History without Morality, History without Truth

By Gilley, Sheridan | History Today, May 1996 | Go to article overview

History without Morality, History without Truth


Gilley, Sheridan, History Today


One of my research students recently attended a history conference at which everyone agreed that there was no such thing as truth in history. This scepticism reflects a current so-called 'postmodern' philosophical mood, which is increasingly opposed to any objective idea of truth outside ourselves, preferring to see `truth' as a contingent and relative thing that we make rather than discover. Thus the eminent American philosopher Richard Rorty argues that our descriptions of externals belong to a shifting language game which reflects a succession of changing man-made metaphors of the world.

Even physical science does not find truth but invents more or less useful ways of talking about it, which will change as the mind moves its metaphors of meaning from one view or vision of things to another. The collapse of nineteenth-century idealism and dogmatic Marxism and the eclipse, at least among most western intellectuals, of Christianity, have lent this 'constructionist' position a certain plausibility: Heraclitus, for whom all was flux, has finally triumphed over nearly three thousand years of effort to agree enduring truths.

This sceptical philosophical outlook harmonises with a subjective historicism which sees the past as existing only in the present in which we observe it; the past itself is inaccessible. It also tends to stress the inexhaustibility of the past, the changing ideological character of the historian's categories for interpreting it and the inescapability of bias in approaching it.

At first sight, the very variety of interpretations of history makes such a position plausible. For the great French bishop, Bossuet, history showed the triumph of the Catholic faith; for Voltaire, it gave matter for an age of reason and enlightenment; for Macaulay, it primarily demonstrated the emergence of British prosperity and liberty. Bossuet is wrong for a Protestant or a secularist, Voltaire for a Catholic or a Romantic, Macaulay for a Tory or a pessimist.

Then there are the obstacles to objectivity in the alien character of past experience - can we really understand the mind of a priest of Cybele or Isis? - and in the controlling power of the literary forms in which the historian presents his discoveries, and which influence and possibly determine his principles of organisation and selection. The unifying argument of any historical work emerges as much from the historian's brain as from the matter before him, which new generations of historians will reshape, with new questions and skills, according to their changing understanding of their world.

Such relativism can go further still. As Keith Jenkins expresses it in Re-thinking History (1994), a work twice reprinted and useful for sixth form students, no neutral or disinterested position is possible, and histories are merely the intellectual expressions of the self-interest of the individuals, groups and institutions which produce them. 'In the end history is theory and theory is ideological and ideology just is material interests'. All we can do, on the basis of agreed rules about the use of evidence, is to invent or impose on our materials the truth which suits ourselves.

These are the difficulties of achieving historical objectivity. But to recognise them is to begin to overcome them, and the extreme relativist position, the outright denial of the possibility of attaining objective truth, has its corrective in its very contradictions. Professor Rorty's brilliant sketches of the philosophers he is summarising or refuting, in Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (1989), presume an almost incorrigible common fund of historical knowledge, that they lived at a particular time and place - that Aquinas came before Hegel and Hegel before Heidegger - and that the modem philosopher can have an accurate understanding of what they said, irrespective of future shifts in philosophical language. Again, in self-contradictory manner, on Mr Jenkins' own theory, his work is no more than the expression of the self-interest of Mr Jenkins, as indeed is my reply to it; so there is no point to his book or to my response except to make this difference clear. …

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