Is the historian’s craft to pursue the truth?


On one of the interminable (but surprisingly addictive) Napoleonic history arguments on the The Miniatures Page, one poster stated:   “The historian’s craft is using the materials to create a story, a view of the person or event.”  To which another poster replied:  “Funny, I thought historians pursued truth. Stories are the pursuit of fiction writers. And most American journalists…”

I personally agree with the first poster.  Truth is an elusive quality because it so hard to define.  For example, one would think pursuing the truth of whether Kevin went to the shops at 6.00pm on 6 May 2007 would be simple. Surely all you need to do is find some evidence that either he did, or he didn’t?  But:

  • what do we define as ‘the shops’- a particular shop, a number of shops?
  • does ‘went’ mean he actually got to the shops, or just left to go to the shops, or started for the shops but ended up somewhere else?
  • is 6.00 the time he left or arrived?
  • do we accept him going at 6.10pm as still being truthful?
  • was the date based on Kevin’s timezone, or the original writer’s (unlikely, I guess … but you never know)?
  • does online shopping count?!?!

Even if one could define this particular truth, does the fact of Kevin going to the shops have a relationship with any other ‘truths’ being pursued? And tied together with those other ‘truths’, do they have a bearing on some larger question?  Or is this particular truth being pursued in isolation, and so it is just a red herring from the main issue?  Come to think of it, what is the ‘main issue’ – have we identified the correct main issue to pursue the truths about?

I actually think focussing on telling of the story is as important, if not more so, as focussing on pursuing some elusive truth. Good historical story writers (whether historians who are skilled at telling a good story, historical novelists or even American journalists!) can fire the imagination. Whether absolutely truthful or not, they can have a great effect on people’s views of what happened in the past, and what their future actions might be as a result of those views (whether minor or major, good or bad).

I don’t think precise but fusty academic historians can lay claim to such influence.  After all, how many ordinary people’s view of Napoleon is based on the work of academic  historians, compared to being based on Bernard Cornwell or CS Forester?

13 thoughts on “Is the historian’s craft to pursue the truth?

  1. Hi Roly

    “The historian’s craft is using the materials to create a story, a view of the person or event.”

    I think that there should be room for some sort of word like “truth” in there somewhere. I personally would like to be able to tell the difference between an honest attempt at ‘history’ vs. fiction loosely based on events. Who was the person who was recently in the news for asserting that the WWII concentration camps were a fiction. Very convenient for their politics but not history.

    FWIW, I think that Victoria University runs a history course that delves into the depths of what is history and different perspectives that produce different histories of the same events.

    von Peter himself

    1. I’m not saying ‘don’t search for the truth’. But rather, that an important, if not more important, part of the historian’s role is to tell well the story of the truth as he understands it.

      Yes, this will result in twisting based on the historian’s own perspective and bias, sometimes slightly, or sometimes wildly (as in the case you mentioned). Somewhere on that twisting continuum, history becomes fiction or, even worse, propaganda – but exactly where on the continuum that change occurs, who knows?!

      Woohoo, I’m very philosophical tonight, am I not?! 😉

  2. This opens up a huge subject – there have been many, many volumes written about the philosophy of history and its application. There was a post-grad course at VUW (noting the comment above) that covered this very subject, including what constitutes ‘truth’. It was taught by Peter Munz, and I did it. But that was in the early 1980s and as Peter’s since passed away I doubt that particular course is being taught.

    The biggest problem comes when we re-cast history to suit current ideology, which keeps happening here. The past is a foreign country, but you wouldn’t always know it. I saw this up front at VUW in the early 1980s when a number of wildly stupid ideas were not only proposed, but gained academic traction. Not because they were any good, but because they fitted the notions of the early 1980s like a glove..This included the ‘truth’ that Maori invented anti-artillery bunkers in 1864, which the British then stole for use in the First World War.

    The fact that the British army produced tables in the eighteenth century showing the depths of soil required to defeat artillery shells, that the way in which Maori learned about this is well documented, and that the First World War trench systems can be traced back directly through 400 years of European military tradition, did not enter into it.

    I wrote a book pointing all this out (I think you have a copy) but my only reward has been to have the historian who invented the;’bunker’ fantasy erupt with anger and swear when my name was mentioned to him on Radio New Zealand. That was all it took – just mention of my name – and BANG. Wow. A surprise to me. Ordinarily if somebody has a problem with something they think I’ve done, I’d expect them to have the basic integrity to approach me directly in the first instance, rather than just getting angry to the nation. It’s simple courtesy. But maybe I expect too much.

