Three Tests Of Truth In a court of law expert witnesses are required to demonstrate the truth “beyond reasonable doubt”. This is difficult for a ‘knower’, such as a historian, to be able to assert this at the witness stand. Let’s say that a young couple has just been married. The young couple stays together for a couple of months before they break up. When the two individually write reports on why the divorce is necessary, the judge is confused about the disparity between them.
Thus, he calls upon a historian who specializes in the history of certain marriages and divorces to act as an expert witness for this court case. The historian is given information on the case both first-hand by the husband and the wife as well as from some secondary sources. This historian’s job is to use his expertise to determine the truth of what really happened that caused the divorce of the couple. First and foremost, the historian knows that he must try to get as close to the objective truth as possible; he has to select a single set of data from groups of different information to construct a single truth, or’what really happened’. Since he is dealing with a modern case, as opposed to his usual account of a past divorce case, the historian is tempted to list all the data from the primary sources.
Fortunately, he remembers that listing all the different points of view is not more objective, simply because they may contradict. Regardless of the varying points of view, the past event only could have occurred in one way-that is the truth. Therefore, to say that the event transpired in many different ways that are all equally valid is no longer a search for single truth. As von Ranke said, “the historian’s task is to find out how it really was.” Consequently, the historian tries to ‘lift’ himself from the data. He also must remove his biases from the sources of the information.
For instance, he cannot be biased against the husband’s brother who backed into his brand-new convertible just a week ago. He must give the brother’s information the same treatment because it may be valuable. After achieving this, the historian can move on to the actual selection of the data. The historian’s next step is to use the correspondence test of truth by trying to find the certain data that is pretty well constant amongst all the information. This correspondence theory is the same one that is used in science, where scientists do different experiments; if their data is constant, then a scientific theory can be made about the data.
For example, when scientists did experiments on the reaction between iron and oxygen, they kept on producing the same rusty coloured substance: iron oxide. Thus, they are able to conclude that iron + oxygen = iron oxide is a truth. Like chemistry, history uses correspondence between data. Presuppose that all reports of the separated couple indicate that the husband did not remember his wife’s birthday and that she did not want children. What gives this data extra durability is that it was found in both the husband’s and the wife’s account, as well as in the secondary sources’ information.
Moreover, it makes indicative statements about why the divorce could have occurred. Therefore, it is possible to conclude with a measure of confidence that the statements are true beyond a reasonable doubt. Nevertheless, the historian questions his judgement and begins to think, ‘Does correspondence necessarily mean that the data is true?’ He immediately remembers his high school history class where he studied documents about the American Revolution written by people from the American and British sides. Although the data differed in many ways, there was a lot of consistency between the two sides. When considering the battle at Lexington Green, both sides contained consistent information: that there was a first shot, that the British shot at the Americans, and that the British killed a number of people.
However, in historical information from different sources, some data may be contradictory. In this case, there may have been a multitude of American sources which said that the first shot was British while there may have been only a few British sources available, all of which stated the opposite. One could say that because there is a larger degree of correspondence that the British shot first, that is must be true. But, that may not be correct in all instances. Hence, there must be other methods of deciding what is the truth in addition to correspondence. In the case of contradiction, the selection of data is much harder; the historian must extend his investigation.
Suppose there is conflicting data between the two sides regarding the issue of who’s turn it was to take out the garbage on the first Sunday of the first week of their marriage. Assume that the husband’s side claims that the garbage was the wife’s responsibility while the wife’s side claims that it was the husband’s responsibility. How does the historian choose who is being truthful if they are such direct contradictions? Here, the selection is much more personal. This process is parallel to the search for religious truth. The person himself has to get contradictory information from different sources and somehow select which data, or in some cases, which religion, is true.
One way that the historian can decide is by using his intuition; he might have a ‘feeling’ that one side is correct. Unfortunately, especially for this particular case, the historian cannot solely rely on his intuition. However, it can be used in co-operation with other sources of knowledge. The historian can also use reason. Perhaps it was absolutely preposterous that the wife be responsible for garbage duty because in the husband’s report, he had indicated that he was responsible for all of the physical work around the household. Thus, the historian could safely assume that the wife could not have been responsible and that the man was lying when questioned about the garbage problem. This procedure involves a coherent test of truth. That is, a test of whether the husband’s report was coherent in itself.
If it was not, then its details would be discredited as a reliable source of historical information. Again, although the historian cannot make an absolute judgement-there is always some level of doubt-reason is one of the more reliable ways of discovering truth in this particular case. Another way that he could select data is by using testimony. He could find her family doctor and ask whether the woman had been injured during the marriage in any way. This would indicate that the husband may have been physically abusive toward his wife.
This is also reliable, although can be a problem if there is doubt in the authoritative source. The last possible source of knowledge is empiricism. If the historian saw the wife’s leg in a cast, he could probably make a judgement as to how and when it happened. Although this way is very reliable for this specific case, it is not often possible in historical situations to actually observe the subjects concerned. In any case, these four sources of knowledge should be used in ‘ensemble’.
It is essential that the historian uses all of the possible strategies. When regarding a system of knowledge such as history where judgements must be made, there is a great importance in investigating all the possible techniques so that as much of the truth as possible can be recovered. Judging from this extensive process of finding the truth of what actually happened to this couple’s marriage, one can see why it may be difficult for this historian to be able to demonstrate the truth ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ at the witness stand. Historical truth in the essence of the concept, as also demonstrated by the historian’s process, is hard to find and is very difficult to be proven beyond reasonable doubt. This is because historical truth requires “the courage and self-confidence to make choices and, above all, to leave things out” in selection. This formula is very human and therefore, has many implications.
Human interpretation is pervasive in the search for truth, such that truth becomes part of the historian and part of human nature which contains intelligence, emotion, and beliefs in a single mind. Thus, we must have an enormous amount of faith in ourselves: in our ability to search and recognize the truth in things. Historical truth and knowledge, then, becomes tainted by its selective nature. One could say that history is defined by natural selection: history is determined by the past data’s ability to be selected, based on its capability to survive as truth in the human environment. All in all, historical truth is subject to a commensalism between past data and the contemporary historian; because of this, the discovery and expression of ultimate, untainted truth is impossible.
Like the one involved in the divorce case, then, the historian must rely on his ability to select facts and on the four ways of knowing in order to demonstrate the truth ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ as best he can, in all its difficulty. Bibliography Carr, E.H. What is History?. Middlesex, England: Penguin Books Ltd., 1984. Tuchman, Barbara.
In Search of History article: excerpt from Practicing History. Random Thoughts about History article: collection of quotations.