The Last Word on History

Written by AC Grayling.

To remain ignorant of what happened before you were born is to remain always a child. – Cicero

This week saw the beginning of an action for libel brought by one historian against another over a question of history. The right-wing historian David Irving says the Holocaust was not as bad as has been claimed; he is suing American historian Deborah Lipstadt for calling him "a dangerous spokesman for Holocaust denial." The case, and its explosive content, remind us that history matters.

But what is history? There is ambiguity in the very name. "History" can either mean past events, or writings about past events. But what if the former is a creation of the latter? The past, after all, has ceased to exist. Here in the present we find documents and other objects which, we suppose, survive from the past, and we weave interpretations round them. These objects, and our interpretations, belong to the present. If history is different narratives constructed in the present, is it any wonder that historians disagree among themselves?

The idea that the past is another country, spread out "behind" us, which we could visit if we had a time-machine, is naive. Yet our realism is offended by the claim that the past is created in the present, and we oppose the latitude thus accorded those who, for example, deny that the Holocaust happened.

What, then, is history? Is it an art that creates, or a science that discovers? Either way, is there'can there be–such a thing as historical truth? And if so, to what extent can it be known?

"History" derives from the ancient Greek word istoria meaning enquiry. But even in antiquity the fatal ambiguity arose; by the fourth century BC the historikos – reciter of stories' had supplanted the historeon – the enquirer. Into which category should we place the great early historians' Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius, Livy, Sallust, Tacitus?

They too understood the problem. Thucydides attacked Herodotus for his expansive and anecdotal history' made up of an artfully arranged collection of anecdotes, facts, legends and speculations – of the great East-West struggle between Persia and Greece. Thucydides began his history of the Peloponnesian War with the claim that history should be "contemporary history", restricting itself to what can be verified by personal observation. He served in the Athenian army, and wrote as he fought.

Art outweighed science in most historical writing as far as the Renaissance. But from the seventeenth century the possibility of scientific history emerged from work on sources. Benedictine monks established principles for authenticating medieval manuscripts, thus inaugurating the systematic treatment of materials. By the time Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886) summoned historians to record the past "as it actually happened", the project seemed possible.

Other "Positivists" like von Ranke claimed that there are inductively discoverable historical laws. The great Victorian, John Stuart Mill, agreed, adding that psychological laws count among them. On this view history is truly a science: good data and general laws pave the way to objective truth.

But the Positivists were opposed by the Idealists, such as Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911). Under the influence of Kant and Hegel, they argued that whereas natural science studies phenomena from the outside, social science does so from the inner perspective of human experience. History accordingly is a reconstruction of the past by "intellectual empathy" with our forebears.

Dilthey said that history is nevertheless objective, because the products of human experience 'books and art' belong to the public domain. But his fellow Idealists disagreed; Benedetto Croce (1866-1952) wrote that history is subjective because the historian himself is always present in its construction. As James Baldwin put it, "People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them."

These ideas constitute philosophy of history. They are not works of history, nor of historiography (discussion of historical techniques). But nor are they works of philosophical history, exemplified by those grand theories of history's metaphysical significance offered by Hegel, Marx, Spengler and Toynbee. These latter claim that history manifests patterns, and moves towards an ultimate goal. Positivist history is an attempt to escape the seductions of such a view, by seeking for facts. Idealist arguments show that this aim is easier to state than achieve. The Irving case, in turn, shows that the argument matters.