Historical Truth?

Recently, I came to be fascinated by the historical theories of Oscar Handlin and William McNeill, which focus on whether or not history is true.  I was exposed to their essays while reading Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Controversial Issues in American History, Volume II Reconstruction to the Present for one of the History classes I am taking this semester.  I tend to favor Handlin’s theory more than McNeill’s, but both encourage thinking and question their readers’ belief in historical truth.  If anything, Handlin and McNeill are capable of making one see history through different eyes.

Oscar Handlin opens his essay, “The Uses of History,” by saying that the world has a desire for facts, for knowledge, and also for reassurance and relevance.  This need for reassurance and relevance can be a problem for historians seeking the truth.  Historical data becomes distorted as historians try to meet these demands. To make the past usable, to “solve the world’s problems,” historical data has to have a scientific approach, a formula.  Historical truth is NOT influenced by the desires or visions of the viewer.  Historical truth is evidence.  This evidence forms a record; the record is the truth.  Oscar Handlin says evidence is chronological, evidence is vocabulary, and evidence is context.  He says without a record, there could be no “counting of time, no reading of words, and no perception on the context, and no utility of the subject.” Fact is something of common ground for all historians despite the difference in their interpretation.  Scientific methods must be used to distinguish between fact and opinions.  Handlin warns the historian to be careful of the difference between fact and interpretation, and confronts the arguments of falseness in historical truth.  Such is false when influenced by external pressures (as in Stalin’s imposition on Russian history), when opinions get involved with evidence, when information is manipulated for convenience, when the distinction between fact and interpretation disappears, and when it becomes a means to an end of someone’s preconceived notions instead of arriving to the truth based on the evidence alone. All these external pressures and choices are the basis of William McNeill’s opinion of historical truths or myths.

McNeill’s essay, “Mythistory, or Truth, Myth, History, and Historians,” emphasizes the falsehood of historical truth, seeing history as evolving through the discovery of new data and exposure to intellectual choices and subjective judgments on the arrangement of historical facts.  These judgments and choices have nothing to do with scientific methodology.  The scientific method of finding historical truth is meaningless and is of no use to the historian. Unlike Handlin, McNeill believes all the “evidence” becomes nothing but a catalogue; it has to be put together for the reader in order to be understandable, credible, and useful because facts alone do not give “meaning or intelligibility to the record of the past.”   Everything evolves, causing emphasis on what is important to change.  Previously important facts become “background noise” while others remain constant.  This picking and choosing of facts is what makes history elastic and evolutionary.  Every culture has its own version of truth; truth about its own culture as well as the “truth” about other cultures.  Truth to one is another person’s myth (mythistories).  Therefore, all these outside forces of culture, background, relationships, society, etcetera, affect what is true whether the individual realizes it or not. Because of this, history tends to be biased and, according to McNeill, the past is influenced by the way an individual wants it to be.  History (or myth) becomes self-validating.   What historians need to do is to view history and group identities on a more general scale. Specialization with a focus on documents should be avoided.  Historians need to view history as ecumenical and parochial.   It evolves as groups evolve.  The main important figure he states is “ever-evolving mythistories will indeed become truer and more adequate to public life, emphasizing the really important aspects of human encounters and omitting irrelevant background noise more efficiently so that man and women will know how to act more wisely than is possible for us today.”

This is what makes history interesting and dynamic, not static.  It makes for new and fresh versions of history.  How one views historical truth can influence his or her outlook on events and people in history. Can history be based on science and knowable things (Handlin’s chronology, words, and context) or can that even be manipulated by the people of that time because it reflects their “truth,” which can be other’s “myths”?   What about things which are “common ground” to historians and people?  Everyone can say “Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492.”  Is this based on scientific evidence or is it an evolution of an important fact that didn’t become “background noise,” whereas some other facts may have? Is history true? Such is not up to the historian only, but also to the reader’s interpretation of the historian’s interpretation, which is all influenced by theories of historical truth.

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3 Responses

  1. Nice essay Lisa. Chronologies and actions can be documented but intent is the thing that cannot be documented. Unfortunately, intent is the issue in histories so truth remains elusive.

  2. I would agree that history is flexible, but that there are certain truths to it. In recent history especially (20th Century) documentation of government actions, individuals etc. is profound. We can definatly say that Kennedy was assasinated on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas.

    Where one gets into some trouble is with earlier sources such as medieval or ancient history. Documentation was less accurate or prevalent. Can we say exactly when Harold II was killed by William the Conqueror? No, but we do know that it was sometime in the year 1066.

    Truth, though, is itself tricky in history. It is truth to most historians that the Cold War began shortly after the Second World War. Some would argue, however, that the Cold War began in 1917 with the Bolshevik Revolution (this I tend to agree with).

    Long story short, history is for the most part not black and white.

  3. Excellent essay for us history buffs. It’s always going to be difficult to tell the difference between those recorders of history and the storytellers out there. It will always lead us back to the same basic question… Just what is history?

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