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  • Truth in History and Literature
  • Frank Ankersmit (bio)


This essay will deal with the role of narrative in both fiction and historical writing. I shall be the first to admit that the topic is anything but original. Since Roland Barthes’s book on Michelet of more than half a century ago, since Lionel Gossman’s studies on La Curne de Ste. Palaye, on Thierry and (also) on Michelet, since Peter Gay’s Style in History, the topic has been addressed by numberless philosophers of history and literary theorists. And, self-evidently, everyone will primarily think here of Hayden White, who determined more than any other the course of contemporary philosophy of history. As White put it in 1974: “how a given historical situation is to be configured depends on the historian’s subtlety in matching a specific plot structure with the set of historical events that he wishes to endow with a meaning of a particular kind. This is essentially a literary, that is to say, a fiction-making operation” (85). As will be clear from this quote, when comparing history and the novel White was primarily interested in the literary dimension of historical writing. The proposal revolutionalized philosophy of history—and even now a lot still has to be done in order to cash in on all the promises of White’s proposal.

But exactly this might make us forget that the opposite route can be followed as well. That is to say, we may, and should, also ask ourselves whether historical writing can contribute to a better understanding of the novel, or at least of some variants of it. And if so, how. This, then, is the topic to be addressed in this essay. [End Page 29] And since we expect historical writing to provide us with knowledge of the past, I will primarily address the question of whether an analysis of historical writing will permit us to discern a cognitive dimension in the novel. In sum, instead of arguing from the novel to history, I shall opt for the opposite route, and move from history to the novel and in order to find out about what can or should count as the novel’s truth.

This problem of the novel’s truth can be dealt with in at least two different ways. In the first place one may be content with how the term truth in used in less controversial contexts, such as that of the true statement or that of the “true” or valid scientific theory, and then ask oneself whether this notion of truth also applies to the novel. Hence, does the novel give us access—albeit in its own peculiar way—to the same kind of truth that we express in singular true statements and in our assertions about states of affairs in the world? For an example of this approach,1 one may think of T. M. Greene’s claim that artistic truth is propositional truth (453–54). A variant of this position is the one defended by Hospers.2 Admittedly, he rejects the view that the arts can give us propositional truth and concludes that conventional theories of truth will have to be adapted in order to be applicable to the novel—without, however, abandoning the heart of these theories of truth altogether. Mooij summarizes Hospers’s argument thusly: “[a]ccording to [Hospers] artistic truth is not, however, propostional truth or ‘truth about’, but ’truth to’; it is a form of similarity” (“Objective Verification” 307). Mooij then comments: “there is perhaps no reason why a statement of the type ‘A is true to S’ could not be promoted to the rank of a scientific hypothesis, so long as the similarity underlying the concept ‘truth to’ is sufficiently specified” (ibid.). The result is that Hospers’s position does not seem to differ essentially from the one taken by Greene, after all.

Gadamer’s Wahrheit und Methode gives us a second approach to the novel’s truth. I have in mind here Gadamer’s notion of the “ästhetisches Bewusstein” and that is proposed by him to define the rearrangement of philosophy effected by Kant and, even more so, by Schiller (38). Before Kant...


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