Vous êtes sur la page 1sur 15

Truth and Historical Narrative

If we want things like meaning and logic then we’ve got to put up with truth.
And if we want history then we have got to put up with logic and the more or less valid arguments that we call

What is Truth.? A Short Philosophical Introduction

We need a critique of truth but not the way a jaded student in the kindergarten of suspicion
does. Critiquing truth long ago passed into pop academic consciousness. Truth became a concept for
those sort of in the know to shake their heads at, and a word to quarantine in scare quotes and pussy
foot around. The point is though, without truth, all bets are off. If we want things like meaning and
logic then we’ve got to put up with truth, even if it’s just a formality to get us by. For example: our
inferences are valid only if we never infer false conclusions from true premises; we expect a
translation or paraphrase to preserve the truth of whatever is translated; and can we understand the
meaning of a sentence if we don’t understand under what conditions it is true? So if, like Nietzsche so
long ago now, we have had enough of too much solemn rabbiting-on about Truth, I suggest we try out
the concept of truth and hold on to whatever it’s good for.
For some truth critiquers it’s like it’s philosophically naïve to use the word or to give it too
much credence. The truth is though, ‘truth’ is a naïve concept, and that may well be half its problem.
It’s what makes it impossible to define — if, by defining it, you mean finding a simpler or clearer
paraphrase to replace it. Truth is just too plain and simple already for that. And maybe truth is too
plain to satisfy the old philosophical desire for profundity. So the critique of truth ends up garbling it
to meet the fancy expectations. It’s like the way many posit things spiritual because they think just
plain old nature isn’t deep and mysterious enough. In both cases there is a kind of jadedness, even
sullenness, and a blindness to wonder. 1

So what is truth? Historians mostly talk about facts. Actually nearly everyone goes on about
the facts. Facts sound down to earth; truth sounds abstract. Truth is just a value; facts are the goods. A
fact is what a true statement corresponds to, an actual event or state of affairs that makes a statement
that corresponds to it true. ‘Kevin Rudd won the 2007 election’ corresponds to the fact that Kevin
Rudd won the 2007 election, that fact of Kevin and what he did being something that actually
happened out there in the world. Herein lies the theory that truth is a correspondence between a
statement and the world. This is Exhibit A: the correspondence theory of truth, first and best known
candidate for a theory of truth. No less a philosopher than Wittgenstein, in a classic version of the
correspondence take on truth, matched statements up to the world, like pictures, and said ‘the
proposition is a picture of reality’ (4.021) and ‘the world is a totality of facts, not of things’ (1.1). This
was the theory that his Viennese admirers, later known formidably as the Logical Positivists took to,
but only at first.
It’s not totally defeated yet (nothing much is in philosophy, especially something that sounds
as sensible as the correspondence theory) but defending the correspondence theory these days has the
look of a rearguard action. It has been torn to shreds by arguments. Take one. ‘Kevin Rudd is in the
Lodge’ seems pretty clearly to correspond, if true, to some fact: Kevin sitting in the Lodge, like the cat
on its mat. 2 But what does ‘John Howard is not in the Lodge’ correspond to? The Lodge with Kevin
Rudd in it? Or some subsequent Prime Minister in it? And John Howard in Hunter’s Hill? Or in
Kirribilli House? Or out walking? Or in Washington getting his Freedom Medal? And perhaps any-or-
everything else that is not John Howard there in the Lodge with Kevin? It is hard to see just how we
can make some statements (e.g. negative statements) correspond to things that are facts, unless-but-
even-if a fact is a something, the bits and pieces and colour and movement of which we select from the
rest of the world and fit together, not physically but by designating them as the working parts of our
fact, however scattered they remain or non-existent they are, merely by means of the statement itself,
so that then we’ve got some chimera for it (the statement) to correspond to. As well as recognizing
that we don’t really know what stuff out there in the world we’ve pieced together with a statement like
‘John Howard is not in the Lodge’, we would be wise to suspect that we might have just cluttered up
our metaphysics by adding facts to a world already full of things (and maybe events, but that’s another
story). 3 This was Quine’s warning, one that the honest Wittgenstein had anticipated by his clear
provocation about the world being a totality of facts not things.

There is another argument against correspondence that works by demonstrating that all true
sentences refer to, that is, correspond to, the same thing. The argument was given its first airing by
Frege, who thought that all true sentences refer to one just thing, which he called ‘the True’. It seems
that a true sentence doesn’t designate only those working parts of the fact, or even that it designates
just one big fact or state of affairs that any and every true sentence corresponds to. The argument has
been put in a number of ways, and is sometimes called the slingshot argument because it’s simple and
deadly. We can get around it if we want to by regimenting our language with certain rules of
designation 4 , however it does not exactly undermine the correspondence theory. It is just that if every
true sentence corresponds to just one thing, correspondence does not seem like a very telling relation.

We could soldier on, but how about seeing if there is another theory of truth. Instead of trying
to match a statement like ‘John Howard is no longer in the Lodge’ to facts, we combine it with other
statements and see whether it forms part of a consistent system of statements. True statements form a
coherent system. The statements, ‘Kevin is in the Lodge’ ‘John is not in the Lodge’ ‘Nietzsche is
dead’ and many more can form a coherent system. Here we have Exhibit B: the coherence theory of
truth. Of course, in this form, it’s a house of cards, made only for fun and instruction. We can
assemble plenty of very large sets of logically consistent statements together, but any such system
stands only as long as it is shielded from and not buffeted by the world. Usually coherence theories
rely at some point on foundations in experience. That is, they rely on a bit of reliable correspondence.
As the Logical Positivists became less enamoured of the correspondence theory, they gradually
adopted a version of the coherence theory relying famously on some basic, as it were, facts-that-are-
not-actually-facts expressed in what was called ‘protocol language’, that is, on some sort of evidence
that has priority over all other evidence, expressed, as Quine gleefully put it, in ‘a fancifully fancyless
medium of unvarnished news’. Quine himself opted for what he called ‘observation sentences’,
sentences that report observations ‘on which there is pretty sure to be firm agreement on the part of
well-placed observers’. If you want to persist though and avoid appeals to evidence altogether (i.e. to
correspondence) you might try Donald Davidson’s suggested version, namely that most of a person’s
beliefs must be true and consistent, and that any one of them, if it coheres with the rest is probably
true. It’s a version about beliefs rather than statements, and it’s unfairly put here, where I wont be
doing it the justice it deserves. It should be getting clear though that when you start philosophising
about truth (or most things) you are, if you want an easy answer, risking a weary disenchantment.
Maybe it’s no wonder that scepticism, whether labelled or libelled pragmatic, postmodern, relativist or
whatever, comes up looking like the easy option that even it isn’t.
To put the notion of truth by coherence into the context of the most banal principle of
historical research, truth by coherence is a matter of consistency with the evidence. In the terms of the
most banal, or perhaps unavoidable, principle of historiography, truth by coherence is a measure of the
success or validity of a narrative.

