What is History? The Nature of “Facts”

What is History? The Nature of “Facts”

Aug 16

We can file this under the disjointed babbling I promised a few days ago. . .

Bit of discussion in the comments over on Vridar regarding the nature of “facts” and what can be known historically speaking. Rather than resume commenting on a several day old post, where there’s a better than passing chance it will never see daylight again, I thought I’d bring this particular issue to the fore over here.

First of all I want to distance myself from Godfrey’s general point (at least in his post) regarding Biblical Historians versus other historians. History is a sloppy business, where we use arbitrary criteria to distill pseudo-”facts” out of our sources. We may have less facts here than some other branches (though we also have more than some, to be fair), but fundamentally it is exactly the same sloppy business all around.

The problem is actually quite simple: History is light years behind virtually every other discipline, and certainly behind literature and science, which historians like to pretend they straddle. While Science, for example, had their Popper, and took him to heart, historians had their Foucault, their White and their Jenkins, and pretended none of them existed. It is a truly bizarre scholarly endeavor in which the participants not only do not attempt to discern the presuppositions fueling their inquiry, but in fact don’t seem to even care that they exist. This is true to such a degree that many a historian will acknowledge the difficulties of epistemology, and then carry on oblivious to them, somehow thinking they’ve conquered the faults while ironically falling into the same trap. Lip service does not suffice in and of itself, but it’s all that theory of history ever seems to get once we leave the philosophy text.

But you’ll notice I make no distinction between the Biblical historian and everyone else. All history is fueled by the misguided notion that their arbitrary criteria are scientific, but exempt from scientific criticism, because their result is literary. There are exceptions, but those are exceptional historians, not exceptional branches of study.

So what is an historical “fact?”

Certainly such things exist. Charles Manson was convicted, and any account of his life that ends in acquittal can’t be considered history. Obama won the election. Caesar defeated Pompey. These are, for all intents and purposes, historical facts.

But what do we have if we move beyond that? Surely we need distill something more?

Without getting into the question of why we need to do anything of the sort (an excercise for a future post), I think we can acknowledge that we can go farther. But not very much.

We can employ, somewhat, Gould’s definition of “fact” in science–something “established to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.”

Putting aside the difficulty of “perverse” (which is a value judgment in itself), we can arrive at something useful here. Under this definition, it’s a fact that Caesar was assassinated, or that he was declared “dictator for life.” Things archaeology or harder science can’t tell us with certainty we can still distill from the evidence to such a degree that most would agree that it is silly to deny their truth.

In the NT we have almost nothing that meets that definition. Certainly nothing that we could hang any sort of hat on with any measure of real confidence.

But even once we have those facts, we have (to use an oft abused distinction) only found the “past.” That’s not the same thing as history. History connects the events, it gives meaning to the past.

Using the example of Caesar, we could distill many “facts.” Starting from the Sullans and ending with Augustus surely we end up with a coherent story showing the unavoidable end of the Republic?

Except we don’t. All we have are the facts. Once we connect them, once we move them to their interconnectivity, to their chronological and causal relationships, we’ve left the facts, and there is no way to establish that any story that accounts for all the facts is any more or less true than any other.

So to get back to the first question, what is a historical “fact?”

First, it is a hard limit. As in the example of Manson, any account that ignores the facts can’t be called “history,” because it ignores the past.

Second, as we distill our “facts,” they become softer limits (or, more often, arbitrary limits, imposed on ourselves). We might be better off to call these “pseudo-facts” if only not to confuse them with the more substantial “fact” above. These softer limits almost always reflect the narrative of the historian. Crossan isn’t going to find a lot of “apocalyptic Jesus” for the same reason Meier isn’t going to find a Cynic-like sage; it exists outside their (arbitrary) softer limits–the “facts” they’ve set for themselves. Unlike that “hard” limit, both can be called history (so, I should add as a tip of the hat over to Vridar, is Earl Doherty), and–objectively–neither can be considered more “true,” only (at best) more plausible, which in empirical terms has about as much substance as saying it’s prettier.

I suggested in my previous “What is History” post that I intended to come up with my own historical epistemology, and I think this distinction between “past” and “history,” between “fact” and “pseudo-fact” and between “facts” and “narrative” brings me to my first principle (which actually isn’t mine, though I can’t seem to find who should get the original credit):

History is a story about the past, not an account of the past. Consequently, the best historian is, to a large degree, only the best rhetor.



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