Appleby Book Review Essay, Research Paper
October 20, 2000
Telling The Truth About History
I am writing a book review of Telling The Truth About History by Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt and Margaret Jacob. In this book, the authors’ talk about the increased skepticism and the position that relativism has lessen our ability to actually know and to write about the past. The book discusses the writing of history, and how people are struggling with the issues of what is “truth.” It also discusses the postmodernist movement and how future historians can avoid the mistakes by historians from the past. Telling The Truth About History gives great insight and knowledge to those who are non-historians because it looks at the dispute and inadequacy of past historical approaches to the study of history and that science is dead. I hold that history was not written in Labs and therefore cannot be compared to science. In my review I will critique the three-absolutist ideas made by Newton and Darwin.
First, Appleby, Lynn, and Jacob discussed the ideas concerning history. The first idea described how Newton and Darwin became chief examples of the Heroic model of science. Then, in a later chapter, the authors’ show how Newton and Darwin fell from grace and the effect this had on history as a discipline. Nevertheless, early historians felt that the way to find the truth was though science. Early historians felt that through science they could become neutral and reconstruct the past exactly as it happened (241). I analyze that Newton and Darwin made new scientific discoveries through research and mathematics. In addition, the study of History had recently become a profession and historians held experiments, math, and research, as their key to discover absolute truth in history. Science was also considered to be unbiased. This kind of approach was most commonly accepted until the early 20th Century when scientists began to become the tools of governments and political agendas. One example of this is the Manhattan Project or the space race. Newton’s writings revealed that he dismissed some ideas because he feared they would lead to atheism, not because they were scientifically unsound. Darwin was discredited because he based some of his ideas on the writings of Malthus instead of scientific experiments. Malthus’ ideas were more socially based than scientifically based (174-180).
The second absolute idea looked at the development of human laws and the idea that humans were being pulled forward through an orderly process of change (241). According to the book, this was an outcome of the link of history and science. “History would henceforth depend on research in archives and original sources as tests of the facts (56).” According the authors historians looked at how the passage of time changed the way societies of the past were viewed (59). During this time two ideas were introduced. The Romantic historian, Johann Herder, argued that each culture and historical period in history “had to be understood on its own terms (64).” The second idea was by George Hegel, he stated that truth depended on historical circumstances. These two ideas later resulted in many debates over the truthfulness of history.
The third absolute outlined by the authors grew out of nationalism. The authors looked at the history of the United States as it was portrayed in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. The strong American Nationalism in the United States affected how history was reported. The United States history was based on the idea of equality and democracy for all. However, this was later known to be a myth. Equality and democracy only existed for, white males. The authors look at the treatment of African Americans, Native Americans, women, and the poor as examples of the myth of popular American history. The historians of the time were accused of serving America and God rather than the discipline of history (113). As the end of the 19th Century approach, the focus on “white man’s history” began to shift to social history and the study of everyday people and their experiences.
By the 1960’s, all of the previous methods of studying history fell into criticism and postmodernism gained ground. The postmodernists argue that there is no truth in history or science. Science can be used to benefit the government that it serves, regardless of truth and moral values (206). They also argue that historians reinvent history rather than discovering the truth.
The postmodernist movement has proved to be even more controversial than some of the ideas that it replaced. Many see history adrift and looking for the next step in the methodology of history. The authors argue that the past failures of history should be viewed as an opportunity for further revisions and adjustments to historical methodologies.