Just for reassurance, or complication, there is another theory that has quite a following. For
convenience some treat it as a version of the correspondence theory, but, like any philosophical
position, it’s a position you will have to inconveniently defend. It is the proposal of Alfred Tarski, the
logician who is famous for devising it. I won’t go into its intricacies, just its simplicities: Consider the
sentence ‘Kevin is in the Lodge’. Tarski’s theory or convention spells out under what conditions this
sentence is true: “The sentence ‘Kevin is in the Lodge’ is true if and only if Kevin is in the Lodge.” It
looks terribly unsatisfying — as a theory, that is. To say the sentence is true is to say Kevin is in the
Lodge? So what? Is truth no more than a matter of losing the quotation marks? In Tarski’s defence, I
don’t think this is trivial at all. Calling a sentence true draws away the quotation marks and with them
the veil of language from before our eyes, reminding us that truth is a feature of sentences, but
sentences are primarily about what is extra-linguistic. We can mention and exhibit a sentence in
language but the best we can do if we want to draw attention directly to what the sentence is about is
delete the quotation marks. The sentence ‘Kevin won the 2007 election’ is true because Kevin won the
2007 election; and because the sentence ‘Kevin won the 2007 election’ is true, Kevin won the 2007
election. It’s like a version of correspondence truth, because unlike the coherence theory it tries to
break out of the immanence of language, or what has been called more sardonically the prison house
of language. 5 Tarski was not defining ‘truth’ based on how the term is used and could be replaced with

another more basic term, but stipulating the conditions that a true statement had to satisfy. Anyway
lets call this Exhibit C: The semantic theory of truth, also known as the disquotation theory of truth. It
can also be understood as a theory of meaning. 6 To understand a sentence is to know what would be
the case if it were true. I don’t think most people would find this claim too difficult to accept.
Wittgenstein said it, but he was really repeating something Gottlob Frege said. Another way of putting
the same insight goes like this. ‘To give the truth conditions of a sentence is a way of giving the
meaning of a sentence.’ 7 .
What we call the meaning of a sentence depends on what inferential use we make of it, and in
order to understand the implications of a sentence we need at some level to appreciate its logical
structure. To understand a narrative we have to infer the implications of the sentences that make up the
narrative. As a theory of meaning Tarski’s formulation is also a theory of translation: To give the
meaning of a sentence is to translate it, and to reveal the logical structure of a sentence is to translate it
into a formal logical language. It is in such matters of logic, crucial to the understanding of historical
narrative, that Tarski’s theory is indispensable. In a sense we can apply it unthinkingly because it is
trivial. 8

Neither the correspondence nor the coherence version of truth is entirely satisfactory, and the
semantic theory looks too trivial to be of any use, but I doubt whether we can do without any of them.
Truth is indispensable. When we have to use it, which is all the time, it is so indispensable that we do
not pay too much attention to which criterion of truth we might be relying on. Only when we have to
gather our criteria together to have them examined, do we find they differ according to our purposes.
For instance, when our truth claim is a value judgement or a moral judgement, we might not be clear
about what in the world it corresponds to, but, falling back on a coherence theory, we argue for the
judgment by appealing to its consistency with other judgments. On the plus side, I don’t think the
three versions of truth are at odds. One is ontological, one is epistemological and the third semantic.
The correspondence version does its job when truth is a matter of what our claims say exists. We use
the coherence version when it is a matter of working out or verifying truths from what we already
know; and the semantic version when it’s a matter of what our claims mean.

Truth and History

When it comes to truth an awful lot of analytical philosophers (the supposedly sober and
boring philosophers) from the Logical Positivists onward were not all that different in what they said
from what postmodernists (supposedly irresponsible corrupters of learning) are supposed to have said.
They have had trouble remaining convinced that we ever really match statements to facts. Even if we
did, truth by coherence rather than correspondence is so useful that our sciences would be lost without
it. To check theoretical claims against observations, we check theoretical statements against
observation statements, and vice versa; and rather than checking those observation statements against
the world we check them against our perceptions, or rather these observation statements are reports of
the beliefs that our interaction with the world causes us to hold; and, we check them, for their
objectivity, in true empirical fashion, against other observers’ observation statements. All this is a
matter of logical coherence and consistency, not correspondence of statements to something outside of
language. It looks as if scientists are all floating on a shifting ocean of ‘texts’ or ‘shifting signifiers’
with nothing but a makeshift vessel that they have to keep rebuilding under themselves with nothing
but other ‘texts’. This nautical image, although it might sound as though it is some ontologically-
come-morally panicked representation of what those Postmodernists corrupted the young with, is more
or less what the Logical Positivist Otto Neurath said and what Quine quoted as the epigram of Word
and Object. ‘We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to
start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for
this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship
can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction’. We’re all sailors and scientists now,
we always were — or at least we have been since the Cartesian revolution heralded modernity’s
almost total acceptance of subjectivist epistemology — in our everyday manner of everyday truth
telling, that is, in the everyday physics, biology, psychology, history etc by which we get by and

What is truly noteworthy among theorists of history though is that both those who critique
truth and those who defend it mostly seem to be thinking vaguely about some kind of correspondence
notion of truth. This is especially obvious in the case of the critiquers: Styled as unconventional and
critical, they perpetuate the most conservative and uncritical understanding of truth. Reading what
Louis O. Mink 9 wrote back in the 70s about the role of narrative in telling history, you are struck by
how often he seems to be doing little more than disabusing the reader of the notion that there is an
unproblematic correspondence relation between a narrative and what actually happened. Historical

…claims to represent, through its form, part of the real complexity of the past, but as narrative it is a
product of imaginative construction, which cannot defend its claim to truth by any accepted procedure
of argument or authentication 10 (219)

Mink’s ideas about narrative and history were an early manifestation of the kind of stuff truth
critiquers were to take to heart. It’s all there in embryo in this quote. ‘To represent, through its form’
sounds suspiciously like a vague version of correspondence theory. It echoes the picture theory in
Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, in which guise it once entertained correspondence theorists: ‘The
proposition is a picture of reality’ (4.01) and ‘The picture can represent every reality whose form it
has’ (2.171). The ‘claim’ to represent this way is presumed — by Mink, for us — to be the naïve and
essential disposition of historical narrative as such. But that ‘historical narrative’ as such claims
anything as such is an awfully loose metaphorical way of speaking. The bit about narrative being ‘a
product of imaginative reconstruction’ is almost always a way of implying that narrative is necessarily
and at the very least compromised by an essentially fictional process of imagination. Another way this
is implied is by calling history ‘literary’, when ‘literary’ to many minds just seems to mean fiction. As
a pedagogical and commercial stimulus, a textbook is pitched with the title Is History Fiction?
‘History cannot escape literature because it cannot escape itself: history presents the results of its
enquiries, its research, as narrative and so necessarily enters into and partakes of the world of literary
forms’ 11 It all looks like a projection of that favourite old rift of modernity, the one between science
and art, blissfully bought and sold as theory. Furthermore, Mink said historical narrative ‘cannot
defend its claim to truth by any accepted procedure of argument’. Why it can’t and why any procedure
of argument will be unacceptable are just supposed to be obvious.
Now this kind of thinking persisted. Hayden White took the fiction thing pretty seriously:

