- Nowadays there are many contested views of the nature of history. But it is virtually uncontroversial that much of what we would recognize as history consists of texts that, as “the father of history” puts it, “preserve the memory of the past by putting on record the . . . achievements of . . . peoples . . . .” What a text is might be even more controversial than what history is. But, again, we can surely sidestep this controversy by holding that some texts — indeed, some historical texts — comprise sentences that serve to “put on record,” and so are about, past objects and events. Herodotus’s own sentences of course never escaped controversy. Probably less than fifty years after they were made public Thucydides rather obliquely suggested that some of them were written without “tak[ing] trouble in finding out the truth. . . .” Thucydides’ criticism might be that, since there are doubts about the truth of Herodotus’s statements about the past, they are not good history; alternatively the complaint might be that they are not history at all. Thus, prima facie, the two topics of Sir Michael Dummett’s book under review are relevant to the nature of (some of what counts as) (good) history.
- But how exactly are they relevant? We can approach this by considering a question that Orwell has O’Brien press on Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four: “Is it your opinion . . . that the past has real existence2?” Does a negative answer not imply that there are no past objects or events? And if so, how could there be statements about such things? That is, if the past doesn’t exist, neither does history. Well, in response one might say that although O’Brien (thankfully) doesn’t really exist, Nineteen Eighty-Four does contain a number of sentences about him. But even if there are statements about the nonexistent, can such statements be true? Surely, in order for a statement to be true, the entities it is about have to be just as the statement describes them to be; how could this be so if there are no entities to be as the statement describes them to be? So if the past doesn’t exist, then there is no good history; in any event, history would be indistinguishable from fiction.
- Notice, however, that we’ve been thinking about the consequences of the past’s failure to exist at all, whereas O’Brien’s question is about the past’s “real existence.” He clarifies his question: “You are no metaphysician, Winston. . . . I will put it more precisely. Does the past exist concretely, in space? Is there somewhere or other a place, a world of solid objects, where the past is still happening?” To this question he elicits from Winston and evidently approves the answer that “the past exists . . . [i]n records . . . [a]nd . . . [i]n human memories.” So O’Brien’s avowedly metaphysical question is about the kind of existence possessed by the past, specifically, whether the past’s existence depends on the existence of memories, and so of human minds, or of records, and so of the products of human activities. The contrasting possibility is that the past exists somewhere in space, presumably independently of being remembered or recorded. These are ontological positions — respectively, idealism and realism about the past. Their implications for history might seem clear. If historical texts are records of the past, and the past’s existence is partly constituted by these records, then does history not, at least in part, constitute the past? Such idealism about the past seems to be O’Brien’s view; for him, since the Party controls history and memory, it controls the past. Perhaps it is also the view of some contemporary theorists of history.
- Is O’Brien right? How does one figure out the ontological status of the past? …
Review of "Dummett (Michael) - Truth and the Past".
Footnote 1: Truncated, maybe arbitrarily.
- This fascinating passage was brought to my attention by Crispin Wright’s “Anti-realism, Timeless Truth and Nineteen Eighty-Four,” in C. Wright, Realism, Meaning, and Truth, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993, 176-203).
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