Telling the Truth about History

by Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt and Margaret Jacob

This is a history of the writing of history. Some might call it a tract in that the authors are pushing a point of view.

PART ONE: Intellectual absolutisms

Chapter One: The Heroic Model of Science. The chapter begins: "In the eighteenth century a small group of determined reformers etablished science as the new foundation for truth... The absolute character of their truth mimicked the older Christian truth upon which Westerners since late Roman times had come to rely...The study of history became the search for the laws of human development." This is a science that believes or assumes progess. Historians used the confidence in progress that science had heroically conceived and built until well into the 1960s. (36 pages)

Chapter Two: Scientific History and the Idea of Modernity. In the mid-1800s, "history became a profession. It began to take on its modern form as an organized, disciplined inquiry into the meaning of the past." A chronological thinking was involved that had developed during preceding centuries. The "turning points of sacred history" had given way "to a secular, linear periodization of ancient, medieval, and modern, which still dominated history writing today." The idea of progress dominated. Modern meant better. Decline of the human condition since the Garden of Eden, was put aside. The Romantics emerged. In the late 1700s there had been the German philosopher Johann Gotfried Herder, who had "urged historians to adopt a posture of respectful deference toward the past." Herder claimed that a sense of history shaped national and ethnic identity. History linked to nationalism followed, in Russia, the Ukraine, and elsewhere in Europe. The history of nations got its "sanctification in George E.F. Hegel's doctrine of historicism." For Hegel, history revealed truth – as in time will tell. And following Hegel was Karl Marx, who developed a view of laws of history as a secular and materially based human process. "There had been revolutions before Marx, but with his theories revlutionaries could imagine themselves to be scientists." Many historians rejected Marxism "because they associated it with determiism and reductionism." In France the Annales school offered an alterative to Marx that proposed "total history, one that incorporated all of the sciences." (38 pages)

Chapter Three: History Makes a Nation. History and national identity. (34 pages)

PART TWO: Abolutisms Dethroned

Chapter Four: Competing Histories of America. "Working with different assumptions about the nature of historical change, the Progressives revamped the topics, the story line, and the tone of American history-writing. They believed not only that economic interests determined people's personal loyalties but also that those interests were divisive." After World War II the GI Bill brought to academia people from blue collar families, adding to the divergence from nineteenth century style gentleman scholarship. They wrote about historical personages found on shop floors, slave quarters, drawing rooms, relocation centers, barriors, rice fields, tent revivals, and such. This is change in the writing of history that suggests that bias existed beroe the "Progressives and the post war writers. With this goes the suspicion the eighteenth century belief in objective and scientic writing. (30 pages)

Chapter Five: Discovering the Clay Feet of Science. Thomas Kuhn and skepticism about science. Karl Popper against intellectual and moral relativism. " Popper had always thought that historical arguments would lead to relativism." "Historizing science has rendered it the work of human beings; it becomes truth-seeking and truth-finding without the possibility of transcendence." Because science has a history [mistakes uncovered by further science] does not mean the end of truth. [There is truth as approximation.] It was "essential to rethink the understanding of truth and objectivity." "A democratic society with roots in the Enlightenment depends upon the positioning of science, upon the afirmation it gives to the human ability to reason independently and successfully about objects outside the mind, while recognizing the social and ideological dimension of all knowledge." (37 pages)

Chapter Six: Postmodernism and the Crisis of Modernity. "... (T)he social historians's challenge to the foundations of America's (and more generally the West's) faith in itself has provoked attacks, particularly from the political right." Gertrude Himmelfarb and Lynne V. Cheney, wife of Dick Cheney, were among them. "Social history was ... implicated in the whole debate on Western culture. Social historians "underlined the fact that history writing had always been intensely ideological." Postmodernist critics of history and science "talked on all that the modern has come to represent... Indeed, they argue against the possibility of any certain knowledge." They question the "usefulness of general worldviews, whether Christian, Marxist, or liberal. For them as [Michel] Foucault has claimed 'each society has its regime of truth...'" There was the rise of cultural history, with some objections from social historians who believed that you could not describe culture disconnected from broader social realties. There were attacks on narrative history. The postmodernist dismissed knowledge being communicated by the writing of history. They were (in my opinion) absolutistic in their criteria for truth, as the super-skeptic Hellenistic philosopher Pyrron had beenin his criteria for knowledge. In the final analysis, write the authors, there can be no postmodern history." (39 pages)

PART THREE: A New Republic of Learning.

Chapter Seven: Truth and Objectivity. In review there were three absolutisms overthrown. (1) Enlightenment's faith in the heroic model of science. (2) Laws of human development embedded in the inevitability of human progress (including Marxism). (3) Nationalistic histories that gave people a sense of identity. "Since the 1960s, all the regnant [reigning] absolutisms of the nineteenth century have been dethroned." "Contemporary understanding of how knowledge is created now prompts calls for a different, more nuanced, less absolutist kind of realism ..." "Contemporary philosophers have reminded historians, as well as readers of histories, that there cannot be an exact correspondence between words and what is out there..." "Our version of objectivity concedes the impossibility of any research being neutral ... and accepts the fact that knowledge seeking involves a lively, contentious struggle among diverse groups of truth-seekers. (29 pages)

My opinion: Okay, but the best history gives as good an accounting of all sides of a conflict as is available to the historian – history moving along on conflict. An author, although unable to escape his subjectivity, can try to understand the intentions of those with whom he has differences, in order to serve what in my opinion shoud be his primary purpose: explaining what happened. Knowledge of all sides gives us a better understanding of any series of events. Problem is, it requires more work.

Chapter Eight: The Future of History. "The commitment to truth in writing history needs defending ..." "Far from banishing relativism, postmodernism, nihilism, and various forms of solipsistic thinking, we authors have pooled our learning in order to locate the relationship of these critiques to the long dialogue about knowledge that began in the seventeenth century, gained momentum in succeeding centuries under the rubric of modern science, and today has yielded to a variety of noisy conversations." "What is to be concluded from myth-dispelling disclosures like the ones offered here? We think they point to the power of a revitalized public, when operating in a pluralistic democracy with protected dissent, to mediate intelligently between society and the individual, knowledge and passion, clarity and obfuscation, hope and doubt. Telling the truth takes a collective effort." (38 pages)

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