…there has been a reluctance to consider historical narratives as what they most manifestly are: verbal
fictions, the contents of which are as much invented as found and the forms of which have more in common with
their counterparts in literature than they have with those of the sciences.’ 12

He claimed that ‘narrative is regarded as a neutral “container” of historical fact, a mode of

discourse “naturally” suited to representing historical events directly’ 13 , and that ‘it is generally
maintained — as Frye said — that history is a verbal model of a set of events external to the mind of
the historian’ 14 . This is another straw formulation of the correspondence theory of truth, and the fact
that it is what is ‘generally maintained’ is authenticated — as White says — by no less a literary
theorist than Northrop Frye, whose citation provides a link back to literary territory, particularly to the
theory of genre. 15 And it’s a straw dummy version of narrative too, framed in the passive voice,
“container” and “naturally” handled in scare quotes, deliberately wrong to be easily dismissed. And of
course narrative is not a neutral container. However White reckons history’s narrative ‘emplotment’
equals ‘imaginative reconstruction’ equals ‘fiction’. Like Mink’s argument, White’s is already won in
the premises: since history is stuck in narrative and not some ‘neutral “container”’ it is stuck with the
kinds of structures narrative is stuck with. A theory of history like this should be taken to be as fictive
as it says history is. White plays with the possibilities of emplotting the Nazi invasion of the USSR
according to the different genres: ‘tragic, epic, comic, romance, pastoral, farcical’ 16 . So history — the
emplotment and what it corresponds to — gets stuck in the ‘containers’. It sounds more like
Polonius’s advice to the players than Frye’s The Anatomy of Criticism, and it is a diversion. It does not
address the interesting questions about the relation of a plot to the events it says happened: Can there

be different or conflicting narratives that plot the same events? Do different narratives alter the events
or indeed the facts themselves? Just what are we doing when we arrange events into a plot. Questions I
will come to.
Meanwhile historians who have actually wanted to defend truth as correspondence, for
example Richard Evans, were already going to be in trouble just trying to find a world for their claims
to correspond to. Evans supports Peter Novick’s credo: ‘the reality of the past, and the truth as
correspondence to reality’. 17 Even if you want correspondence as your truth condition, that doesn’t
mean you can use a past world to guarantee the truth of your history by matching your narrative up to
it: there is nothing there anymore to match your claims up to. It’s a problem, even if only one of
verification, but verification is a problem for a historian. At best you have the surviving artefacts and
documents, the surviving products and deeds of the past. The rest is secondary sources, those mere,
more or less reliable accounts. The truth of a history is generated and tested by consistency with the
evidence, not demonstrated or proven by correspondence. You can only claim truth using a coherence
theory. Correspondence doesn’t give you the down payment on truth, at best it’s the metaphysical pay-
off: once you have a claim you can believe, you can dare to believe that it must have corresponded to a
world once. More soberly we could recognize this as the ontological commitment. Maybe Evans and
Novick only want to say they accept the commitment, pay-off or not.
As in a feud where people only react to the latest attack against them, and retaliate with the
means at hand, people debating get carried away by the incumbent arguments. They take them as
ground to build on rather than rubble to sweep away. In this truth critiquing, people rarely seemed to
pause to consider some serious theories of truth, or of narrative. Instead they took naïve theories of
truth for granted, and they preferred to understand narrative as it suited them, by choosing a theory
from a few favourite, famous or infamous theorists or a few pet assumptions from the pop folklore of

Narrative and Truth

If correspondence between statements and facts was hard enough to agree on as a condition of
truth, then correspondence between narratives, those big long strings of statements about all sorts of
things, and some correspondingly heterogeneous stringy reality out there in the world was going to be
really tricky. With truth as correspondence assumed and unquestioned, truth critiquers picked
historical narrative as their target, and it was a sitting duck.
Like stunned mullet, the defenders of the truth of narrative history 18 mostly played the same
game as the critiquers. A naïve version of truth by correspondence is accepted. But what I really find
odd in all this is this funny old thing about ‘emplotment’ or ‘imaginative reconstruction’. So many
historians seem to clamour to be imaginative and literary, even if and just because that means a bit of
creative licence . And besides, it just can’t be helped, an inevitable fate solemnly declared: ‘history
cannot escape literature because it cannot escape itself’. It seems historians wouldn’t mind a bit of the
literary prestige. Take Richard Evans again. He is careful to say that truth in history is ‘discovered not
invented’ but he is also careful to endorse Thomas L. Haskell’s rider that it is ‘not without a process of
imaginative reconstruction that goes far beyond the intrinsic properties of the raw materials’ 19 .
‘Emplotment’ and imagination are, in all this, very well worn, wrong tracks. Almost everyone seems
to have got it in their heads — possibly because of the literary prestige reflex, possibly because of
some narrative mystique 20 , — that narrative is blessed by, and tangled up in, literariness, imagination
and reconstruction, and that reconstruction, as something literary and imaginative, is no longer going
to be a matter of plain old correspondence with whatever is being reconstructed.
This doctrine of imaginative reconstruction has two sides. Both take the mystique of
imagination for granted: that imaginative reconstruction is the big literary deal. But for one side this
just means that history misses out on the big literary prizes: ‘Great attributes’ said Samuel Johnson
‘are not requisite for an historian; for a historical composition, all the greatest powers of the human
mind are quiescent. He has facts ready to hand, so there is no degree of invention.’ 21 On the other side,
an awful lot of modern historians seem to want imagination, and, still convinced that the
reconstruction caper is the only way to get it, they seem willing to believe that historical claims are
served by reconstructions that offer the bonus of possibilities to the raw materials of the known
actuality: ‘We build from inadequate, frustrating, patchily illuminating records a version of the past