    1. Funnily enough, I was just talking to my sister-in-law the other day, who is a trainee teacher. She was telling me about her having to teach about the NZ Wars recently, and this thing about inventing anti-artillery bunkers came up. At least she knew of the later rebuttals of that claim, though she still partly bought into it.

      However, there is no doubt that the historian concerned has raised a huge amount of interest in the NZ Wars in recent years. I would say (keeping with the theme of my original posting) that the story-telling work he did in bringing the NZ Wars into the public eye had far more influence on the average person than any search for the exact truth of who invented the anti-artillery bunker.

      And of course we still have the ‘defining the truth’ issue. For instance, what do we mean by ‘inventing’? What do we mean by ‘anti-artillery bunker’ compared to anything like it that came before? What defines the similarity between a 19th century and a 20th century defence work that means you can call it the same thing that was being ‘invented’? All these truths are more like continuums.

      Note I’m not saying there should be no search for the truth. I’m saying that truth is hard to pin down, and that the telling of the story may have more influence anyway – and that influence can be good or bad. I’m questioning if historian’s role is to search for this elusive truth, or if their role is to tell the story well using the truths as they understand them.

      By the way, that university programme sounds fascinating. The whys and wherefores that lie behind the study of history fascinate me as much as history itself.

      1. I believe history is one of the few disciplines to actually debate its own philosophy as much as it does. It’s good to do,when it doesn’t descend to territorial assertion, because it leads to more robust approaches. A kind of stress test of the structure. Peter Munz taught it – and brilliantly – but I don’t know where VUW has gone since.

  3. I guess this sort of opens up a can worms… we’re all aware of the old adage, “The victor writes the history”… presumably in a way to shed themselves in a more favorable light, so will what they write be truthful and accurate?… On Sky recently I saw the “History of Scotland” which opens with the first documented account of dealings with the then Caledonians, in conflict with the Romans with their Caledonian leader being claimed to have made a wonderful speech… of course this account of events was written by Tacitus, a Roman some 20 years after the event… so is it believable? I think not… and nor did the narrator of the show…

    More recently events can also come under scrutiny… I recently enjoyed reading the Forgotten Soldier, by Guy Sayer … a semi-autobiographical account of his harrowing time on the Eastern Front of WWII, and yet this claim to be authentic drew criticism and counter claim as to the authenticity of events as recounted in the book, and whether he was there or this is just a fiction…. fascinating read none the less and just highlights the issues you raise… is it the truth or is it a story, or both!

    1. I agree with you, Scott. Does it really, really matter if in the detail is actually incorrect (unless that detail has a flow-on effect on the present day)? If the story is told so well that readers sense the time so well that they are influenced by what they read, then isn’t that more important than knowing exactly the ‘truth’ of something where the truth is sliding rather than static anyway?

      Still, I must admit I like nothing than a good bit of historical myth-busting myself. The Napoleonic boards on The Miniatures Page that I mentioned in my original posting are so entertaining to read and to actually start taking a stance on. But I know in my heart that it is just entertainment, and in no way will busting some Napoleonic myth actually influence people as much as a well-told story will.

  4. Funnily enough I was just reading about how Britain is a bit up in arms about how to mark WW1 next year without upsetting the Germans, So the potential is there that in the future as historians look back on the centenary and further back the war itself, history will get skewed so to speak.

    The article,–ministers-afraid-saying-started-it.html


    1. Interesting article. I guess it’ll be even worse in 2039.

      Still, Britain has started a few wars in her time, as have most bigger countries, and not a few smaller ones. Thus over the centuries and millennia, many countries will have gone though the ignominy of being on the losing side during one-hundred-year commemorations. It’s just Germany’s turn this time …

  5. Of course, it is the nature of history for it to be written after the event – whether it be 20 or 2000 years. Any serious history must be based on fact so, in my view, it really, really matters if the detail is accurate and the evidence truthful. Where there is reasonable doubt over the veracity of evidence, a good historian will highlight this and set out the various arguments for and against its credibility ending, if possible, with a reasoned argument in support of the most likely interpretation. The same goes for gaps in knowledge that don’t explain why something happened (or if anything happened at all) where its also OK to explore possible explanations provided that any conclusion reached is reasonably argued and made clear that it is conjecture. If all of this can be brought together in an interesting and entertaining way you’ve got a great story.


    1. Hi Davy. Thanks for that. Note I’m not saying there shouldn’t be search for truth.

      Rather, I’m questioning how important it is in the historian’s role in terms of being the most influence over people’s opinions or understanding of history compared to the historian’s ability to tell the story well (whether for better or worse).

      And all the more so when truth itself is so hard to define. Truth is a moving point on a sliding scale as seen from different moving points on another sliding scale!

I hope I've given you something to think about - please do leave a comment with your thoughts or reactions.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s