Meaning, Truth, and Reference in Historical Representation

Meaning, Truth, and Reference in Historical Representation

Frank Ankersmit
Copyright Date: 2012
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 280
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  • Book Info
    Meaning, Truth, and Reference in Historical Representation
    Book Description:

    In this book, the noted intellectual historian Frank Ankersmit provides a systematic account of the problems of reference, truth, and meaning in historical writing. He works from the conviction that the historicist account of historical writing, associated primarily with Leopold von Ranke and Wilhelm von Humboldt, is essentially correct but that its original idealist and romanticist idiom needs to be translated into more modern terms. Rehabilitating historicism for the contemporary philosophy of history, he argues, "reveals the basic truths about the nature of the past itself, how we relate to it, and how we make sense of the past in historical writing."

    At the heart of Ankersmit's project is a sharp distinction between interpretation and representation. The historical text, he holds, is first and foremost a representation of some part of the past, not an interpretation. The book's central chapters address the concept of historical representation from the perspectives of reference, truth, and meaning. Ankersmit then goes on to discuss the possible role of experience in the history writing, which leads directly to a consideration of subjectivity and ethics in the historian's practice. Ankersmit concludes with a chapter on political history, which he maintains is the "basis and condition of all other variants of historical writing." Ankersmit's rehabilitation of historicism is a powerfully original and provocative contribution to the debate about the nature of historical writing.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6385-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Chapter 1 Historicism
    (pp. 1-28)

    There is one basic assumption underlying this entire book: that the historicist account of historical writing, here associated primarily with the writings of Leopold von Ranke and Wilhelm von Humboldt, is basically correct.¹ Two comments should be added right away. First, I shall not argue for this assumption—or rather, the only argument I can offer for it is whatever plausibility there may be to the account of historical writing provided in the pages of all of this book. Second, Ranke and Humboldt’s historicism was formulated in the idealist and romanticist idiom of the 1820s and 1830s, which can no...

  6. Chapter 2 Time
    (pp. 29-47)

    We saw in the previous chapter that according to historicism, the nature, essence, or identity of a thing lies in its history. The unprecedented intellectual revolution effected by historicism in the early decades of the nineteenth century endowed all of human existence with a temporal dimension, with irreversible ramifications for how we conceive of ourselves and of our world even today. Historicism rolled out all things in time, as one might roll out in space with a rolling pin a crust for the bottom of a pie. All things human were now perceived to be subject to a development in...

  7. Chapter 3 Interpretation
    (pp. 48-63)

    In common parlance the terms “historical interpretation” and “historical representation” are often used interchangeably. The historical text can alternatively be described as an “interpretation” or as a “representation of the past.” Nevertheless, the two terms do not have quite the same meaning. This is clear from the fact that language, either spoken or written, is the prototypical object of interpretation, whereas the object of representation is reality. Texts are interpreted, and landscapes or still lives are represented in paintings made of them. It makes no sense to speak of the “interpretation” of the landscape we see through the windows of...

  8. Chapter 4 Representation
    (pp. 64-86)

    If we must distinguish between interpretation and representation, and if the historical text should be seen primarily as a representation of some part of the past, it follows that a closer analysis of the notion of (historical) representation is necessary for a sound understanding of what a historical text is and of how it relates to what it represents. This is what will be at stake in this chapter and in chapters 5 through 7. This chapter will focus on the notion of (historical) representation itself. In the next three that notion will be further analyzed from the perspectives of...

  9. Chapter 5 Reference
    (pp. 87-101)

    We are inclined to consider reference one of language’s most prominent and indispensable functions. Imagine a language lacking it. Such a language would be useless for most of human communication. It would leave us with nothing but the unpalatable choice between silence and Babylonian confusion. So let us rejoice in language’s capacity to refer to the world and hail it as one of the main guarantees of successful human communication!

    And, indeed, is it not truly miraculous, if you come to think of it, that reference enables us to uniquely pick out just one individual thing from the infinity of...

  10. Chapter 6 Truth
    (pp. 102-125)

    In the previous chapters it was argued that representation leaves no room for propositional truth. This raises the question whether this should be our last word about historical truth. Since historians themselves do not hesitate to apply the notion of truth to historical writing and since the practice of historical writing amply supports their confidence in historical truth, we cannot leave this issue undiscussed. Perhaps we can think of an alternative to propositional truth that agrees with the relevant facts about historical representation.¹

    There are two ways for dealing with this issue. In the first place one might make an...

  11. Chapter 7 Meaning
    (pp. 126-156)

    Truth, reference, and meaning have traditionally been the three central notions in philosophical semantics. In the preceding two chapters we dealt with the question of the role to be assigned to reference and truth in (historical) representation. We found that representations cannot be said to refer to the world in the way proper names and sentences do, though they can be characterized as self-referential. Similarly, the notion of truth can meaningfully be used in the context of representation, not in the sense of propositional truth but in the quasi-Heideggerian sense of truth as a revelation of a past reality. So...

  12. Chapter 8 Presence
    (pp. 157-174)

    For two reasons the notion of “presence” now needs to be discussed.¹ First, the etymological meaning of the word “representation” already compels us to do so: representation is a making present of, or the granting of presence (again), to something that is absent. This is what our representative assemblies do: they make the people present because the people themselves cannot be present in such assemblies. A portrait may make present to the spectator somebody who has been dead for centuries. Similarly, the writing of history gives presence again to an absent past, and its very raison d’être is to do...

  13. Chapter 9 Experience (I)
    (pp. 175-190)

    As far as I know, the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga (1872–1945) has until now been the only theorist of historical writing to take seriously the notion of historical experience.¹ This is not surprising, since there seems to be near-unanimous agreement that the experience of the past is of no use for a proper explanation of historical writing and of how it came into being. Or, to be more precise, all that the existing philosophy of history has on offer is a theory denying that there could be such a thing as an experience of the past at all. A...

  14. Chapter 10 Experience (II)
    (pp. 191-219)

    I began the previous chapter with a brief discussion of the constructivist account of historical writing. Most practicing historians will tend to be skeptical of it. They will protest that the constructivist’s claim that our knowledge of the past is a mere construction based on existing evidence is a most unjust caricature of their discipline. And the idea that the past itself is no ingredient in the process of the acquisition of historical knowledge they will condemn as simply preposterous. In contrast to such interpretations of their discipline, they ordinarily consider their journeys through the past with just as much...

  15. Chapter 11 Subjectivity
    (pp. 220-244)

    The Magritte conception of history discussed in the previous chapter taught us what historians (implicitly) have in mind when speaking of the “objectivity” or “subjectivity” of the historical text: the historical text is objective if there are no differences between what one sees when looking at the text and what one sees when looking at the past itself . We also found that there is a peculiar sophistication in the Magritte conception of history (which I tried to rescue with the notion of historical experience), making it definitely more interesting than such naively believed views ordinarily are. One might even...

  16. Chapter 12 Politics
    (pp. 245-256)

    Throughout this book my compass has been the claim put forward in chapter 3 that representation/aesthetics is prior to interpretation/hermeneutics and that it is better to investigate the writing of history from the perspective of representation than from that of interpretation. Interpretation is something one does with texts that already exist, and the phrase “interpreting the past ” can therefore never be more than a deconstructivist metaphor. So when the linguistic (or, rather, rhetorical) turn in contemporary philosophy of history put a premium on interpretation at the expense of representation, the result was what one might call an “etherealization” of...

  17. Index
    (pp. 257-264)