History Without Morality, History Without Truth

Sheridan Gilley challenges the notion that ‘truth’ in history is unattainable.

One of my research students recently attended a history conference at which everyone agreed that there was no such thing as truth in history. This scepticism reflects a current so-called 'postmodern' philosophical mood, which is increasingly opposed to any objective idea of truth outside ourselves, preferring to see 'truth' as a contingent and relative thing that we make rather than discover. Thus the eminent American philosopher Richard Rorty argues that our descriptions of externals belong to a shifting language game which reflects a succession of changing man-made metaphors of the world.

Even physical science does not find truth but invents more or less useful ways of talking about it, which will change as the mind moves its metaphors of meaning from one mew or vision of things to another. The collapse of nineteenth-century idealism and dogmatic Marxism and the eclipse, at least among most western intellectuals, of Christianity, have lent this 'constructionist' position a certain plausibility: Heraclitus, for whom all was flux, has finally triumphed over nearly three thousand years of effort to agree enduring truths.

This sceptical philosophical outlook harmonises with a subjective historicism which sees the past as existing only in the present in which we observe it; the past itself is inaccessible. It also tends to stress the inexhaustibility of the past, the changing ideological character of the historian's categories for interpreting it and the inescapability of bias in approaching it.

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