On the paradox of purpose and veracity in histories

I find that all our histories have one of only two purposes. The first is to satisfy the intellectual need to know and the second is the desire to influence future behaviour. The first is part of epistemic curiosity and the second is just politics. All histories are, of course, stories about the past. All histories consist of a selection of “facts” and a narrative (always speculative to some degree) connecting the chosen “facts”. Much of the study of history as an academic discipline (whether archaeology or genetics or anthropology ….) is about the selection and justification of what is to be considered “fact”. It is never, and can never be, “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”.

Two purposes seems also to be the academic view though with slightly different labels.

In a discussion of the History Manifesto in 2015 Prof. Johann Neem wrote

Underlying the entire conversation was a tension between the two purposes of history, the philosophical or scientific, and the civic. The philosophical or scientific perspective considers the pursuit of historical truth to be of highest value. Like any organized scientific activity, historical research is corrupted when oriented to immediate public ends. Its public value ultimately depends on its autonomy.

The civic purpose of history, on the other hand, is to help a community—a nation, a religious or ethnic group—understand the present in ways that orient that group to the future. The questions asked, and the answers offered, will be ones relevant to the community at large rather than a scholarly community of inquiry.

We need both; in fact the civic depends on the scientific if history is to avoid becoming propaganda or having the preferences of the reading public drive the discipline’s priorities. Before historians can engage the public, they need good knowledge, and thus basic research.

What Neem calls “philosophical or scientific” purpose is just epistemic curiosity and what he calls the “civic” purpose boils down to politics. All epistemic curiosity in humans is ultimately just idle curiosity,

From my book Before Time Began (in preparation)

And then there is intellectual curiosity – epistemic curiosity. This only comes into play (a la Maslow) once basic survival needs are met. A recognizable brain is needed. It is the exercise of mind which epitomizes being an individual. Whereas perceptual curiosity is the drive to know enough to ensure survival, epistemic curiosity is the drive to know more. It seeks knowledge for the sake of knowledge. It gives us pleasure. It fuels study and learning and the accumulation of knowledge for its own sake. It gives us science and art. It drives language and literature and music and the other higher-order needs for self-actualization. It drives gossip and it drives play. ……….. Epistemic curiosity lies on an open-ended scale. It can never be satiated and we remain curious no matter what we discover. We are even curious about why we are curious. ………..

Epistemic curiosity, one could say, is the curiosity of idle minds.

Of these two purposes, one is a search for knowledge (truths) and is an end in itself. The other, the civic, political purpose, is as a tool for some other agenda. The curious thing is that whereas the veracity demanded by curiosity is absolute (since truths are needed to be considered knowledge) the use of history as a tool to influence future behaviour requires only perceived veracity. The use of a story about the past as a tool only works if others (those whose behaviour is to be influenced) perceive the history to be true. The actual truth value of the story may even be zero as long as the perceived veracity is high. A complete fiction becomes a history if it is perceived to be true.

Thus, actual veracity is irrelevant in a history to be used for social purposes. Only the perceived veracity matters. Actual veracity – the truth – is relevant only in satisfying epistemic curiosity.

When the purpose has no impact the truth is sought assiduously. Where the purpose is to have an impact, the actual truth is irrelevant and only perceived truth matters.

Perhaps it is just my cynicism but I find this somewhat of a paradox.

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