Truths and facts in history

September 19, 1997

PROFESSOR Evans is right to criticise the potential narcissism of postmodern approaches to historical study, but he should not overlook the problems raised by such approaches. Any attempt to reinstate the centrality of fact will run up against the problematic relations between that notion and the notion of truth.

Evans is no doubt accurate in ascribing to the "maverick" E. P. Thompson a greater influence over later historians than the institutionally-entrenched Geoffrey Elton, but the question is, why should that be so? Not, probably, because Thompson mastered a better control of fact, but because he offered a more interesting and morally persuasive vision of the British past to a generation of social historians raised in the atmosphere of 1960s radicalism.

Thompson's facts were marshalled in texts which, to the eyes of that generation, had a greater moral claim to be truth than did Elton's (or any of Thompson's direct critics, discussed in the 1968 Postscript to The Making of the English Working Class).

Truth is inescapably a moral category, a matter of argument, persuasion, and opinion. The marshalling of facts behind an argument is rendered irrelevant by the reply "I don't believe you", or "I don't care". The perpetrators of the Holocaust were quite capable of generating "facts" to fill whole curricula with what we would regard as pernicious nonsense. We live in a truth-regime where the values behind those "facts" have been rejected, but that is our good fortune, and not because "the truth is great, and will prevail".

Postmodernism suggests we turn from fact to "meaning", to treat "events" as "texts" which need to be "read". Behind this is the implicit claim that this is what historical knowledge has always been - a body of texts wherein statements are marshalled to support or challenge beliefs about meaning. It is an exercise in language because that is all it can be.

The question for historians is how to strike the balance between insisting on certain meanings, deemed by them morally important enough to be truths, and allowing the development of the discipline as critical of accepted meanings to continue. The generation of historians who followed E. P. Thompson shared beliefs about social structures and conflicts which made their work collectively meaningful to themselves and their audience. That moment has passed, and historians now should think carefully about how they can communicate the significance of their texts. If the only way is to insist on the metaphysical importance of facts, then I think that we are in for a hard time.

David Andress

Lecturer in modern European history School of social and historical studies University of Portsmouth.

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