that satisfies our sense of what is — or was possible; that matches the records yet remains the product
of present imagination, present concerns, and the limits of present knowledge.’ ‘The twin imperatives’
of historiography are ‘the verification of the real and the engagement of the imagination’ 22 . But let’s
stop being hoodwinked by the way this term imagination is bandied about. It’s got form, connotations
we don’t need to exalt historiography with. Historiography is exalted or lowly enough as it is.
We can judge theories that history cannot be true by the same standard they set for history:
untrue by correspondence. And we can judge theories that history is imaginative reconstruction by
their coherence with an historical account of this thing we call imagination. For imagination has been
reduced to an instrument of consolation, consolation for the tedium of a world that has been reduced
by truth, science, the death of god, and Enlightenment. The consolation works in an economy of
tedium and frisson: what lacks frisson must be tedious. That which is lived and told unadorned, awake
and in the world of others — history — is deemed to be in peril of tedium and thus due for the
consolation of imagination. But caught in a vicious circle, imagination is blinded by the tedium of its
own diminishing vision.
Modern thought and not just historiography has persistently been troubled by the division it
proposes for itself between on the one side pure facts or objectivity and on the other imaginative,
philosophical, literary, or politically engaged discourse. Benedetto Croce looked at this dichotomy in
its form as the division between philosophical history and ‘pure’, objective history. On the side of
‘pure’ history he quoted William von Humboldt whose words seemed to foreshadow those of its best-
known advocate, Leopold von Ranke. 23 Wary of the ‘philosophy of history’, Humboldt said that ‘ideas
in history must come from the plenitude of events’ and that historiography ‘fulfils its task the more
perfectly as the exposition is more complete and satisfying’. This effort at completeness sounds like its
perfection would be a kind of ‘Universal History’. It’s a notion that is related to the idea generated by
Frege’s version of the slingshot argument — that there is just one big fact or state of affairs — except
that, instead of any true sentence corresponding to it, any true sentence a history leaves out must
damage the history. Perhaps in amelioration the narrative and its selections should be formulated
under the guidance of ideas that somehow come from and take holistic note of the plenitude of events.
‘Good stories have a quality of authorlessness’ writes Janet Malcolm ‘they are better the more
authorless they seem. They give the sense of being out there like facts.’ 24 Not that they are authorless.
She also thinks that a researcher who has told such a story based on laborious archival research is
entitled not to have the plot stolen. The assumption that history’s stories are discovered rather than
constructed is almost a kind of common sense. Leonard Mink seems to think that if historical
objectivity were possible it would have to presuppose some such assumption; and he went so far as to
claim that it ‘presupposes ‘the idea of Universal History — that past actuality is an untold story and
that there is a right way to tell it even though only in part.’ 25 . He thinks this for the same reason as
those he wants to criticise: the unstated assumption of a naïve theory of correspondence truth. He ups
the anti by assuming that since truth can only work by correspondence, the objective historian’s world
must be not just a totality of facts, but a totality of stories. There would be no debate here without
there being misunderstandings about truth and narrative. Histories are made, but just because they are
has no bearing on their objectivity or on the truth of their claims.

So here I need a page or two to make clear what narratives are; for they are not primarily
imaginative reconstructions, nor literary. That is because they are arguments in the most general sense:
in simple terms, layouts of propositions or, for more technical affect, expository sequences of
propositions. They are strings of propositions from which inferences about events are drawn or may be
drawn, and are occasionally, although not necessarily, stated explicitly. We are accustomed in an
argumentative age to think of arguments exclusively as undertaken with the purpose of proof or rather
persuasion or even the victory of being right, however in its broadest sense an argument is an
exposition, a setting out of what we have on hand (premises let us say) and what may be inferred from
them. Arguments, in setting out their propositions may establish or refute a proposition. They may
persuade, influence, demonstrate or inform. They may explain or describe how, when, where, why or
what. Or they may just describe; rather than reasoning from one point to another. Narratives need do
no more than behave as one big, compound proposition about a set — usually a series — of events.
A narrative argument consists at least of propositions about events. There is no narrative
without propositions about events and a narrative that did not imply some temporal arrangement of

and some set of temporal relations between its events would be unusual to say the least. So would a
narrative in which the propositions did not form a more or less coherent whole. Where temporal
relations are ambiguous and claims incoherent, a reader, listener or viewer of a narrative usually
strives to make sense, on the charitable principle that the author of the narrative is presumably telling a
coherent narrative — maybe complicated, maybe mysterious, maybe confusing, maybe fractured, but
not nonsense. Often in narrative arguments, perhaps mostly, inferences are not stated explicitly, they
are implied or they may be inferred by the reader or viewer. There is nothing particularly new about
this — not when you recall the old practice of referring to the plot of a narrative as its argument,
especially when it is in given in summary form before a chapter of an old novel or a section of a long
narrative poem. And considering the context of modern logic and deduction, in which we are still quite
used to using the term argument, there is nothing very odd about this either. Firstly, our acquaintance
with events, whether by report or first hand, is limited and patchy and always deficient in its supply of
events that answer as reasons, causes, motives, interpretations, evidence and outcomes; and inference
about such events is always part of and inseparable from our experience. Secondly, even in the
deductive arguments of mathematics, not all the steps of an argument are always written out; some
competence on the part of the reader is assumed. And as for the dotty notion that narrative is literary,
in some narratives, e.g. film, there need be no writing, or for that matter, language at all; hence my use
of the word ‘propositions’ rather than such linguistic terms as ‘statements’ or ‘sentences’. 26
If we expect or insist that an argument must consist of familiar types of claims serving
particular roles within the argument — premises, conclusions, and the like — then we need not be
disappointed by narratives, although some of these categories — lemmas or corollaries for example —
have been gathering dust. Narratives consist variously of premises such as basic claims, typically
descriptions of events, and in historiography ordinarily called evidence. And there are lemmas such as
propositions that you need to introduce as new premises along the way and which are often the
conclusions of little sub-arguments or sub-plots. It might be easier to recognise the classic
premise/conclusion structure of arguments in these sub-arguments, because whole narratives are
usually big compound arguments in which the premise/conclusion structure is repeated and/or
embedded many times over. In historical narrative these so-called lemmas might only be descriptions
of unobserved events that are inferred from descriptions of observed events, that is, from the primary
evidence of primary sources. There are also corollaries such as superfluous, serendipitous or relevant
but not necessarily expected findings along the way. Of course the old logical jargon is not used in
descriptions of narrative, where the terms are replaced by more appropriate, but functionally similar
terms such as plot, sub-plot, digression, setting, climax and so on.
Most contentious amongst narrative premises and lemmas are certain assumptions. These are
often insinuated in the description of actions, descriptions which nearly always imply an assumption
about the agent’s intentions or of some general claim about human behaviour from which the intention
of an action and hence the kind of action is identified. And if there are general claims there are thus
also general laws, and although you might think there are not many of these in historical narratives, I
suspect it is just that there are not many that are explicit and they are premises or lemmas, assumed to
be mutually manifest even if not explicit, assumed when needed, and stated only on occasion. They
include not only general claims about human behaviour — often the truisms of common sense — but
also general claims from any of the sciences. An example of such a general claim would be the law of
gravitation. An historian who does not assume that gravity with an acceleration of 9.8m/s2 (or some
familiar folk version of such) applies at the Earth’s surface, is going to have a hard time understanding
why that bomb fell on Hiroshima, or why those two towers of the World Trade Centre collapsed rather
than floated in mid air over Manhattan. Clearly many assumptions about human behaviour, for
example the kind we use when we judge that a person who is standing outside a bank examining the
building is in fact casing the bank, will be of more or less unreliable truth-value. The assumptions used
to judge whether an action of colonisation is rightly identified as invasion or settlement will be of
contentious truth-value, but that is precisely because they are ethical and political and therefore really
matter. The human sciences are thought seldom to yield strictly universal theories, theories of human
history have been given a bad name by various models of universal development such as those of
progress, or cyclical recurrence; and most theories used by historians are often those of folk sociology
or folk psychology which, although by no means useless, are often open to contention. So, whether

