Historians, in each epoch, in a slightly or grossly different way, are trained to reconstruct incidents of the past on the basis of critical interpretation of only partially available sources and their connections. That is what historians are trained and employed, paid and read for. It is not only by aiming at absolute knowledge, based on all the facts, that the historian can achieve objectivity, which, nevertheless, does not equal certainty. In principle, the serious historian can have access to enough documentary sources to base his or her claims on secure foundations.
Accuracy is the virtue of carefully investigating and deliberating over the evidence for and against a belief before asserting it. And sincerity is the virtue of genuinely expressing to others what one in fact believes—in the case of history—on the basis of facts.
- Emanuela Barasch Rubinstein.
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Writing history, in my view, is radically different from the positivistic conviction. The historian, unlike the detective, the police officer, the investigative journalist, the prosecutor or the judge, is not supposed to reconstruct—beyond reasonable doubt—the incidents of the past. This would be a mistaken expectation. Rather, the historian, following accurate and professional research, should demonstrate the inherently uncertain character of any representation of the past.
This claim has nothing to do with relativism: I am convinced that the historian should aim at unearthing historical truth. But the historical truth is that it is never possible to arrive at absolute reconstruction; uncertainty in historical reconstructions is an unavoidable part of the assertion of knowledge.
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In consequence of this unavoidable element of historical reconstruction, the historian cannot usurp the role of the judge, and would do better to stay away from general moral judgment too. Still, accurately researched and sincerely stated uncertainties might provide protection from the dangers of unreflexive conviction of historical certainty, the mother of narrow-minded preconceptions and intolerance.
Skeptics are more doubtful when the object of historical investigation is a figure of the recent past or a living person. The closer the historical actor in time, the more particular, the more complex, the less penetrable his or her motivations supposedly become; the task set for the historian is the more demanding, the closer we get to our present. Nevertheless, most of us, including the skeptics, living under the rule of law, accept the fact that judges, who deliver judgments of life and death, are entitled to administer justice although, as we know, not even the judge can ever be in possession of all the relevant facts.
The courts, weighing the deeds and motivations of contemporaries, naturally make mistakes; justice is not exempt from occasional miscarriage, but if the possibility of ever arriving at an intelligible reconstruction of past events were denied to the court, as it is so often questioned in the case of historical reconstruction, none of us would have the chance to live under the rule of law.
By definition, the historian is always late; he never arrives in time.
The historian arrives on the scene when the action is already irreversibly over; after everybody has taken their bets, and the immediate consequences of the act are already in existence. As the historian comes after the fact, he is in no position to intervene in a direct way, to change the course of events, to tell the protagonists what they should or ought to do.
The historian begins the story with the knowledge of its presumed end in mind.
The presumed endpoint of the story stipulates the starting point for the historical narrative. What ought to have happened—although it concerns the historian—is beyond his or her reach. The available and always partial sources attest only to what could have taken place. Long decades of mostly ideologically driven, centrally commissioned, and censored historical narratives in the service of continuously changing political needs have gravely undermined the credibility of historical work.
The loss of belief in the possibility of authentic historical reconstruction affects primarily the work of historians working on modern and recent historical events, but even medieval studies—as countless attempts after of constructing new Middle Ages in all the East and Central European countries testify—have not been spared blunt and wholesale revisionism.
Anything, even a retroactive historical miracle, might be possible, based on newly discovered relevant facts; the past should not forget the people of the new world who are waiting for an appropriate prehistory. The example of suddenly born-again conservative historians who—based on the very same sources—publish books with diametrically opposed vignettes, labels, classifications and conclusions to their previous works—turning enemies into martyrs, counterrevolutionaries into revolutionaries, former protagonists into antagonists—contributed to the loss of the aura of historical authenticity.
Probably, the most significant reason behind the epistemic doubts, however, is the newly experienced instability of the self. Except for the few truly courageous members of the democratic opposition, almost everybody had to make his or her smaller or graver compromises during the long decades of a rule that mocked and undermined the respect and self-respect of human dignity. Hiding behind the veil of historical particularism, the specificities of the partly unknown and unknowable historical circumstances that purportedly prevent any generalizable moral conclusion, is a byproduct of the post-transition predicament.
Historical arguments, in East and Central Europe, were used in the twentieth century, and even earlier, in deciding highly contested political issues. Insistence on the privileged nature of historical particularities has served to keep the space for politically charged arguments and counterarguments, accusations and counteraccusations, wide open. The issue of the former agent is an instructive case in point.
Large segments of the political left, especially the supporters of the successor parties, who, in the face of revelations, usually feel, at least indirectly, implicated, customarily play down the political, social and moral significance of the detected act, especially if the person involved has remained—at least nominally—broadly faithful to his or her former political allegiance. The charged atmosphere turns ethical utterances into purportedly political propaganda.
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Nevertheless, as human beings with ethical sensitivity and as researchers who use documents in which description is intermixed with value judgment, the historian cannot avoid taking an ethical stance. Historical memory operates in the present; it maintains that the past is not past but an aspect of the present that can and should be redressed. Historical memory craves for justice: either legal or moral or both. Historical memory is an inherently moralizing attitude to the events of the past. The question is particularly pertinent for the historian writing for a skeptical audience.
