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The history con.

THE NOTION that history books tell THE TRUTH, meaning the actual what, when, where, why, how, and who of a past event is pure con. They can't.

Now I'm not talking about the kind of history book that's nothing more than a list of past events presented in chronological order--for example, The Government of France, The Cambridge Modern History, Volume VIII. Let me give you a sample of that opiate in ink:
 In 1775, under Turgot, the expenses are estimated at 414 1/2
 millions, the receipts at 337 1/4, and the permanent debt charge at
 235 1/4 millions. In 1776, under Clugny, the expenses were 402 1/2
 millions and the receipts 378 1/2, while expenses charged upon
 future budgets amount to 50 1/2 millions. Calonne places the
 deficiency in this year at upwards of 37 millions. In 1784 Calonne
 sold to Burgundy privileges of exemption from the aides; and it is
 estimated that, out of the total borrowing of 1647 millions between
 1776 and 1786, Calonne alone borrowed 650 millions and a half, at an
 annual cost of 45 and a half millions, in 41 months of peace. In
 1786 the expenses amounted to....

What I am talking about are the history books that deal with the significance, or the meaning, of those past events, as seen by their authors.

Why history books can't tell THE TRUTH

All we have to do to compellingly support the declaration that history books can't tell THE TRUTH is (1) infer what it is that history book is intended to mean and (2) run through the various factors involved in the writing of a history book.

What's a history book?

First, let's agree on what a history book is, so that there'll be no protest later that we analyzed how oranges are written and all history books are apples. According to Webster's Second International Dictionary, a history book is: A systematic written account of events, particularly of those affecting a nation, institution, science, or art, usually connected with a philosophical explanation of their causes [italics mine].

I could rest my case here, because if you focus on the word "philosophical" and its intended meaning in this context, you won't have to read the rest of the chapter; it'll become obvious to you that there can be no such thing as THE TRUTH in any history book. But intellectual mythology dies hard, so let's go forward with the second part of my "proof."

Enter Charley Smith

Let's now create an historian, and track him as he sets about writing a history book--that is, how he produces "a systematic written account of events ... affecting a nation, institution, science, or art ... connected with a philosophical explanation of their causes." Let's call our historian Charley Smith. And to give him the proper credentials, let's assume that he majored in history in college, was awarded a doctorate in history, and now holds the post of Professor of History at Knowitall University. Doctor Smith has decided to write a scholarly book about a past event known as the Bay of Pigs.

Charley's state of mind

Charley has been thinking about the Bay of Pigs as the subject of a book for some time now and has finally decided to write one. He's not consciously aware of this, but he's already reached several conclusions about that event, he's already biased in the way he sees the Bay of Pigs, and he's already close-minded about several aspects of what took place. How do I know this? Did Charley tell me? No. But it's obviously true, because Charley is a human (professor or not, doctorate or not). Therefore, bias, preconception, and preconditioning are built into his mental apparatus, as they are into every human's mental apparatus.

Charley has also done a great deal of reading about the Bay of Pigs and has discussed the event with colleagues. He's also not consciously aware of the slight feelings of annoyance or irritation when something in his reading or in his conversations about the Bay of Pigs didn't square with what he thought was the what, when, where, why, how, and who of the event. Nor is Charley consciously aware of the slight feelings of pleasure and vindication when they did. No, Charley had long ago deluded himself that because he's a scholar, a professor, an intellectual, and so on, he's totally objective about virtually all manner of things historical. But given that everyone has a unique viewpoint which he subconsciously brings to bear on all incoming sensory material, total objectivity is just not possible for anyone.

So much for Charley's state of mind as he prepares to write his history of the Bay of Pigs.

Charley's need for pragmatism

But Charley also knows as he sets about to write his book that he must be pragmatic. He knows that he can't write a history of the Bay of Pigs that would be like any other history of that event if he's going to get it published, impress his colleagues, get media coverage, and so on. He has to find a new angle.
 Note: This may not be strictly true, because university presses will
 publish anything as long as the author has peer approval. And with
 quid pro quo being the norm on college campuses, which authors don't
 have peer approval?

