Fact and Fiction

It has become something of a commonplace to comment that ‘history’ must be a strange discipline, since the same word is used to denominate both the process of enquiry and the object of that enquiry itself. Unfortunately, the observation usually stops there; ‘unfortunately’, because what is at stake here is no mere linguistic curiosity but a reflection of a real methodological muddle, of which the ‘fact or fiction’ debate can be seen as but one reflection.

Around what does the debate turn? Fundamentally, on whether there really exist in history such things as ‘facts’, and, if they do, whether historians can grasp them objectively as they are or not; whether, in other words, ‘history’ (which here let us read as ‘the past’) can be said to exist independently of the mind of the historian, or whether all ‘history’ (for which here let us read as ‘historical interpretation’) is mere ‘discourse’: rootless, contingent, subjective, and relative.

Posed this way, of course, it can be seen that the debate is not about history at all really, but is in fact that hoary philosophical chestnut of the existence (or otherwise) and knowability (or otherwise) of material reality: of whether material reality exists outside of human consciousness of it, and, if it does, to what degree human beings can come to a comprehension of it.

More (pdf: 73KB): Fact and fiction


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