Tagged: knowledge

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?

Truth in fiction

Fiction can neither make a claim to be truth (for that would be history), nor can it make a claim to be simply lies (for then it would be strategically unsuccessful); but rather, it operates as a way of thinking the world, or of representing the world, or of describing it, without making any simple ‘truth claims’. In terms that I borrow from Todorov, we can make a distinction between vérité-adéquation, in which the truth being sought is one in which a description perfectly matches a preexisting reality, and vérité-dévoilement, in which we have a much looser attitude to truth. The first has an ‘all or nothing’ attitude to truth, the second a ‘more or less’ attitude.

Thomas Docherty, Aesthetic Democracy, 114.

As I have said already that it was an October day, I dare not forfeit your respect and imperil the fair name of fiction by changing the season and describing lilacs hanging over the garden walls, crocuses, tulips and other flowers of the spring. Fiction must stick to facts, and the truer the facts the better the fiction — so we are told. Therefore it was still autumn and the leaves were still yellow and falling, if anything, a little faster than before, because it was now evening (seven twenty-three to be precise) and a breeze (from the southwest to be exact) had risen.

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, 16.