Once one has accepted the concept and varying definition of what constitutes a fact, one must begin to assign it meaning in order to base an interpretation upon.
Though as historians we must be aware that we are in a ‘continuous process of moulding our facts to our interpretation to our facts’7. This shows that even a prominent modernist such as E. H. Carr recognises the flexibility of facts in their use and abuse to justify a particular argument and the inevitable bias that interpretative predispositions have upon one’s own elucidation of the fact.
It is the different uses and meaning applied to the facts that leads to differing interpretations and hence historical debate. Without the empirical methods to determine the meaning of a fact, historians must rely on judgement. This can be found in two forms, one can accept the meaning of a fact embedded in an interpretative text8 or assign ones own meaning to a raw fact. Therefore every ‘historical document changes meaning with each authorial inference’9, as such the meaning of each fact shifts with the changing of its user.
However facts act as the gravitational certainty that interpretations revolve around, as they do not change in their content they can only be manipulated through the different meanings and interpretations that historians assign to them. This is the prerogative of the historian, to advocate a meaning and purpose to a fact that enable them to use it as evidence in supporting, explaining and justifying their own interpretative. However the selection of these facts in formulating interpretations is another contentious issue within the historical institution.Postmodernists have criticised as limiting the scope of historical interpretation to a limited, “centralised” body of facts at the expense of a more open and relative understanding of history.
They see this over reliance on a specific group of facts as a limiting and negative aspect of modern historical methods they are questioning the range and methods of usage of facts. Postmodernists also criticise the acceptance of facts which have been inherently tainted by the water mark of the shifting tide of economic, social and political ideals and values.If we should prove too keen to assimilate all facts in an attempt to reconstruct the past precisely we will be left with ‘eager intellectuals building emotional superstructures over events that had never happened’10 a George Orwell has warned, showing that there is great scope and reason for challenging the use and type of facts historians rely on. Conversely when one looks for examples to support Carr’s claim in the title there is an excess of historical debates that focus on similar facts yet achieve a number of contrary and conflicting judgements.Those events that have most profoundly affected our contemporary world such as the Cold war and the two Great world wars of the early twentieth century have provided the most intense and heated debate. Though as Jenkins has noted these historianshave tended to ‘respect the facts and seek to re-address them only marginally’,11 demonstrating, at least to an acceptable level for modernists, historical debate is not about the facts themselves but about their usage as a means to deploy and support a judgement on the event itself. In terms of the debate on the World Wars it has tended to become somewhat historian based.
The controversial revisionism of A. J. P.
Taylor in respect to the causes of WWI and the role of Hitler in Nazi Germany was based on much of the factual evidence that traditionalists had also relied on.This demonstrates the huge importance of interpretation rather then the facts itself in stimulating historical debate. This also challenges postmodernists’ criticism mainstream historical debate is simply a reflection of the current social climate as Taylor’s interpretation want against every convention and conviction that had preceded him. This shows that interpretation can be free standing of its era’s ideals and revolutionise the meaning of facts. Yet one must also accept the political and social environment of the time has a profound and blatant effect on interpreting these facts.This can be seen in the rise to prominence of the revisionist school if thought after the Vietnam War in America.
The huge shock to the American psyche and the programme of self-questioning and insecurity it brought with it led to a dramatic revision of the existing facts. So the issue of the importance of facts in relation to interpretation as the centre of historical debate has proved to be a complex and dividing area of contention within the historical academia. One cannot dismiss the postmodernists challenge to the established tradition, there area number of inherent flaws anduncertainties with facts and we should seek to address this and question the corroding effect of bias and linguistically flaws upon the reliability of facts. Before the birth of postmodernism in the late twentieth century this comment by Carr would have been seen as almost fact itself, this new challenge to the established order of historiography has attacked interpretation at its source. However it is important to realise that postmodernism only represents a small, even if influential group, within the much wider historical community.
And fort the mainstream historian it is the interpretation and meaning that one assigns to a fact rather then the fact itself that leads to ideologically and interpretative conflict. As such even if there is no one singular answer to the question, we can reflect upon the two options that each school of thought offers us. That of the modernists that facts can be used to carefully and impartially reconstruct the truth, with the removal of empathy as we get further away from the event itself the closer we get to the truth.Whereas with postmodernism we see a much larger focus on facts and the need to challenge our existing belief system about these facts, the interpretations we derive from them and therefore the events themselves that these facts originate from. However one thing is for certain history cannot survive without facts, they are the staple diet of interpretation and it is this conflicting interpretation that provides the purpose and nature of history. Only through re-invention, revisionism and openness for new meanings can history continue to grow as a discourse and maintain its relevance in this modern, post-industrial society