U.S. Intellectual History Blog

historical truth

To continue my meditations on primary sources (or original historical sources) and the role of bias in historical writing, I offer this quote:

When thinking of evidence as a way of reconstructing the past, one ought to keep in mind that there are in fact different forms of historical truth that are being accessed through that evidence. This is by no means to say that there is no such thing as historical truth, much less its cognate opposite, that there is no such thing as historical falsehood. Both truth and falsehood most definitely exist but neither is homogenous or unitary. There are multiple forms of truth and of falsehood, even with regard to any single instance or event. Different forms of evidence are useful for accessing different forms of truth. Similarly, different modes of interpreting the same evidence will likewise generate different forms of truth.*

My students are discussing the chapter which this quote comes from in Reading Primary Sources next Monday. I’m curious to see how they respond to this paragraph.

The author, Devin O. Pendas, offers interesting parallel suggestions for interpreting oral testimony–hearing and listening. Hearing spots the factual/forensic claims, and listening marks things of experiential value.

*Devin O. Pendas, “Testimony” in Reading Primary Sources: The Interpretation of Texts from Nineteenth- and Twentieth-century History edited by Miriam Dobson and Benjamin Ziemann. (London: Routledge, 2009), 231.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. The thing students seem to have the most trouble with is the “truthiness” of point of view. This of course parallels the trouble they have with the truthiness of historical narratives—of historians interpreting and arguing the documents at hand. Does anything generate more trouble in relation to teaching and learning history than the topic of “truth”? I don’t think so—which is precisely why it shouldn’t be avoided. – TL

  2. I think its important for students to know that historical writing is a form of moral inquiry. It is not science but art. Historians have commitments and at the same time they attempt to be fair. Objectivity, truth, and bias are all relative in historical writing. I have a point of view, things that are important to me that will show up in the topics I choose and the sources I call upon. Students often think that history is given from above.

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