Saturday, July 20, 2013

What Are Historical Facts (pt II)

I trust everyone has had occasion to read Becker!  Honestly, if you haven't, you should.  It's a brilliant paper.

When last we met with Julius Caesar, he was standing on the banks of the Rubicon, about to become a traitor, and set in motion one of the most important transformations in the history of the Western world.  This crossing, make no mistake, was a big deal.  Few are the moments, particularly in antiquity, that we can define so neatly, so distinctively, as changing the world.

Let's leave him there a moment longer.

Peter Novick, in The Holocaust and Collective Memory (whose magnificent That Noble Dream: The 'Objectivity Question' and the American Historical Profession belongs on the shelf of anyone interested in philosophy of history), points out that the holocaust, as a concept, did not exist until the 1960s.  Strange, but apparently true.  He credits this to the cold war, and American desires to keep things civil with their ally, post-war Germany.

This doesn't mean that the holocaust didn't happen, or that nobody realized it happened until the 60s.  Quite the contrary, the horrors of Nazi Germany were well known.  But the single, overarching fact--the fact that encompasses the ten million lesser facts--did not exist.  The holocaust still happened, but the Holocaust, capital H, as a single historical fact is not a product of WWII, it's a product of the 1960s.

Strange, right?  Let's look at the fact a little more closely before we get back to Caesar.

In its simplest form, the Holocaust is the systematic murder of 6 million European Jews.  A horrible truth, but also a simple one.  Except it's not.  Because the fact represents more than that.  The Holocaust includes Auschwitz, Mengele, Hess, twin experiements, Anne Frank.  There are innumerable, smaller facts, all symbolized by this one, overarching, historical fact.

But there are, in fact, even more than that.  Because my list only includes facts that "matter," by which I mean are facts that exist as their own historical facts, each of which assumes its own connections.  There are virtually infinite facts that the historian doesn't care about, facts that don't matter to the historical narrative.  All contained in the one fact, the Holocaust, that didn't even exist until twenty years after the event.

There are two important things to draw from this:  First, an historical fact isn't an event in the past.  It's an affirmation about an event in the past.  The "historical fact," of the Holocaust, as a concept didn't exist when it happened.  It existed when it was affirmed as such.  And continues to exist as long as it is affirmed.  In other words, the past exists in the past.  Historical facts exist in the present, and then never cease existing (if an historical fact is wrong, it becomes an historical fact that this idea was part of this mindset at this time--the idea still existed, even if it wasn't true).

Secondly, historical facts are symbols.  The less a fact is symbolic, the less likely we are to be interested in it.  The statement of historical fact carries with it an implicit statement that this fact matters and the reasons why.

Let's get back to Caesar.

Caesar crossed the Rubicon.  We all know that that isn't the important part.  The important part is that he had an army with him.  In the words of Becker:

The Rubicon is a small river, and I do not know how long it took Caesar’s army to cross it; but the crossing must surely have been accompanied by many acts and many words and many thoughts of many men. That is to say, a thousand and one lesser “facts” went to make up one single fact that Caesar crossed the Rubicon; and if we had someone, say James Joyce, to know and relate these facts, it would no doubt require a book of 794 pages to present this one fact that Caesar crossed the Rubicon.

The simple statement, "Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49BCE" has implied all of these facts, the unimportant facts.  But they are nonetheless true.  No historian--ancient or modern (the former having had a legitimate chance to find out)--cares about these facts.  These historians include no less a figure than Caesar himself, who fails to mention the Rubicon at all in his Civil War.

But equally important is the implied facts that do matter.  The statement by itself means nothing.  Caesar crossed?  So what?  So, presumably, did thousands of others.  Like the Holocaust, it is a symbol.  It represents innumerable facts that do matter.  The Triumverate, Caesar's victory, the rise of Octavian, Sulla, Marius, more facts than I could hope to list here are all assumed by the simple statement that "Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49BCE." No historical fact is devoid of these assumptions.  If it was, it wouldn't matter, and we wouldn't care enough to call it an historical fact.

Next up, how utility affects historical truth.

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