U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Method Help?

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

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. 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?

    Yes! Next question?

    Just kidding. I take as my point of departure on this and similar issues the ideas of Richard Rorty. If one takes pragmatism seriously (as I do), then we must say that an idea is true if you can do all those things that James said you can do with it: corroborate, verify, etc. But the success of those attempts will be largely dependent upon what counts as evidence in the relevant discourse, and these are always socially constructed.

    Rorty is terribly insistent that human beings, as an empirical fact, tend to like narratives. Thus narratives are often the framework into which we fit our facts, and not vice versa. The need to make these narratives cohere would only come up when some external force in our lives forces us to do so. (King Kong may be fiction rather than history, but the status of the Book of Genesis in that regard is much more contested.) So Rorty urges that we think of such things as potentially competing narratives rather than different attempts to describe the same reality. In other words, the question that Joe asked doesn’t necessarily, in my mind, actually pose a problem that needs to be solved. We should just all write the best history we can and let the “marketplace of ideas” decide which of them is true.

  2. It would seem that those facts made coherent via mere placement are just trivial filler – Star Trek’s red coats if you will. Yes? It also seems to me that Krieger is arguing that those facts do not fall withing the spheres of coherence he has outlined. Yes? – TL

  3. Thanks to both. I do agree that history is text, and text is made by both the writer and the reader. Perhaps, what I find the most distressing is a return, in Krieger, to some system by which this text is determined to be history or chronicle, the great “pass/fail” system of text filteration. Your comments were both helpful, and I assume we have not ended this debate, “social science” or “literary art.”

  4. I really hate to be nitpicky, but this issue is of vital importance to me:

    The “Red Coats” fought the colonists in the American Revolution. The Enterprise security guards were “red shirts.” : )

  5. Ahaaa! Treckies. What I think I am learning is that a wonderful history book does not have to have an introduction with which I can fully agree. Just like the verisilmitude of those Klingoff people, one does not have to buy the ultimate “other” with the great narrative:) Thanks again. Joe

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