The Nonfixity of the Historical Past

Review of Metaphysics 50 (4):749 - 768 (1997)

David Weberman
Central European University
In a book that first appeared in 1965 entitled Analytical Philosophy of History, Arthur Danto argues that historical inquiry cannot be conceived as an attempt to reconstruct the past along the lines of an "ideal chronicler." The ideal chronicler "knows whatever happens the moment it happens, even in other minds. He is also to have the gift of instantaneous transcription: everything that happens across the whole forward rim of the Past is set down by him, as it happens the way it happens." Historians cannot aspire to this ideal because they inevitably use what Danto calls "narrative sentences," that is, sentences that describe one event by referring to one or more later events. For example, "The Thirty Years War began in 1618" is a sentence typical of historical inquiry but unavailable to the chronicler because it goes beyond what could have been known at the time it occurred, that is, that the war was to last thirty years. Danto reasons that because of the indispensability of narrative sentences to historical understanding, we can never give a complete description of past events since this presupposes knowledge of all relevant later events. The consequence is that our descriptions of past events will inevitably change as history unfolds. This discovery is remarkable and incontrovertible: descriptions of past historical events will and must always be reconceived not just because of the unearthing of new documents or the changing interests of the historian but because of the peculiar narrative structure of historical understanding.
Keywords Catholic Tradition  Contemporary Philosophy  General Interest
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ISBN(s) 0034-6632  
DOI revmetaph199750444
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