from diffidence about their truth or from the sheer idle application of common sense, they often not
made explicit.
So narrative is a form of argument in which explicit claims referring to events predominate;
while premises referring to general claims though they may be common are seldom explicit.
Conclusions are neither always manifest nor always categorical and only occasionally explicit. The
general form of narrative argument is what we call plot, and typically, but not necessarily, plot takes
certain conventional forms according to the kinds of human imperatives and goals that they respond
to. As a result the typical beginning-middle-and-end structure of a narrative reflects the teleological
structure of human actions and each narrative genre is adapted to specific imperatives and
characterised by its respective form of plot. In the broadest terms: death and tragedy; desire and
romance; social relations and comedy. No matter what the genre, what usually matters most in a
narrative are all the particulars rather than any specific logical or even teleological conclusions: a story
is mostly about the actions and events, among them the conclusions, successful or otherwise, of
teleological processes.
This account of narrative exceeds the notion that an argument is a string of propositions with a
more restricted purpose, namely to infer true conclusions, commonly with a persuasive purpose. But
the definition of argument does not matter. The term can be removed, like a bit of scaffolding. What
should remain is the idea that a narrative is a string of propositions about events for the purpose of
making inferences about those and related events. We might at this stage offer comfort to some by
observing that we appear to have replaced imagination with assumptions and inference, and insofar as
both the historian and reader (or viewer) are busy making assumptions and inferences, the
imaginative-cum-inferential process of narrative is, as has often been noted, two-sided and
contentious. We have not replaced the notion of the importance of truth. On the contrary the existence
of contention is proof that truth is what matters most, and although a history might make false claims
it can never be both history and fiction. Fiction is a completely different kind of narrative.
However if this is what an historical narrative is, then it is scarcely the kind of thing that is, or
was ever going to be, true by correspondence. Its claims are true by virtue of their consistency with the
evidence, which may or may not be quoted within the narrative, with other claims within the narrative
and with unstated claims outside the narrative (e.g. general claims) the truth of which are assumed
(even if not always correctly) to be mutually manifest to the historian and the reader or viewer. The
truth claims of a narrative are many and the conditions of their truth much more likely to be
understood as the epistemological conditions of a coherence theory of truth. As I said, correspondence
is the metaphysical payoff of true claims, or the ontological commitment.
So far as we speak of the truth-value of a narrative as a whole — which is what we seem
commonly to do when we consider the truth of an historical narrative — we are usually speaking
about the truth value of each explicit claim in the history, and vaguely about the truth value of the
conjunction of all those claims. A typical history is an immense compound proposition, so full of
claims that it would be felicitous if not indeed rare to find that all the claims were right. One at least,
though it might be consistent with all the rest, could be wrong, that is, fail to correspond to what
happened whether we know it or not, or fail the test of consistency with truths not mentioned in the
narrative. We commonly say that a narrative is coherent and in doing so we recognise that its manifold
of claims is consistent and that each claim is probably true. Strictly though the presence of only one
false claim in the conjunction is enough to render the conjunction as a whole false. Many or even most
histories are going to be false in this trivial sense, unless we extend a principle of charity to the
narrative and take the odd false claim with a grain of salt. 27 On the other hand, treated strictly as a
conjunction, the truth of a history does not suffer at all from selections and omissions as long as each
selection is true. What matters are so-called half-truths, that is, when a true claim is explicitly omitted
but an unstated assumption of the negation of the claim gets smuggled into the narrative argument
only to falsify a conclusion. Half-truths, those sins of omission, show up in false conclusions. So in
practice we are better directing, and we usually do direct, questions of a history’s truth to particular
claims, those that are crucial premises, whether evidence or assumptions, and conclusions. And of
course there are plenty of disputes here about which claims are crucial. The exact number of
Tasmanian Aborigines killed during the colonial invasion and wars is not crucial if you don’t think it
is a major premise in your argument. 28 So when judging truth by examining crucial claims we must

consider the history’s argument, for it is the argument that makes the relative importance of different
claims clear. And we don’t quite judge an argument by its truth; we judge an argument by its validity.
When we apply the term ‘valid’ to an argument we mean that its premises (the claims of its
evidence and any general assumptions) are consistent and that false conclusions are not inferred from
true premises. Of course if the claims of an argument — the premises together with any conclusions
— are inconsistent then that implies that they are not all true. The argument may be making a valid
inference from false premises to a false conclusion, or it may be making an invalid inference from true
premises to a false conclusion. Ordinarily we are inclined to judge a narrative in terms of coherence
rather than validity, because we read it as an immense conjunction of claims and we a not inclined to
analyse it into its premise and conclusion structures. An incoherent narrative does not hang together,
or at least that is one way in which we ordinarily experience the incoherence of historical narrative,
which is especially concerned with stringing a series of events together in some clear temporal and
perhaps causal sequence. We think a story is doing pretty well if it spins a coherent thread, and we are
likely to encounter disagreement within the discipline of history as a war of coherent narratives.
Validity seems to imply more than just coherence though; it is not just about a conjunction of
consistent claims, it is about inference.
The way to demonstrate that a narrative’s claims are inconsistent is to show that valid
inferences from them yield false conclusions. The problem then is to work out which of the claims is
false and whether it is false because there is an invalid argument. Maybe a false premise is asserted
explicitly within the narrative, in which case the argument may be valid. Or maybe an argument is
invalid and its conclusion just does not follow from the premises or the evidence? Or maybe we can do
no better than discover that false conclusions result when we, the readers, test the consistency of the
narrative’s explicit claims by working out for ourselves what follows from those claims.
It is not always possible to judge which of a set of inconsistent claims is the false one. Almost
any two statements can turn out to be consistent. I can say that the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbour was a
success for the Japanese military, and I can also say it was a disaster. It depends on whether I am
thinking short term or longer term. ‘This was sometime a paradox’ as Hamlet said ‘but now the time
gives it proof.’ The problem of deciding which particular claims must take the rap of falsehood when a
system as a whole is inconsistent is well known in the sciences, where checking one another’s
premises begins with checking one another’s observations. Scientists in most cases are reluctant to
deem false a claim, such as the general claim of a theory, upon the truth of which the truth of many
other claims depends. They are much more ready to cast doubt on particular observations than
conclude the negation of the crucial theory.
Historians reveal their character as scientists by being likewise quite ready to cast doubt on
particular observations. Sometimes there are conflicting accounts of events, especially in the case of
conflicting interpretations and thus inconsistent identifications of the same action. And as in all the
sciences, in history there is very often a practical lack of observations. Events of interest have not been
observed or if they have, no account of them has been made or if it has been made it has not survived.
This is exacerbated in all the historical sciences by the lack of repeatability of observation. In the
general sciences events of a kind can be repeated in the laboratory. Since history is, of all the sciences,
most interested in events in their utter uniqueness, the identity of events that have not been observed or
that have been dubiously reported has to be inferred. And in order to infer just what has happened
historical narrative about unobserved events frequently relies on general assumptions, in much the
same way that we rely on general assumptions to identify actions. Because of the contentiousness of
the human sciences, of historical science, of folk sociology and of folk psychology, historians, unlike
most scientists, are mostly as ready to cast doubt on general assumptions as they are on isolated
observations. These assumptions may be playing the role of theories that are crucial to historians’
arguments but often much less hangs on their being true than hangs on the theories of the general, non-
human sciences. The burden of empirical falsification in the sciences, though it is tried first on isolated
observations, is, failing that, nearly always distributed over many claims and hedged in the language
of probability. The risk of empirical falsification is even more widely and evenly distributed over the
claims of a history, and even more hedgingly hedged.
It gets worse though. The problem of deciding which claims are false is made intolerable by
the practice of narratives not making all their premises or for that matter all their conclusions explicit.
In turn the entailment relation of claims to one another are not always explicit either. Beyond some

