require historians to give up any naive assumption that historical descriptions correspond exactly to the events which they describe in the past. Nevertheless there is a sense, which I shall define, in which historical descriptions can be true of the past, allowing that they are always couched in the concepts of a particular culture.

I shall also show, through a careful analysis of historical practice in Chapter 4, that although historical interpretations reflect the interests and ideas of historians,

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