Truth in history

In the chapter “The reality of the past” from the third volume of Time and Narrative, Ricoeur writes:

The question about historical knowledge ‘standing for’ the ‘real’ past is born from the simple question: what does the term ‘real’ mean when it is applied to the historical past? What are we saying when we say that something ‘really’ happened? (“Reality,” p. 142).

What is at stake in this questioning is the refusal – in what could be called the ideology of conventional historiography – of a gap between historical knowledge of the past and the historical past itself. This refusal is expressed unconsciously in the English language when we use the word history to refer to both the real historical past and the field of inquiry of the historical past. When we separate these different connotations of “history,” three critical issues emerge: is history a substratum of past events and occurrences? Or is history the knowledge of these past events and occurrences that we come to know through historical inquiry? If this double perspective is acknowledged, then a third issue arises: What exactly is the relationship between history and the knowledge produced by historical inquiry? Is the latter dependent on the former? Or is the relation of dependency reversed: is the substratum of past events and occurrences dependent on the labor of historians? We can take this last question one step further: What exactly is the labor of historians? Is it the technical work, the historical method of authenticating documents from the past, or is it the interpretive work of putting these documents into a form, into a historical form, into the form of history? And, once we have sorted out the distinct operations of authentication and interpretation, we can ask, finally, what exactly is the form of history?

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