Sunday, January 31, 2016

Truth in Historical Interpretation

Suzanne Lipscomb writes about historians and the interpretation of the the facts of history in History Today:

History is debate, history is discussion, history is a conversation. Hugh Trevor-Roper wrote in 1957, ‘history that is not controversial is dead history’. While some of this controversy comes from the pronouncements of historians as public intellectuals addressing the present day, much of it comes from them arguing with each other. The collective noun for historians is – honestly – an ‘argumentation’.

This is not in contradiction to saying that historians aim at truth. What sort of truth we might achieve is debatable. Justin Champion, in writing about what historians are for, states that ‘historical claims to truth are aesthetic and ethical, rather than empirical and objective’. Peter Novick argued that historians make up stories and ‘make no greater (but also no lesser) truth claims than poets or painters’. I think this is to go too far. The past did exist, the events of history did happen. Our job as historians is to get at them as best as possible, on the basis of the evidence we have, in a way that is epistemic: that fits with the facts we can establish. It is this forensic, interrogatory process that is the joy of being an historian.

Yet the truth is, if you take a group of historians working on the same problem, writing at different times and in different places – even if they all use their evidence in a scrupulous, honest, critical and informed way – the conclusions they reach may differ. This is because we are all different people; our context, our formation, our insights are different and the histories we write are personal. If it were not so, there would be little point training up more students to be historians.

This is still a pursuit of truth.

Read the rest here. In another blog post, she offers some good advice for making sure that the facts historians use for their interpretative narratives are correct:

I thought I would presumptuously suggest a Code of Conduct for how historians should use evidence:
  • Use evidence to support your interpretation and seek to understand that evidence correctly.
  • Do not wilfully present evidence out of context, especially not in such a way that the lack of context will render the meaning of the evidence different, unclear or manipulable.
  • Do not cite evidence from sources that you elsewhere discount.
  • At best, do not waste a reader’s time on unsubstantiated sources.
  • At least flag up evidence that is drawn from such sources; do not use it silently.
  • Triangulate; search ardently for evidence that might undermine, as well as corroborate, your hypothesis.
  • Avoid assumption creep: do not allow assertions to move from ‘possibly’ to ‘probably’ to ‘definitely’; do not build more elaborate layers of interpretation on a foundation that is rocky.
  • Do not rely on the secondary assertions of other historians; ad fontes! Go back to the original sources.
  • Guard against confirmation bias; interrogate the ‘facts’ anew and bring a fresh analysis to them; do not mould the facts to your interpretation.
  • Root out and resolve any internal inconsistencies in your argument.
  • Cite sources so that they can be traced, with page numbers, archival call numbers and publication details.

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