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The Philosophy and Writing of History: Searching for Truth?

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Historians didn’t stick to the facts; the facts stuck to the historians.

– Carl Becker


            It was my senior year in high school when I first realized the study of history might be a long, unpleasant trip on rough seas.  My teacher, the bespectacled and generally antagonistic Mr. Cooper had handed out photocopies of one of Robespierre writings to the 8 of us in his advanced European history class. I looked at the paper and noticed the writing was in French. “Mr. Cooper,” I said, “This is in French! I don’t read French!” Mr. Cooper smiled, and handed me a few more sheets. “Here are some translations.” I looked at the translations, and they were all different. Half of the them were similar, with some differences in word choice here and there, but the other two had completely different syntax, grammar, and general structure. I sat, befuddled and a little annoyed, and announced that I was just going to pick one of the translations and go for it. Mr. Cooper smiled again, picked up an improbably large stack of books, and with great effect, slammed them down in front of me. “These are all the books written about this document. The authors used different translations and wrote in different languages, ascribed to different schools of thought, and lived over a 200--year span. Which book says the right thing about what I gave you? Is there a right thing to say about Robespierre? What did he really mean? Do you think that’s an answerable question?”

I was furious. I had absolutely no idea, and had subscribed to absolute notions of right and wrong, full credit or no credit, with a satisfying degree of success throughout my academic career up until that point. I wanted to get up and run to the math corridor, a place of pure objective truths and falsities: that is a triangle because it has three sides and its angles measure 180 degrees. Done. I had considered history as a similar sort of mathematical proof up until Mr. Cooper’s intervention, and perhaps that is because of the way it was taught. Essays were always located at the end of the test, a section to be rushed through because you had already spent all of your time thinking about the multiple choice questions and the true/false sections.

Since that day, I’ve tried to reconcile the things I enjoy about history: the narrative readings, the detective-like search for ‘truth’ and the art of weaving a tightly knit analytical argument through a story, with the sinking feeling about the futility of it all. I am a product of a particular place and time, as are the objects that I study, both primary and secondary. Through the course of this paper, I am going to discuss my own personal search for historical truth, and the specific challenges, roadblocks, and encouragements I’ve encountered within the discipline. I will also address theoretical arguments surrounding the search for truth in history, and the concept of historical truth itself. In doing so I will look at arguments made about historiography, superiority of primary sources, the narrative form and fictitious aspects of history. 

I will begin with a consideration of the search for historical truth. According to Ranke, the historian’s job is to describe things ‘as they happened,  wie es eigentlich ewesen.’ Ranke’s statement has shaped succeeding generations of historical inquiry by encouraging the narrative form to express just how something did happen, with emphasis on the description. Implicit in that statement is objectivity: the historian should not describe how he or she thought that things happened, but how they actually did. However, postmodernist historians have challenged and essentially destroyed the idea of objectivity and brought about a near epistemological crisis for the discipline. This paper will not function to answer the questions of the postmodern skeptics, but rather to argue that the issue of understanding is central to the art of history, and encompasses many layers of multiple truths.

Charles Lamore argues in his article “History and Truth” that history teaches a single lesson: “the same things happen again and again, only differently… once one has read Herodotus, one has studied enough history, philosophically speaking” (LaMore 49)  Changes in science, technology and politics are often understood contemporaneously as progress, until the next generation proves the scientific theories false, suffers from the technological advances, and is still exploited by the few in power (LaMore, 49).  Therefore, the notion of ‘progress’ can be seen as an instrument of self-congratulation, and the idea of truth is a context of a specific place, time, and people.

As Lamore says, “truth is a property of the sentences we utter, a property we judge by standards we ourselves invoke” (LaMore 51)The complicity of language in the historian’s search for truth was made apparent at one level by Mr. Cooper’s use of translations, but also is present on other levels of analysis. Historians view the world, hoping to make sense of it. The world, however, does not speak – we do. The language we use to describe the world is our own construct and is used to define and designate truths. In that way, truth is made, not found.[1] Truths are then a product of human history, and reason is used to show how the present confers its values and beliefs on things we observe or have observed.

This line of inquiry is ultimately depressing and non-hopeful, as many in the class experienced disillusionment with the dissolution of ‘non-fiction’ as a category, and with it categories of ‘truth,’ ‘fact,’ and ‘reality.’ So then, what is it that historians do? Can we just do our best and be hyper-aware of self, context, and sources? The Haverford History Department, I’ve learned, is more than aware of the perceived futility of encouraging undergraduates to conduct original research with the end goal of discovering new truths about a certain era. The entire first semester of the thesis is grounded upon making the student aware of their own shortcomings as intellectuals and the challenges of writing history.

