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What Do Historians Argue About?

C. Behan McCullagh
History and Theory
Vol. 43, No. 1 (Feb., 2004), pp. 18-38
Published by: Wiley for Wesleyan University
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3590741
Page Count: 21
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What Do Historians Argue About?
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Abstract

Those who think that general historical interpretations do no more than express a personal point of view deny that arguments over their credibility can have any point. They commonly believe that historians decide upon particular facts about the past in the context of a general interpretation of those facts. Consequently they deny that there is any independent basis for judging the credibility of general interpretations of the past, and conclude that each coherent account is as good as every other. Similarly, those who think causal explanations are arbitrary can make no sense of arguments about their adequacy. They assume that historians simply pick out causes that interest them, and that there is no objective basis for judging the adequacy of the explanations they provide. This essay defends the credibility of interpretations against the skeptics, and the adequacy of causal explanations too. It shows that historians do discover a mass of particular facts independently of the general interpretations they finally provide, facts that provide a basis for assessing the credibility and fairness of those interpretations. It will also show that there is an objective basis for judging the adequacy of causal explanations, as some causes of an event are far more influential in bringing it about than others. A much more difficult problem concerns the need for historical interpretations to provide not just a credible account of the past, but also one that is fair, balanced, not misleading. Historians frequently argue about the fairness of general interpretations. Does this mean that fairness is always required? Quite often historians produce partial interpretations, in both senses, with no apology. It would be wrong to call such interpretations "biased" because they do not pretend to be comprehensive. So long as they are credible, they are acceptable. On the other hand, many interpretations are intended to present a fair, comprehensive account of their subject. When judging the adequacy of interpretations, it is necessary to know whether they are meant to be fair or not.

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