Fighting my way through Leonard Krieger’s exceptional book, Time’s Reasons: Philosophies of History Old and New (1989), I constantly come face-to-face with gaps in my own lack of preparation in historical method. Krieger’s book sets out to reinsert “the pursuit of truth” into the mission statement of the history profession. He does not intend to allow the issue to vanish through any slippery syntactical slight of hand nor axiomatic reshuffling. My own comfortable pre-disposition to talk about “truths” and not “Truth,” is precisely what is on the line. My use of “truths” allows me to teach and tolerate non-western ways of knowing, and other ways of deciding the veracity of a historical fact. So I hope you can shed some light; here is the problem in a nutshell:
Krieger describes the difference between history and chronicle as the absence of “coherence” in chronicle. A historical fact gains historical coherence when it is placed into a pattern of other facts and is not rejected by contradiction. This pattern of facts is arranged by the human mind through a comparison with a “sphere of general reality.” Several of these “spheres” are religion, philosophy, and science. If you are patient enough to still be following me then, a fact is only coherent if it already fits into one of these coherence granting systems. But Krieger recognizes that other ways of crowning a fact, and thereby making it suitable for history, exist. He explains that a common process of adding coherence to a fact is to place that fact within a narrative. In short, place the fact into a narrative and then the narrative will, in turn, make the fact coherent. This is apparently Krieger’s goal, to bring disrepute to the idea of a fact being rendered coherent by narrative. Oh yes, coherence can also come through an explanation of the fact’s cause (or in human terms its “motivation”).
My questions to my fellow seekers of truths: if we agree that a “sphere of general reality” can include religion, philosophy, and science, then is not the truth of a coherent historical fact dependent upon the truth of the sphere? Does this not imply Truth to be relative to the various spheres? Further, if a fact can gain coherence through a good explanation, or even through placing that fact within a narrative structure, then can not a historical fact be a fiction? I can imagine a good narrative built around a giant gorilla. Its likeness to the scientific gorilla may be—in all respects aside from size—perfectly correct. The presence of this great ape may be the centerpiece of some obscure religion, and it can be embroidered into a fabulous story, a narrative, involving a desirable primatologist. And yet, King Kong is not history but fiction. Finally, if we discount the ability of narrative and explanation to make a historical fact coherent, we are left with the various spheres of reality. So, we need one history for the realities of religion, another for the realities of physics, and a third history for the realities of Philosophy. And since we could probably never define the realities of each of these spheres, nor find enough agreement between these three spheres, are we not back to the idea of “truths” not “Truth” by implication? What I am grappling with here is the characterization of historical method as scientific method. I keep coming up with a literary art backed by an interpretive discipline. Any help, ideas, or clarifications would be appreciated. – Joe Petrulionis