On the first week of school, the history faculty gathers all of the senior majors into one room. They hand out a worksheet, and tell us to fill in the blanks. On the worksheet is the following: I am studying _______ to find out _______ because of _______.  Most of the majors, myself included, were only able to fill out the first blank. I said that I was studying the free produce movement in antebellum Philadelphia. What did I want to find out? Unclear, all I knew was that the topic was interesting and that there were sources in Philadelphia.  Even more perplexing, why was that significant? The third blank inspired the most anxiety by implying that the only acceptable answer was that ‘no one had ever done it before, so I am filling a gap in the historical literature.’ And that was actually, the ‘because’ they were looking for.

The idea of original research and original conclusions is problematic, and I have personally had  a hard time dealing with it myself. There have been several works written on the free produce movement, and all have used the same archives: Taylor family papers, abolitionist newspapers, Elizabeth Margaret Chandler’s poetry, minutes of Antislavery and Free Produce societies, advertisements, land deeds, census records, and different correspondence all detailing different aspects of free produce. I believed that in order for me to produce something ‘original’ that I would magically have to discover new sources that somehow generations of historians before me had missed. I placed my bets on old chests in unspecified Philadelphia-area attics, but unfortunately nothing panned out there.

Thankfully, the curriculum was devised to address this unfortunately unspoken yet ultimately universal historical anxiety. One of the major projects of the semester, besides narrowing exercises such as proposals and primary source analyses, was to write a historiography of your topic. I had never written a historiography before, and simple explanations of ‘well it’s the history of history’ were unsatisfying. It was only when my thesis advisor sat me down and told me to consider the arguments, sources, and themes of every major work written on abolitionism and then construct a narrative accounting for their production in a certain place and time that I understood what exactly I had to do, in terms of both the historiography and my thesis.

By historicizing written historical works, I was able to map out the broader trends: post-Civil War nationalist, ‘lost cause’ revisionist, Progressive,  Marxist, consensus, social history, neoabolitionism, women’s history, consumerist, ‘whiteness,’ and then me. By literally constructing a narrative of different authors, works and ideas, I was able to understand where there were actually gaps in the literature, and what unanswered questions lingered in the unfortunately expansive canon of abolitionist literature? The outline for my historiography, which was supposed to be a 7-10 page document, was 45 pages single spaced. I used maybe a fraction of what was in that outline on the final product, but historicizing history was many one of the most satisfying assignments I have ever undertaken, and I was able to develop the ‘so what’ clause of my argument.

As helpful and personally satisfying  as the historiography was to write, it was still only a step in the historical process of writing an original work. Historiography takes second place to archival research, as Robert Novick says, historiography is something historians do when ‘we can’t get to the archives’ (Cheng, 11). The emphasis on archival research has been another striking element of my development as a historian. Secondary sources are just that: secondary, and some professors even discourage the use of online or digitized sources. They argue that the materiality of the archive, the holding and (gloved) handling of materials communicates a source’s relevance and context in ways that a digital image never could. My thesis advisor specifically advised me to first read over my secondary sources to get important contextual information and construct timelines, flow charts, and other guides, but then to literally ‘dive into’ my archive, and not revisit the secondary sources until I had exhaustively combed the archive and ‘extracted its knowledge.’

Therefore, that is what I did. I spent 20 hours a week for four weeks ‘in’ my archive – I say ‘in’ because that is how historians refer to archival research, which is actually significant in itself. The archive is not some sort of historical diorama in which the information is laid out for you, its more like a librarian gives you a few papers in a box which you then photocopy and try not to rip. However, the time you spend with those letters is almost sacralized – I could be sitting in the library reading my photocopy and tell my parents ‘Oh I was just in my archive all day, so exhausting.’ However, it is not just my naturally pretentious qualities that cause me to speak like that, but rather the socialization that occurs throughout the course of completing the history major. I could postulate that each major socializes its students to think in a certain way, but I could spot a Haverford history major a mile away: emphasis on context, nods to race/class/gender, interest in social awareness, and worshipping of the archive. I am not overgeneralizing here to prove that all Haverford history majors exactly fit this mold, but rather am offering it as a hopefully humorous example of contemporary historian’s reverence for ‘the archive,’ and the primary source.

Implicit in that reverence is the idea that archives and primary sources communicate truth in objective ways that secondary histories never could. Primary sources are raw, unfiltered, material links to the past, and to write about them is to organize them and interpret them through the historian’s own theoretical lens and personal biases. Historians acknowledge this bias as anthropologists often do, stating where they grew up, where they went to school, what philosophical influences they operate under and possible biases their work could be influenced by. This idea of contextualizing the author in order to understand their writing affects me in two ways: I feel that the document represents less of a historical truth in an objective sense, which unfortunately I cannot tear myself completely away from. However, I also can better understand the secondary source as a primary source in a historiographical sense: it was written at a specific place and time, by an author with these biases. In that concessionary sense, that document then represents some form of truth.

The ideas of different forms of truth are discussed offered as a solution to postmodern critiques of history and historical writing. Lamore offers the example of water: water can be seen as an large amount of bonded hydrogens and oxygens in a 2:1 ratio. It can also be considered a necessary nutrient for human life, or a weapon that could cause pain and end human life, a conductor of heat and energy, or something that causes the seeming suspension of gravity. There is no one great truth of water, and this example helps to consider that there are multiple levels of truth and reality that we must deal with simply as living people, not to mention truth-hungry historians (LaMore, 55).