He's also aware that he must pore over the same material available to his predecessors, and tie it all together in a completely new way. Or if some new material has surfaced, Charley knows that he'll have to work the new stuff into the old, and come up with something fresh, or he won't have a prayer of succeeding with his new book. So the pressure is on Charley to be "creative."

Charley's research material

OK, what kind of research material does Charley have available to him? Well, it would include:

* Other books written about the Bay of Pigs.

* Newspaper and magazine articles, and relevant articles in so-called learned journals.

* Photographs and drawings.

* Government documents, published reports, and media releases.

* Eyewitness accounts, taped and written.

* Accounts gained through interview.

Let's break the research material that Charley has available to him into two major categories: material compiled by people who were eyewitnesses to the Bay of Pigs and material put together by people who were not.

Eyewitness accounts

How much credence can Charley give to the accounts of people who were there? Very little, although Charley may not think so.

* Eyewitness accounts are not generally reliable, because they tend to be embroidered descriptions of what was actually seen and heard.

* Eyewitnesses see only the trees, never the forest. And so there are always gaps in information.

* No one has ever witnessed every aspect and every detail of any event--every trunk, every limb, every branch, every twig, every leaf, so to speak. For example, no one could possibly have witnessed every detail of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. To have done so, he would have had to have been everywhere at the same time; he would have had to have been an eyewitness to all the planning (and no one was, not even any Japanese); he would have had to have been able to see and hear through roofs, walls, and floors; he would have had to have been aboard every Japanese aircraft and every Japanese ship in the vicinity, he would have had to have ... well, I think you get the picture.

* It's impossible for an eyewitness to differentiate between the things that he actually sees and the things that he only imagines he sees because of the stress he's under at the time.

Consequently, although eyewitness accounts have some value to a historian, they can't be relied upon to tell the what, when, where, why, how, and who of any event.

Non-eyewitness accounts

Now what about the material compiled by people who had not been eyewitnesses to the Bay of Pigs--can that be of any use in determining the what, when, where, why, how, and who of the event? No, because that kind of material has to be based on material put together by people who had been there, and we've already shown that such material is itself unreliable.

Research material exists only in worlds of words

All of Charley's research material would have several characteristics in common, because it exists only in worlds of words:

* It would be nothing more than a lot of symbols, because it would all be couched in one or more languages--verbal, photographic, graphic, etc.

* Some of the words would be concrete--boats, airplanes, machine guns, troops, tanks, etc. Being real, their referents could be verified. The rest would be abstract words, opinions, inferences, words intended to represent intangible characteristics--heavy, light, fear, courage, too late, too early, necessary, unnecessary. Being imagined, what they're intended to represent could not be verified. Which means that Charley will have to validate or invalidate every one of them solely on the basis of his own judgments, attitudes, and belief system. No possible objectivity there.

* Some material would be first-hand accounts of part of the Bay of Pigs, with the balance being second-, third-, and up to nth-hand accounts of that event. And something is always lost in translation.

* All of the material would be part fact, part inference, part judgment, and part opinion.

* Norman Mailer uses the word factoid, which he says (in a letter to the writer) is "... a fact which had no existence prior to its appearance in print ... [and that] ... a vast percentage of what we take as real, codified, observed, verified, and factually true is built upon nothing other than its existence in print." (In this day of the electronic news media, factoids would also include facts which had no existence prior to their appearance on a TV newscast.)

Because a fact (other than an event experienced by an observer) is nothing more than a common belief, held, or subscribed to, by a number of people, there's no way to differentiate between a fact and a factoid. So how does Charley differentiate between fact and factoid? He can't.