complexities of grammar and difficult definitions, each step in a fully spelt out valid argument should
be as obvious as a truth like ‘Julia Gillard won the 2010 election or Julia Gillard did not win the 2010
election’: p or not p. But in a narrative there are lots of inferential leaps. And none of this, by the way,
need affect the coherence of the narrative’s explicit claims.
Because a narrative is such a gappy and loosely connected set of claims its validity cannot be
simply judged as the strict logical validity may in an argument in which every claim is explicit and
every inferential step clear. Validity in the strict logical sense would, in the case of a narrative, depend
on filling in the gaps with claims chosen to make the narrative valid. Now there is a principle of
charity in all communication, according to which listeners or readers of viewers will grant that an
argument is valid and then try to work out how that affects the meaning and what unstated
assumptions must be granted in order to render the argument valid. A typical situation where we do
this is when watching a film in which we are quite ready to accept that each shot is actual footage (at
least in the case of historical narrative, in fiction we watch each shot as if it were actual footage) and
somehow consistent with all the others, but in which we haven’t a clue how all the shots hang
together. Like wise we may be quite ready to accept the truth of a series of written reports of a number
of different statements made by different people, even though the statements reported are inconsistent
and we cannot figure how they all go together. Human communication as such depends on this, and
without it what we call communication would be nothing but a system of radical incomprehension. 29
But charity will only stretch so far, especially among contenders. Contention begins where charity
ends. Logical validity, where the whole argument is spelt out, is not a matter of degree. 30 The validity
of a narrative is. The fewer claims we have to supply, and the less contentious they are, the more valid
the narrative. Narratives that stick to particular descriptions of acts and events so far as they may be
empirically observed, that don’t indulge in elaborate explanations (which often involve speculative
claims or unsubstantiated assumptions) and that leave their inferences up to their readers are more
likely to avoid the pitfalls of invalid argument. Historical claims that exceed the evidence of
observation or of documents, or that rely on assumptions that are not subject to examination weaken
the validity of an historical narrative.
They need not however render the claims of the narrative inconsistent. We might use the term
‘coherent’ of a narrative in which all the explicit claims are consistent. Validity is a stronger claim,
perhaps too strong for the structure of a narrative, but coherence is not always strong enough. We
can’t ignore the chain of implication used by a narrative. As a compromise we might be tempted to use
the word plausible rather than valid, but plausibility implies mere speciousness, which is fatal in the
context of historiography, and it probably doesn’t really pass muster in good fiction either.

Now to return to a couple of questions that came up when I was thinking about the narrative
theories of Mink and White. The descriptions of events in an historical narrative inter-animate. Events
take place in a temporal and causal context and a narrative argument is especially interested in using
the descriptions of events to make or suggest conclusions about their temporal and causal relations.
However we identify events by their temporal and causal features, so we need to see what effect the
narrative as a whole has on our understanding of and our identification of the component events.
Human perception and grammar carves our ontology of events and objects out of the raw manifold of
experience, but we carve it at its narrative joints. An action may be undertaken with one intention and
described accordingly, but its consequences may bequeath the act a new description. Actions exceed
the intentions of those who act, those who describe them and those who interpret the descriptions.
Actions start a flow of consequences each of which can take its place in a narrative and each of which
can redefine the original action. An act may be one day a shooting and intended to stop there. When
its victim dies the next day the act becomes a murder and by the time war ensues it becomes an act of
war, or the first act of a war. In this sense the truth of a description depends on the validity of the
narrative argument. Whether told by different historians or at different times, the narrative can change
and with it the description and meaning of an act and with that the truth-value of the narrative’s
claims. Although it’s arrogant or condescending to think we can know more about the past as it
disappears further into the obscurity of the past, only we latecomers get to know the past by its
In answer to the questions I raised earlier: Do different narratives alter the events or indeed the
facts themselves? Wrong question. Such a question only occurs to the literal-minded souls who

imagine that narrative is imaginative reconstruction and that a reconstruction can only be true of a
reconstructed world. It only makes sense for a naïve correspondence theory of linguistic truth, 31 one
that assumes that statements correspond to bits of the world called facts and that a different narrative
must therefore correspond to a different world made up of different facts.
Can there be different or conflicting narratives that plot the same events? Yes, but only loosely
speaking. It is possible I suppose, but unlikely, that the compound of all the events described in one
narrative is identical to the compound of all the events in a second narrative. In terms of the spatio-
temporal concept of events, the compound event is a giant Lego combination of the component events
in either narrative. Otherwise and usually, different narratives may be about the same events described
differently or carved at different joints, but to that extent they won’t be exactly the same events. They
carve the events at slightly different causal and spatiotemporal joints. Such narratives may be asserted
in contention with one another, and their claims may be inconsistent with one another, yet they may
each be valid. Effectively, every narrative is unique in its selection of events. Stories are made not
found, but good stories effectively carve history, as it were, at its joints, so they look as though they
were found. They are arguments though, not facts.

Postscript on Some of the Sins of Historical Narrative

History is supported by evidence, the documents: primary sources, secondary sources. Its
claims have to be consistent. They have to be coherent. If you want imaginative reconstruction merely
plausible detail is not, by consistency criteria, well enough supported; for plausible statements are not
consistent with the principle that lack of evidence to the contrary, is not equivalent to evidence of
confirmation. Plausible events are at best probable or not unlikely, at worst merely possible. Plenty of
historians and biographers have ignored this, not by filling in details by valid inference but by making
them up for affect or for a ‘good story’ or for tendentious purposes, and neglecting to attach a caveat.
They can only excuse themselves by claiming their use of licence was manifest to readers and that
readers should be able to distinguish plausible embellishment from well supported claims.
We strike this kind of problem when Thucydides writes up the speeches of Pericles and others.
As he acknowledges, he reconstructs them from reports and memory. At best the speeches accurately
quote certain passages, and whatever their other failings, they survive as the genuine works of
Thucydides, if not of Pericles. The trouble is that their historical reputation derives from their being
the words of Pericles rather than from their being genuine survivals of the action the Greek
commander-turned-contemporary historian: Thucydides. Otherwise, assuming they cover the same
topics as the originals, they might also resemble the originals, at least so far as they are set pieces in
the contemporary style. But as historiography they still only amount to a kind of historical recreation
and to that extent fall short of the truth. They suffer from the same kind of problem that imperils the
truth of historical films which, for want of actual footage, depict historical events by staging and
filming re-enactments. 32
Other historians betray the falsity of invention by the generic symptoms that give away the
merely entertaining and the plausible. Macaulay’s description of Mary, the wife of James II of
England, fleeing from Whitehall is quoted by John Burrows 33 , who recognizes what he calls a
Victorian genre scene: ‘Beauty in Distress’.

