History and the Truth

Is one interpretation of the past as good as another?


Not many historians would accept the idea that one interpretation of the past is as good as another.  By and large the belief that the historian can be completely objective and impartial has been abandoned. E.H. Carr (see Different Perspectives on History) represents the contemporary approach that we can only understand the past in the light of the present and we can only understand the present in the light of the past and that the purpose of history is to help us understand the society of the past and to increase our control over our present society. He sees history as an “unending dialogue between the present and the past.”  Historians now realise that it is not possible to transcend their own time.  The force of the irrational and the complexities of human psychology are now more fully appreciated and undermine deterministic and predictive viewpoints. The idea that history is pure chance is as unacceptable as the idea that it is totally the result of individual behaviour: the truth lies somewhere in between, in an interaction between men and circumstances.  Every historian is a product of his own time. The twentieth century has seen an emphasis on economic interpretations as well as borrowing from the social sciences and attempts at psycho-analytical interpretations. E.H. Carr writes that ‘man’s capacity to rise above his social and historical situation seems to be conditioned by the sensitivity with which he recognises the extent of his involvement in it’ and warns against the temptation of the historian ‘to think of himself as an eagle surveying the scene from a lonely crag or as a V.I.P. at the saluting base. Nothing of the kind! The historian is just another dim figure trudging along in another part of the procession. 


E.P. Thompson believed that historians must not be afraid to pass judgements. In reply to Philip Bagby’s recommendation that ‘we first put aside all moral considerations before we try to understand the past’, Thompson argued that moral judgements were unavoidable. For example, he has no hesitancy in his classic ‘The Making of the English Working Class’ of entering the ‘condition of living argument’ and he passes judgements such as ‘the exploitation of little children on this scale and with this intensity was on the most shameful events in our history.’  Thompson re-wrote the period 1780-1832 from below and is an excellent example of how a generation re-writes history. Marwick emphasises that although ultimate truth is not possible, historians have a duty to strive towards it and that historical controversy (revisionism) leads to a greater understanding.  Each generation has to re-interpret the past as it strives towards a greater understanding of the world in which it finds itself.


The past cannot just be described; all history is interpretation. To deliberately ‘use’ the past is a corruption of history.  Yet it is true to say that history is useful. It gives us perspective and reduces the likelihood of our becoming the victims of our own ignorance. The purpose of studying the past is not to accumulate historical information, but to develop judgement and understanding. The historian has a creative role in helping us towards greater understanding of the past and the present, and to fulfil this role successfully one in interpretation of the past is not as good as another.