Can we discover the truth? Can we find the right interpretation?
As promised, some thoughts on historical interpretation and truth.
Last week's historiographical lecture for my MPhil course dealt with the postmodernist challenge to history. As far as I can tell (without having read the book), Richard Evans stuck to the arguments in his In Defense of History. On the whole, I found his critique of the extreme forms of postmodernism exactly on target. I want to highlight a couple of Evans's points that resonanted particularly well with me.
- It does not follow from the fact that we can’t get at the truth of the entire past that we can’t get at any single historical truth.
- Interpretive possibilities are not infinite. Some interpretations are better than others.
"Hmm," I thought to myself. "I've heard something along these lines before." Just five months ago, in fact. Here's an excerpt from Barry Schwartz's Last Collection speech at Swarthmore on May 29th, 2004:
People have finally caught on to the fact that much of what the intellectual elite thought was the truth was distorted by limitations of perspective. Slowly the voices of the excluded have been welcomed into the conversation. And their perspectives have enriched our understanding enormously. But the reason they've enriched our understanding is that they've given the rest of us an important piece of the truth that was previously invisible to us. Not their truth, but the truth. It is troubling to see how quickly an appreciation that each of us can only attain a partial grasp of the truth degrades into a view that there really isn't any truth out there to be grasped.
Taken together, these statements reveal a crucial fact about any endeavor of knowledge: we can't know it all. The problems associated with perspective are just too great. And that's to say nothing of the problem of limited source material.
That we can't know it all, however, does not mean that we can't know anything. There's plenty that historians, psychologists (like Schwartz), and regular people can find out about the world.
In the case of historians, we rely on sources from the past, often documents. I think most historians would agree that the meaning of a given document is not fixed, that reading it through different interpretive lenses (to name the Big Three: race, class, and gender) can reveal previously unknown significance.
But it's crucial to emphasize here, as Evans suggests, that just because there is no fixed meaning, it's not necessarily the case that the document has an infinite range of meanings. It's absolutely the case that the background (intellectual and otherwise) of a scholar plays a role in the conclusions that they draw from any given source. But those conclusions do not arise solely from the historian's brain. Interpretations are dialogues between historians and sources, not blithe impositions of the historians' already formed conclusions.
A brief, slightly absurd, example illustrates this point. Suppose I leave a scrap of paper outside my door that says, "My pillowcase is red." Someone who has an interest in my bedding comes along and sees the paper. They'd like to come in and check to see whether my pillowcase is, in fact, red, but I'm not in and the door's locked. So they have to rely on my note. There is simply no way that they can reasonably conclude that my pillowcase is any color other than red.* Now, I could have been lying, and my pillowcase is actually orange. But based solely on my note, the only reasonable conclusion is that my pillowcase is red; any other interpretations are just silly.
In short, sources matter. As Jonathan Dresner so aptly put it, "Sources lie, but they're all we have." I'd modify Dresner's statement a bit... sources lie, but not about everything.
Then there are those who believe that humans can grasp the absolute truth. The Truth is out there, they say, we just need to find it and hold on to it.
To them I say, "Umm... no." For one thing, as I wrote about last week, we simply don't have the sources to examine the totality of the past. Second, interpretation matters.
It's funny. Depending on who I'm reading or listening to, I often find myself more sympathetic to the postmodernist cause or those who defend the notion of Truth. When I hear postmodernists go on about how no meaning is inherent and that it all emerges from interpretation, I want to shout, "No! The sources are saying something!" And then when I hear Truth-ians (for lack of a better term) rant about the dangers of postmodern relativism, I want to shout, "Don't you see how the truths you hold so dear are themselves based on interpretations?!"**
The truth, as it so often does, lies in the middle. No, we can't know the whole truth. But yes, we can figure out a lot of particular truths. No, we can't settle upon a single definitive interpretation of a source. But yes, we can come up with particular interpretations that are more plausible and more likely (read: better) than others. It's not the job of the historian to find the truth; good historians recognize their limitations and come up with their best guess of what the past was like, realizing the whole time that history is a necessarily speculative endeavor.
*Unless, of course, we're in a world where all pillowcases are green or something like that.
**You might think I'm tilting at windmills here. Surely there aren't people who actually take such extreme positions. Oh, but there are.