Lauzon gave his hand to Mary; Saint Victor wrapped in his warm cloak the ill-fated heir of so many
kings. The party stole down the back stairs and embarked on an open skiff. It was a miserable voyage.
The night was bleak; the rain fell; the wind roared; the waves were rough; at length the boat reached
Lambeth; and the fugitives landed near an inn, where the coach and horses were waiting. Some time
elapsed before the horses could be harnessed. Mary, afraid that her face might be known, would not
enter the house. She remained with her child, cowering for shelter from the storm under a tower of
Lambeth Church, and distracted by terror whenever the ostler approached her with his lanthorn. (Ch.

Genuine Victorian prose, genuine Victorian historiography, but not entirely true of the events
of the seventeenth century. Apart from the untruth, the pity is that this kind of writing robs truly
moving facts of their hard won historical significance, the quality that inspired the maxim that truth

was stranger than fiction. If it’s true that Mary’s was ‘distracted by terror whenever the ostler
approached her with his lanthorn’, the pathos of such detail, is lost among the details supplied by
generic inventions.
And of course there are all those disputed histories in which detail that is not inferable from
evidence is slipped into over determined interpretation of actions. Was that a hearty handshake of
Mark Latham’s or an aggressive crush of John Howard’s hand? Plausible embellishment robs
ambiguities of the historical fact of their ambiguity.
Similar problems threaten so-called faction — those popular works about actual people and
events written as literary histories or biographies. They can be such a hybrids of fact and fiction that
they are almost historical novels. John Bryson’s Evil Angels about Lindy and Richard Chamberlain
and the death of their baby daughter Azaria is a good example. When Lindy Chamberlain was asked
(208) at the first coroner’s inquest, what she would say about the baby’s singlet being found inside
out, her reply was ‘I would only be surmising’. When pressed to make a supposition she said ‘I prefer
to deal in facts.’ In the same chapter — and throughout the book Bryson himself deals in surmise. The
magistrate at the same inquest, Denis Barritt, is reported to have ‘wondered’, and been ‘glad’. Yet to
report wondering and being glad, unless the report is backed by personal testimony, is to surmise.
Bryson himself says ‘Who could tell what was deep in any human heart?’ Bryson also describes so
many little incidental events throughout the book that I suspect (here I am surmising) that many of
them, especially those that do not relate directly to salient forensic detail, are used for novelistic
purposes (entertainment, scene setting, atmosphere, tendentiousness), and they have the hollow ring of
generic detail. These are the weakest parts in a good book. The historical events were telling enough.
Novelistic embellishments, in pursuit of plausibility don’t only fail as history, they fail as
fiction, which has its own high standards of truth, standards more rigorous than the slackness of
‘plausibility’. The embellishments are present as slackening in the urgency of the story. The talent for
faction’s plausible embellishment, and the genius for historical truth and narrative validity are quite
different. The material, the evidence and the author’s performance must be perfectly, happily matched.
While reporting how Lindy Chamberlain shows up the justice system with her own regard for the
facts, Bryson is writing a narrative peppered with descriptions in which persuasive purpose but not
forensic or historical purpose rules. Bryson reports Lindy Chamberlain’s comment that one misguided
journalist, a seemingly rare one who was trying to be as kind as possible, ‘tried to get the message
over to her readers, without necessarily being correct’.
Janet Malcolm’s 34 , or Helen Garner’s 35 accounts of actual events are much less open to this
observation because they report for the most part through their own experience of what is objective.
They are true or false as accounts of experience. They might be wrong about events, but at least as far
as we are aware they are only reporting sincerely from their experience. Of course, at its most abused,
this kind of reportage can be used as a smoke-screen to smuggle in untruth — I understand Garner did
this when she rolled a number of people into fewer characters in The First Stone — and of course at
best there is always, as both Malcolm and Garner warn, a certain unreliability to this kind of first
person reportage, both the unreliability of first person self-authentication and of the generic roles
exploited by a first person reporter.
Even so, each endures, like any history, as a vestige of its author’s performance. It is as
performances, rather than as narratives about others actions that, in Oakeshott’s words, ‘the question
‘Is it true?’ cannot arise’. The primary question that comes up is ‘Is it genuine?’ For this reason I
usually find autobiography more satisfying than biography. Autobiography is routinely slated as
fiction pretending to be fact, an accusation that is supposed to mark whoever makes it as knowing. But
autobiography comes with the pathos of the author’s action and experience. And even though the truth
of its claims is secondary we truly witness the autobiographical action of their author. Biography
purports to tell us directly what actually happened. The action of the writer is supposed to be
transparent. I find this is far too often not the case. A truly historical take on biography cannot ignore
Oakeshott’s observation: the biography comes to us primarily as the act of the biographer, and instead
of transparency we see the duplicitous biographer misting things up like a mediocre haze. Through the
haze we might discern a caricature of the subject. No wonder that biographers from Plutarch to
Johnson and ever since tend not to be regarded as proper historians 36 .

Just as the impossibility of certain knowledge should and need never have led sceptics,
fledgling or jaded, to the conclusion that truth was a deeply flawed concept or a myth, none of these
failures reveals any profound or unavoidable problems with historical narrative. None of them implies
the impossibility of historical truth or the inevitability that truth in narrative need be sacrificed to
imaginative reconstruction.

If I had to pinpoint where a lot of embarrassment about truth might have come from, I’d take a stab and say
from misreading or reading about Nietzsche. In e.g. Beyond Good and Evil in amongst all the quaint stuff about
supposing ‘that truth is a woman — what then?’ and the embarrassing Nietzschean jokes about ‘the gruesome
seriousness and clumsy importunity’ that philosophers have tried on Truth being no way to win a woman, there
was a point: He’d rightly had enough of too much solemn rabbiting on about truth. The trouble since has been
that all too many secondary commentaries, required reading, passing remarks, term essays, idle putdowns and,
for that matter, solemn rabbiting on, took, in a word, to ‘critiquing’ truth, not just truth misused but truth as such,
and they forgot or never got N’s point, even if they remembered to cite his cachet. For that critical honer of truth
was looking for something good enough to be his standard: ‘From the senses originate all trustworthiness, all
good conscience, all evidence of truth.’ So the critiquing passed into pop academic consciousness with truth
becoming a concept for those sort of in the know to shake their heads at, and a word to pussy foot around. Even
worse though, the rabbiters-on against those dreaded postmodernists fashioned truth dumpers as their straw
dummies (Footnote: This was all an historical process, by the way, a process of fashion, rumour and Chinese
whispers in pop philosophy. While contend that that is the kind of historical process it was, I am willing to admit
Prime Ministers can come and go before an essay is finished. Readers can make the relevant adjustments of
tense or timeframe.
There is another argument against correspondence that originated with Frege. It works by demonstrating that all
true sentences stand for or denote or refer to, that is, correspond to, the same thing. Frege called this thing the
True. In other words a true sentence doesn’t designate only those working parts of the fact. This is called the
slingshot argument because it’s simple and deadly. Some would say, that, like the liar paradox, it’s too simple
and deadly not to cast doubt on the foundations of the logic that it is based on. For more on this see ‘Screen
We can use Bertrand Russell’s rules for definite descriptions.
I am thinking of the title of Frederic Jameson’s The Prison-House of Language
See ‘Truth and Meaning’ by Donald Davidson in The Essential Davidson, (Ernie Lepore and Kirk Ludwig eds),
Oxford, Clarendon Press, 2006 (155-170)
‘Truth and Meaning’, 160.
Although the logic of narrative is a major concern of this essay I will not explicitly be returning to Tarski’s
theory. It does however appear with a vengeance in the essay History, The Movie, in the context of my attempts
to understand the logic of film and video.
Louis O. Mink, 1978, ‘Narrative form as a Cognitive Instrument’ in The Narrative and History Reader
(Geoffrey Roberts ed.), London, Routledge, 2001 (211-220)
Louis O. Mink, 219
Ann Curthoys and John Docker, Is History Fiction? Sydney, UNSW Press, 2006 (11):
Hayden White, ‘Historical Text as Literary Artefact’, 222, in The Narrative and History Reader (Geoffrey
Roberts ed.), London, Routledge, 2001 (221-236)
Hayden White, ‘Historical Emplotment and The Problem of Truth’ 1992, 375, in The Narrative and History
Reader (Geoffrey Roberts ed.), London, Routledge, 2001 (375-389)