To consider the idea of ‘true, we must also consider ‘false.’ Truth is judged by present standard, and “where past views do not fit our present convictions they must be deemed false” (LaMore, 53).The historian can wear two hats: the scholar, or the judger. We all judge, explicitly or implicitly, but the historian often function’s as one society’s posthumous judge. Marc Bloch, author of The Historian’s Craft, writes “historians passed for sort of a judge in Hades, charged with meting out praise or blame to dead heroes” (Bloch, 139). This judging satisfied a deep rooted instinct to search for the truth of good or evil in the dramas of the past, and contemporary figures (such as George W. Bush) often proclaim that they will leave the judging for the historians, and not their contemporaries.

I find that the idea of ‘understanding’ is comforting in my historical inquiries. To understand is not necessarily to judge, and it does not involved the specific discovery of universal truths that I can then communicate to the world. Rather, it involves discovery of personal truths, and Bloch calls the act of understanding as ‘the beacon light” of the discipline (LaMore, 53). Another historian, Carl Becker, writes ‘by liberalizing the mind, by deepening the sympathies, by fortifying the will, history enables us to control, not society, but ourselves a much more important thing; it prepares us to live more humanely in the present and to meet rather than to fortell the future’ (Appleby, 134).  And, if Robert Coles has taught us anything, life is best understood by stories.

Personally, I find the narrative form of history to be its best feature, but others have been troubled by it. One book, the starkly titled Is History Fiction, explores the links between fictional storytelling and narrative historical writing. The authors deny that history is purely fiction, going against scholars who can’t overcome the historian’s subjective interpretation and relaying of ‘facts.’ They additionally deny that history is ‘not fiction’ (they did not say nonfiction), and argue that history incorporates facts in a narrative form, thus telling a complexly layered tale that defies absolutist classifications. The authors focus on the ‘paradox of necessity for and the difficulty of finding truth’ in history, and present history as a form inseparable from literature, but grounded in existing sources which may or may not be true ( Curthoys and Docker, 6).

The stories historians tell are their own search for truth, and when organized into a historiography serve to portray history as an extremely inventive, self-transforming discipline. History is ambiguous, cunning and tricky: authors of secondary sources may lie, but then again so could authors of primary sources! I will not dissolve the category between primary and secondary sources, as some postmodernists do, but rather will point to the fact that the primary sources were written by someone just as the secondary sources were. One of my professors deliberately assigns opaque, contradictory sources and gives us assignments to ‘riddle the truth’ out of them. When nothing is riddled, and confusion gained and sleep lost, she then lectures us to ‘trust no sources!’ and underclassmen then and there swear they will never be history majors.

I often wonder what it would be like if my intellectual bearings were more concrete. Would I be happier if I could go into a lab and grow little bacteria colonies that I knew actually existed, and could measure and quantify and see them? Would I want to get a test back with a 95% on it, knowing that I got one problem out of twenty absolutely and completely wrong? Two plus two is not five, that bacteria is not green, water cannot be formed by mixing pure nitrogen and pure chloride in a test tube. These are all comforting thoughts, but then again people were probably comforted by medical professional’s endorsements of the 4 different humors of the body, and bloodletting that accompanied it.

This class has raised and reinforced some troubling questions about the nature of historical scholarship, and the conditions of truth, falsehood, reality, and by extension my general existence. That being said, I am still grateful for being a student of history, and think that this class has allowed me to pursue my life and academic pursuits with the appropriate amount of skepticism, while firmly believing in the redemptive power of the story. Sources lie, people lie, but lying communicates some truth, even if that truth is just that people always lie. My faith lies in the story, and stories allow a deeper, more complete understandings of people, places and times.  If anything, David Shields and Robert Coles reinforce the opening of my paper, the assertion that history, and therefore the stories we tell about history, never change. I as a historian, choose emphasize the importance of those stories in different contexts, and what they mean for different people at different times.  As Michel De Certau says, “History is probably our own myth. It combines what can be thought, the thinkable and the origin, in conformity with the way in which a society can understand its own working” (De Certau, 21) Through history, I can find my own truths and use them to shape the stories I tell of others, and my own.



Appleby, Joyce.  A Restless Past: History and the American Public. Rowman and Littlefield, 2008


Bloch, Marc. The Historian’s Craft.  Alfred A. Knopf, 1955


Cheng, Eileen Ka-May. The Plain and Noble Garb of Truth: Nationalism and Impartiality in American Historical Writing, 1784-1860. University of Georgia Press, 2008


Curthoys, Ann and John Docker.  Is History Fiction?  University of Michigan Press, 2005


De Certeau, Michel.  The Writing of History. Columbia University Press, 1998


Lamore, Charles. “History and Truth” Dedalus, Vol. 133, No. 3. (Summer 2004): 46-55



[1] Rorty