Historical Truth and Lies about the Past: Reflections on Dewey, Dreyfus, de Man, and Reagan

Historical Truth and Lies about the Past: Reflections on Dewey, Dreyfus, de Man, and Reagan

Historical Truth and Lies about the Past: Reflections on Dewey, Dreyfus, de Man, and Reagan

Historical Truth and Lies about the Past: Reflections on Dewey, Dreyfus, de Man, and Reagan

Synopsis

Historians have long struggled with the questions of historical relativism, objectivity, and standards of proof and evidence. Intellectual historian Alan Spitzer focuses on the contradiction between theory and practice by presenting case studies of four politically charged debates about the past: the response to the report of the commission chaired by John Dewey that evaluated the accusations made against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow Purge Trials of 1937, the Dreyfus Affair in turn-of-the-century France, the allegations about the extent and meaning of literary critic Paul de Man's complicity with the German occupation forces in wartime Belgium, and Ronald Reagan's justification for his 1987 visit to a German cemetery where Nazi SS officers are buried. Spitzer's argument centers on the ways in which the authority of 'objective' criteria for historical judgment are introduced in politicized disputes about the past, regardless of the theoretical qualification or repudiation of such standards. The higher the political stakes, the more likely the antagonists are to appeal to generally warranted standards of relevant evidence and rational inference. Spitzer's commentary speaks to issues that transcend the specific content of the four cases he discusses.

Excerpt

Unfortunately, if the norm of truth is driven out through the door, it comes in again through the window. --Paul Veyne


Historical Argument When the Political Chips Are Down

Although the whole concept of historical truth has been called into question, almost everyone claims to know what a lie about the past looks like. In historical debate, lying falls at the near end of a spectrum ranging from willful to unwitting misrepresentation, from the falsification to the misinterpretation of evidence, from arguments in manifest bad faith to well-intentioned incoherence. Separating out the historical chaff depends on some claim to cognitive authority, to some assumption of what John Dewey called "warranted assertability." My concern is not to unmask certain historical lies but to argue that the refutation of falsehood or error depends on some criteria of veracity and validity and that these criteria are exposed in the heat of debate regardless of the theoretical affirmation or repudiation of epistemological standards. I intend to consider these issues in case studies that examine contradictory histories of politically charged events.

Among the contradictions is the tendency to have things both ways. Skepticism about the authority of historical representation never seems to inhibit the refutation of misrepresentations, especially of the recent past. Yet the presumption that historical truths are problematic applies even more to readings of the immediate than of the distant past. Where the reconstruction of relatively recent events carries a heavy political freight, the interpretive perspective . . .

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