This quote arises a seemingly simple question that has sparked a huge furore in contemporary historical thought, what is fact? Recent challenges to the validity and certainty attached to fact has divided the historical community. The vast majority of historians do not dispute that such events as the collapse of the Berlin Wall occurred; they simply challenge the embedded opinion and interpretation that has corrupted the actual reality of what really occurred. This postmodern approach to facts is succinctly declared by Jenkins, a leading postmodernist of our age.He accepts the given facts of a situation he simply questions the ‘weight, position, combination and significance they carry vis-i -vis each other in the construction of explanations. ‘1 So if this particular branch of postmodernism embraces the validity of facts, the nexus of the debate seems to revolve around the use of facts in constructing an interpretation of a specific event.Though this would seem most similar to the stance of modernists in the creation of interpretation one must appreciate the different ways these two schools approach the nature of factual understanding and utility.
This is manifested in the different lights each interpretation holds of history itself.This is a fundamental difference that affects the way the way that historians use and interpret these facts and to what end they are used for. Modernists believe that truth can be achieved by an empirical approach to the discipline, being able to analyse and interpret these facts with a neutrality and lack of empathy that hindsight bestows upon us. As such history can be seen as the eternal strive towards reconstructing the past as it actually happened.This involves encompassing every generation’s own interpretation of the particular facts at hand, whoever this proves impossible until the end of history (which despite Mr Fukuyama’s claims has not occurred yet). Most modernists therefore accept that the whole truth is unattainable though one should see ‘truth as a goal’2 to aim towards. This is wholly different to the concepts of postmodernism which preach that truth is impossible due to the entrenched bias and interpretation that every individual and society invests into aparticular fact their own meaning as well as the meaning the author of the fact wished to invest into it themselves.
As regards to truth, they argue ‘there can never be one privileged position from which the past can be told’3. Postmodernists tend also make an important distinction between history and the past. They see the past as a an event that occurred that facts arise from, however history is the attempt to interpret and assign meaning to these facts in order understand the causes of these events. However the shifting social values and normsthat infiltrate the meaning of these facts and create a huge number of historical interpretations prevent one from ever truly finding the truth.
Instead historians should seek to question existing interpretations and the facts themselves. By the separation of history from the past they are clearly underlining the postmodernist reality that truth is unattainable due to the highly questionable reliability of facts. This leads onto one of the central points of the question, how does one determine what a fact is?Again the division withinhistoriography itself proposes two answers to the same question. It would be easy to categorise a fact as a simple record of an event. However this is a totally unacceptable definition and does not touch on the vast implications that the use and source of a fact have on its utility. A fact takes many forms ranging from eye-witness accounts to economic trends to pictures; it is here that we must make the distinction between a fact and historical fact. A historical fact is one that can be used to explain recreate or interpret the past.
For instance, the fact that Tony Blair has green eyes is wholly irrelevant to interpreting history but the fact that he led Britain into war against Iraq and Afghanistan is of great importance. Any fact that can be used to support, undermine or effect our historical understanding and interpretation of an event can be classed as a historical fact, and it is this branch of fact that we are most concerned about. Accompanying this issue of identifying facts is the question of how to use it and its reliability and validity.
Perhaps the simplest definition of how a fact is used is that of Stanford. That ‘facts are what statements (when true) state: they are not what statements are about. ‘5 This shows that facts alone can only give us a fractured and narrow narrative of history.
In order to mean anything they needed to be combined with judgement in order to link and establish the ‘larger patterns that connect’6. It is this over view of the multitude of facts that modernists believe allows them to reconstruct the past and reach their apogee of a truly truthful interpretation.