And inferences can run the gamut from extremely weak to extremely strong. Because Charley can't possibly know the reality of and the reasoning underlying each fact, how can he know what kind of a fact it is?

* Man can't pass on experiences merely by symbolizing them; he can only pass on symbols of his experiences, never the experiences themselves. And there's many a slip between an experience and a symbol of that experience.

Historians' fallacies

As though Charley didn't have enough to contend with in writing a true history book, a history book that tells it "like it was"--his own biases and the biases of others, unreliable research material, having to operate in worlds of words with its dependence upon his judgments of other people's judgments, attitudes, and belief systems as to intended meaning, and so on--he's also prone (as are all historians) to all manner of fallacies in his work.

David Hackett Fischer, in Historians' Fallacies, refers to and illustrates 112 different kinds of fallacies common to the work of historians. He implies that there's scarcely a history book in existence that does not reflect at least one of these historical fallacies and usually many more.

Can history books really tell THE TRUTH?

Let me now sum up why history books can't tell THE TRUTH, and why any claim to the contrary is pure con.

* A history book requires a philosophical explanation of causes to qualify as a history book. And one's philosophy is shaped by his leanings, biases, and prejudices.

* Every historian has already reached tentative conclusions about a past event and its what, when, where, why, how, and who before he even undertakes to do his research, let alone write his book, conclusions that reflect his philosophy.

* The historian's philosophy will determine what research material he'll use, how he'll interpret it, the kind of literary threads he'll use to weave together the dry names, dates, places, numbers, etc., into an entertaining tapestry, and so forth.

* Professional pride and the pragmatics of finding a publisher for a history book both operate in a similar way--they require the author to write about a past event from a fresh point of view, one that hasn't already been used. With that kind of pressure it's not unlikely that Charley will stretch his imagination as much as he has to in making things fit his preconceived ideas.

* All research material is suspect--eyewitness accounts are unreliable, and noneyewitness accounts are based upon unreliable eyewitness accounts (or are even sheer fabrications).

* It's difficult to distinguish between a fact and a factoid.

* Every event lies in the world of no-words, whereas all research material upon which historians must depend lies in worlds of words.

* And finally, it's highly unlikely that there has ever been a history book completely free of historical fallacies.

I rest my case.

The bottom line

All historical works are suspect. As H.L. Mencken put it: We're here and it's now; further than that, all human knowledge is moonshine.

Sensors for your built-in, automatic, shockproof con detector

* THE TRUTH, where history is concerned, means the actual what, when, where, why, how, and who of a past event. It's unknowable. Therefore, it's not possible to write a history book that tells THE TRUTH about any past event.

* There's a different history for every expert, and for every historian.

* There's nothing one can learn from history.

* This is not to say that you should never read history books. They can be entertaining, and the word information gained can be useful at cocktail parties. But that's as far as any history book can go.

* There's no significant difference between a scholarly history book and a historical novel.

* Histories have enormous significance and influence despite the overwhelmingly compelling inference that they're always wrong.

* If you don't like history, you can always change it.

* The passage of time does not create a perspective that allows for greater understanding of a past event. All it does is increase fuzziness of perception, which, in turn, increases the likelihood that the human mind will resort to feeling and prejudice in an analysis of what happened rather than reason and impartiality.

In Closing

There you have it--the fundamentals of how language works and a notion of how widespread the con is. But the con has to stop somewhere. And it's in your best interest that it stop with you, because the more you con others the more you will con yourself.


* A former adjunct professor, Ford Foundation Fellow, and a Harriman Scholar, Dr. Shapiro co-founded a California Bank, worked as a radio talk show host, and practiced architecture for 13 years. He holds four design awards. Adapted from Chapter 7 of You Must Not Let Them Con You! There's Too Much at Stake, published in 1993 by Mens Sana Foundation. Copyright [C] 1993 by Mens Sana Foundation.
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Article Details
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Author:Shapiro, Irving David
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Apr 1, 2007
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