But if evaluations could be derived from facts, so that erroneous evaluations would be mere mistakes in inquiry and information-processing, then this line of differentiation would be breached. This assertion needs qualifications: as we know, unmediated access to extra-linguistic reality is unimaginable even in the natural sciences. Value-laden choice of theory, of experimental object, research method, and equipment mediate between observation, experimentation, and the formation of scientific hypotheses. Research even in the natural sciences presupposes epistemic values.
Although the claim that ontologically a historical fact pertains to extra-linguistic reality can, most probably, be defended, the historian is still not in an enviable position, being specifically in need of documents closely related to language—even in the case of images—in order to gain access to external reality. He resembles the good judge like a brother does. It must appear disinterested. For historians who have a genuine interest in the topic of their research, the object of their inquiry is not only a matter of fact but also a matter of concern; and ethics can be conceived as a system of interrelated concerns.
The historian is late and can report only what has already taken place.
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In a well-functioning world, historians are paid to uncover what lays buried in the past, to help discover who we are by making relevant events of the past intelligible in a way that is verifiable. Historians are in the business of the concrete, the named, the particular and not in that of explaining what makes an act just or unjust in a general sense. That task is left to others; privileged among them is the reader of the historical narrative. The solution, however, is not to oppose insistence on the particular with historical generalization.
Thick concepts—according to some philosophers—express an uneasy union of fact and value. All these concerns are not essential for the present discussion. As with other concepts that are not totally precise, marginal disagreements can indeed help to show how their use is controlled by the facts.
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Williams argues:. An insightful observer can indeed come to understand and anticipate the use of the concept without actually sharing the values of the people who use it. He cannot stand quite outside the evaluative interests of the community he is observing, and pick up the concept simply as a device for dividing up in a rather strange way certain neutral features of the world. The historian aims, rather, to grasp the specificities of the situation. But, as with some other concepts of theirs, relating to religion, for instance, or to witchcraft, he may not be ultimately identified with the use of the concept: it may not really be his.
Those concepts are suggestive: they keep the direction of the observation and description near the site of the action, closer to the ground, while behaving almost as if a local informer aided the work of the outside observer, who tries to make sense of the way in which the natives of different localities or times or minds are trying to give meaning to the actions of their world.
Sites include sentences, uttered or transcribed, always in a larger site of neighborhood, institution, authority, language. What the ethnographer is in fact faced with … is a multiplicity of complex conceptual structures, many of them superimposed upon or knotted into one another, which are at once strange, irregular, and inexplicit, and which he must contrive somehow first to grasp and then to render.
He confronts the same grand realities that others—historians, economists, political scientists, sociologists—confront in more fateful settings.
Small facts speak to large issues, winks to epistemology, or sheep raids to revolution, because they are made to. Anthropology provides the bridge for the historian.
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He made twenty-three films between and , before the fall of the Berlin Wall, was appointed director of one of the state-owned film studios, and professor at the Budapest Film Academy. He received the Kossuth Prize, the highest Hungarian decoration for an artist as early as Already in Lovefilm Szerelmesfilm , a Hungarian couple, who had been separated by the emigration of the young woman after the defeat of the revolution, meet in Paris and contemplate staying together, until finally the young man decides to leave his love and return to his home country, which is ruled by the restored communist regime.
That would not have been possible from abroad. Only he who finds contradiction between his world view and that of the regime irreconcilable. Among these are also included individuals who were not persecuted, who could have remained at home, but who could not remain at home precisely because they found the contradiction irreconcilable. The philosophers are wont to say that a man can be characterized by the relationship of his intellectual and moral qualities, but they sometimes forget that mind itself, risen to a higher sphere, can become a moral quality, that the highest stature of mind can be synonymous with the greatest goodness, objectivity, and nobility.
Even among the honorable exceptions there were many, in tortured Europe, who kept silent, rather than raise their voices in protest. Had he taken a passive attitude he could have remained the commanding figure of Hungarian—and European—music, for he could not have been denounced as a Kulturbolschewik, as a non-Aryan, or of inferior racial stock.
But he could relinquish the eminent position due to him with a smile; he could leave it cheerfully, hand it over to someone unworthy of the honor… This is how Edward Said, one of the most emblematic intellectual exiles of the past decades, understood and referred to it. In his collection of essays, Reflexion on Exile , he refers to it twice. According to Said, for Adorno the real intellectual is a permanent exile. Victor, Dante and Erich Auerbach.
Victor, the twelfth-century scholastic theologian who was born in Saxony but lived most of his life in the monastery of St. Victor in Paris, shows up in one of Auerbach last essays, Philology and Weltliteratur , which Edward Said translated together with his wife. The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is a foreign land [ perfectus vero cui mundus totus exilium est.
It is not hard to detect a combination of pride and distance as he [Auerbach] describes the emergence of Christianity in the ancient world as the product of prodigious missionary work undertaken by the apostle Paul, a diasporic Jew converted to Christ. But the difficulties were too great. As it was, I had to deal with texts ranging over three thousand years, and I was often obliged to go beyond the confines of my own field, that of the romance literatures.
I may also mention that the book was written during the war and in Istanbul, where the libraries are not well equipped for European studies.