Wednesday, October 27, 2004

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.


At Oct 29, 2004 11:47:00 AM , Blogger Becca Rogers said...

As I read all this talk about truth, I found the words of Thomas Jefferson (33 at the time!) echoing in my mind. "We hold these truths to be self-evident." Now there's a lot of discussion about 'self-evident' and the choice of that phrase, but not as much about 'truth'. Perhaps there should be. Of course this is a slightly different issue than Danny is discussing, because TJ and his peers were addressing the truths of their current situation, whereas he's talking about interpreting the truth of history, but they're related. How do we deal with something that was declared as truth over 200 years ago? Is it still viewed as truth? I'm pretty much inclined to believe our founding fathers (I mean, how can you not believed someone who railed against racial mixing while fathering his slave's childen?), but I can imagine George W. Bush writing some nonsense like "We believe the following things are true: that America is safer since we went into Iraq and that I am a good steward of the land." In fact, he has. Now I would hope that in 200 years (or in 4 days, for that matter), presidential historians will be able to make their own inferences about whether those statement are in fact true. So not only are we stuck with the problem of interpreting the events of the past, sometimes we must decipher and judge what has already been declared as truth. And is it possible to do this without showing your bias? Unlikely.

At Oct 29, 2004 1:43:00 PM , Blogger Danny said...

Hmm... great points. I'd never thought about TJ's notion of truth before. I'll have to think about it before I come up with anything substantial to say, but check back in the next week or so and I might just have posted an entry about it.

I think the overarching statement you attribute to Bush is probably true; Bush probably does belive that the war in Iraq has made America safer and that he's a good president. What's up for debate is whether those claims themselves are true.

I'd like to believe that "America is safer since we went into Iraq" and "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" are different, somehow, in how we evaluate their truthfulness. Bush's claim seems to be falsifiable in a way that Jefferson's isn't. While you can certainly disprove that the war in Iraq has not made America safer, I'm not sure that you can present evidence that effectively negates the concept of natural rights. I think that has to do with the abstract nature of Jefferson's claim, but I'm not sure.

As for bias - no, I don't believe that it's possible to completely eliminate bias from interpretation. Anytime you're moving beyond bare statements of fact, your interpretation is going to rely extensively on the context you're writing in and your pre-existing beliefs.

That said, I think it's okay for historians to be biased, as long as their analyses are made in good faith and are genuine attempts to understand the past. In other words, just because all written history is biased in some way does not mean that all history is equally good; in some cases, bias completely obliterates any semblance of a rational and reasonable argument.

So in the case of historians 200 years from now examining Bush's campaign rhetoric, I'd expect the good historians to look carefully at the available evidence and reach the best conclusions they can. None of them will get it exactly right, but one would hope that with enough historians doing good, responsible work, a reasonable consensus would emerge.


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