Is History Fiction?

Written by Josh Berlyne. Edited by Anushka Minshull.

Is all history fiction? The question seems a joke, but it is a question I think should be taken very seriously. Currently there’s a trend in academic history, an ideology even, which assumes that history is objective, an assumption that the point of history is to discover some sort of truth about the past. This is a very dangerous assumption to make.

Recently, the discipline of history has thrown off its concern with metanarratives. There is no longer an urge to find an overarching theory which explains the progress of human society – Whig interpretations, Marxist interpretations and the like no longer hold much weight in academic circles. To find a grand explanation for the past and how it changes is to be intellectually dishonest, as people with such explicit ideologies inspect the past through a looking-glass which distorts and falsifies the historical record.

Ideologues, both politicians and intellectuals, have desperately (ab)used the past in an attempt to justify their own worldview. In so doing they ‘discover’ changes which never really happened, or they find reasons for events which weren’t really reasons at all.

The charge of dishonesty these historians receive would be justified if it were actually possible to discover truths about the past. But is this really possible? Is history’s purpose fact-finding, or is it therapeutic? Do we want to learn about the past, or do we want to learn from it?

In the 1993 documentary about Michel Foucault, Beyond Good and Evil, author Camille Paglia tells us, “As a scholar, I have total contempt for Foucault. He was a liar, and he was a fraud.” Paglia is speaking about what she believes to be Foucault’s historical dishonesty in his works on the history of madness and punishment.

Michel Foucault (15 October 1926 – 25 June 1984)

Foucault attacked the pervasive assumption that the humanising mission of modernity has resulted in moral progress, controversially writing that our treatment of the insane and the criminal has in some senses become worse in the last few centuries. Paglia seems to believe that Foucault had distorted the historical record for his own ends – rather than telling the truth, he told a fable disguised as the truth.

It seems to me that Paglia is missing the point. History is only ever a distortion of the past, and so Foucault’s own explicit distortion was no different. He merely sought to critique modern society for its narcissistic obsession with its oh-so-wonderful success story, ‘civilisation’. Foucault abandoned the widely-held belief that historical change, in the West at least, is some sort of civilising process to which we must swear faithful allegiance.

Yet how is history only ever a distortion of the past? What we see as having happened in the past exists only in our minds and in our culture – unlike the empty Vimto bottle which I see lying by my feet, the past cannot be experienced or seen. What does it mean to discover the truth about the past, without knowing the full, banal truth about every detail of the past?

The academic profession of history ignores the incredible complexity of human interaction, trying to reduce causation to short-term and long-term, economic and psychological, structural and personal. What we commonly think of as the truth relies upon so many factors that we could never dream of knowing them all. So how can we know the ‘truth’ without knowing the whole truth?

This is academic history’s greatest problem. I concede that we may be able to learn certain things about the past which accurately reflect what happened, but we have no way of truly verifying their accuracy. So is misrepresenting the past really any different from faithfully ‘representing’ it?

Even if we could know what happened, could we ever know why they happened? Pick up any history book and you will immediately notice that it isn’t simply an encyclopaedia of events that took place in the past. A history book will seek to explain the past, and not just discover the past but discover meaningful things about the past.

If we accept that this is the case, we must ask what it is to be meaningful. Something cannot be meaningful in and of itself, but it must have meaning to a particular person. Thus history exists in the present rather than the past, and anything meaningful it purports to discover about the past will be loaded with the ideology of what it is for something to be meaningful in the present.

If history’s mission is fact-finding, it would present us with an encyclopedia of events. If history’s mission is therapeutic, it would seek to explain the past in such a way that we can learn from and derive meaning from the past. I would argue that if we cannot truly know the past, history’s mission can only be therapeutic. If this is the case, history loses its unique value.

If the point of history is to find meaning and understanding which we can use in today’s world, then what makes it qualitatively any different from good fiction, or politics, or anything else which makes sense to us, teaches us and gives our lives meaning? While history may not be exactly the same as fiction, it might as well be.