Hayden White, ‘Historical Text as Literary Artefact’, 226,
See Northrop Frye’s The Anatomy of Criticism
Hayden White, ‘Historical Emplotment and The Problem of Truth’, 376
Richard Evans, In Defence of History, London, Granta Books, 1997 (252), in turn from Peter Novick’s That
Noble Dream: The ‘Objectivity Question’ and The American Historical Profession, Cambridge, 1998 (6)
Footnote: I have serious doubts that there is any other kind of history, but maybe I don’t share the narrow
notion of narrative that limits it to only conventional kinds of storytelling. I think any representation of any set of
events is narrative.
Richard Evans (252) in turn from Thomas L. Haskell, ‘Objectivity is not Neutrality: Rhetoric and Practice in
Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream’, in History and Theory, vol. 29 (1990), 129-57, (132)
‘The narratives of the world are numberless’ wrote Roland Barthes at the start of his essay ‘Introduction to the
Structural Analysis of Narratives’ and, after a list demonstrating some of its ‘prodigious variety’, asked ‘Must
we conclude from this universality that narrative is insignificant? Is it so general that we can have nothing to say
about it except for a modest description of a few highly individualised varieties?’ This still fills me with wonder.
I still remember reading it and heading off into this great wilderness of myths, jokes, plays, anecdotes, news
items, movies, novels, histories, looking for the wonder’s source. It is a marvel, narrative. As a philosophical or
scientific topic, it is curious how it had lain dormant, almost neglected, ever since Aristotle’s Poetics had had
sort of the last word on it. Then it dazzled theorists for most of the twentieth century, from, let’s say, the Russian
Formalists through the French Structuralists to the postmodern academic diaspora. There emerged a Babel of
orthodoxies, arcane and systematic accounts of narrative derived from inspired writings by the likes of Freud,
Propp, Bakhtin, Frye, Barthes, Todorov, Genette, Ricoeur, Deleuze, etc, writings that, in their half-arty, half-
scientific, half philosophical ways were intended to resist the very systematics of secondary elaboration that the
academy up and supplied, and that, in the confusion, preserved the much valued mystique, and therefore, for
most, didn’t much clarify the phenomenon, thus being, in the end, I suppose loyal to Barthes’ rhetorical question.
See James Boswell’s The Life of Dr Johnson (A.D. 1763, Ætat. 54)
Penny Russell in ‘Almost Believing: The ethics of historical imagination’ in The Historians Conscience,
Stuart Macintyre ed., Melbourne, 2004, Melbourne University Press, 106-117 (107)
Benedetto Croce 1962, History as the Story of Liberty. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1961. Translated by
Sylvia Sprigge from ‘La Storia’. p.89. As Croce points out, Ranke’s objectivity was marked by Bismarkian
conservatism and racial interpretation of historical processes.
Janet Malcolm 2007, Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 171
Louis O. Mink, 217
See History The Movie for an account of how shots work as propositions or truth claims in film and video
narrative. Precisely what a proposition is is a moot point. In language and logic it is usually used to mean
something like the meaning of a sentence or what a sentence claims. It arises from the common sense, though
unreliable intuition that two sentences can have the same meaning and thus make the same truth claim, and that
this equivalence of truth claim implies that the two sentences express the same proposition. However I use the
term not to refer to the same meaning despite the difference of one sentence from another, but the same use (that
of making truth claims) despite the difference of a shot from a sentence. Equivalence of meaning is dubious
enough when speaking of different sentences. It is dubiouser when speaking of a sentence and a shot.
This grain of salt need consist in no more than taking the dubious claim or its negation — the necessarily true
disjunction — as part of the big conjunction. For thoughts on some such a thing as a principle of charity see note
29 below.

Lyndall Ryan and Henry Reynolds, though they make estimates in their histories of Tasmania, don’t seem to
regard the figure as a vital premise of their narratives. Keith Windschuttle seems to think they did or that they
should have. However they didn’t make or need to make high estimates to feed any high dudgeon. What is more
important for both Ryan and Reynolds is the almost complete loss of the culture of Aboriginal Tasmanians by
death and dispossession at the hands of Europeans; and the survival and subsequent recovery despite such loss.
The ‘principle of charity’ or related notions are beyond the scope of this essay. The recognition that at some
level communication depends on mutual cooperation in the reading of one another’s intentions has been around
as long as philosophy. As Aristotle concluded in his search for first principles ‘even in overturning the logos one
remains under the logos’ (Metaphysics 1006a). Not only charitably but by necessity we begin by granting that
the tellers of narratives are using logic in their stories. To grant that an interlocutor’s argument is valid is no
more than granting that the interlocutor’s argument structure is a logical truth, and this is no more than granting
that each shares the same system of logic. Deviant logics or non-logics won’t do. Without logic all bets are off.
By its lights we can eventually decide whether the historian is right or wrong.
Though I have hesitated to call a narrative as a whole true, it is possible to speak of a valid argument as a
logical truth if we are prepared to write it out in one big sentence We can write out all our assumptions and the
trail of their implications in a single complex sentence, and that sentence will be true or false. If our argument is
valid then the sentence we construct must be a logical truth. I use the term ‘logical truth’ for a single sentence
made up of component or simple sentences, which by its logical structure is always true. In other words it is a
sentence from which we get only truths when we substitute sentences, in our case our assumptions, for its simple
sentences. For a better explanation of this look at any logical primer.
See History The Movie for the differences between film and linguistic historiography.
See History The Movie
Quoted in John Burrow, 2007. A History of Histories, London, Allen Lane, p. 373
In books such as The Journalist and The Murderer, The Trial of Sheila McGough, and also in her literary
biographies of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, and Anton Chekov.
In books such as The First Stone, and Joe Cinque’s Consolation
Burrow, for instance, hesitates to include Plutarch in his History of Histories.