Science is political. There are no two ways about it. One of the most political of all sciences is historical science. The reason for this is that historical science deals with human activities in the past. Depending on how societies relate to their past actions, those activities are either applauded, derided, revised or embellished.
In our relationship to history and the past, a wish to find out the truth about a certain event is often expressed. Therefore, we, the historians, attempt to recreate the event, as if we were crime scene investigators. We gather the evidence and through the use of historical methodology and theories reach conclusions based on what the evidence tells us. Almost by default, the evidence is scanty, contradictory and tainted. Consequently, the question inevitably arises: Is there such a thing as historical truth?
Merriam-Webster defines truth as
the state of being the case; FACT;
the property (as of a statement) of being in accord with fact or reality
These definitions make it difficult for an historian to speak of historical truth. Once a moment has come and gone, there is no way of knowing exactly what happened. The truth has dissipated with the moment and the evidence left behind – be it a written document or an eye-witness report – only represents one perspective, often flawed or incomplete, of what has just occurred.
However, Merriam-Webster also defines truth as
a judgment, proposition, or idea that is true or accepted as true
This definition is closer to what the historian deals with, but still does not address the complexity of recreating an historical event.
An historical event consists of the actions of a human individual that has been left behind in writing for the after world. However, the written account that has survived to our time is tainted by the perspective and intentions of the writer. Moreover, when the text is read and interpreted it becomes further tainted by the prejudices and preconceived notions of the reader. So how can we even claim that an event has taken place? And how can we claim to know the course of that event?
Instead of historical truth, historians speak of historical validity. The reason for this is that although the past itself does not change, our knowledge of it does. Historical validity is based in the historian’s interpretation of extant written texts through the application of tools and methods developed by professional historians and by interpreting the texts in relation to other texts. Depending on the results of this type of textual analysis, historical validity, and consequently the knowledge of the past, is subject to change. The possibility for change in what is considered valid is what makes some people suspicious of historical science. More importantly, this possibility is what makes some people revise history to suit their own purposes. For example, it is through the abuse of historical validity that Holocaust deniers have found themselves a quasi-scientific niche.
As humans we have the need to organize, compartmentalize and categorize our surroundings. It is easier to live in a world that can be divided into truths and untruths. However, our world is much more complicated than that, and so is our past. Therefore, historians speak of historical validity rather than historical truth.
March Bloch The Historian’s Craft (Manchester University Press, 1954)
Rolf Torstendahl “Metod och forskningsmoral. Reflektioner med anledning av Simon Larssons avhandling”, Historisk tidskrift 132:1 (2012)
Maria Ågren “Synlighet, vikt, trovärdighet – och självkritik: några synpunkter på källkritikens roll i dagens historieforskning”, Historisk tidskrift 125:2 (2005)
In the words of my friend, the Australian: I shall return.