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May/June 2005 · Historically Speaking The Limits of History: An Exchange What really happened in the past? And can we know it? These questions still haunt us, despite ourpost-Rankean sophistication about historical epistemology. Lastyear the University ofChicago Press published Constantin Fasolt's The Limits of History, an important contribution to the literature on the origins ofhistorical consciousness and the limits ofhistorical knowledge . It is a demanding book that confronts historians "with the metaphysical implications oftheir own practice. " Fasolt maintains that historians have sufficient tools to produce "adequate representations ofthepast" without resorting to the dead end of "historical metaphysics. " We askedAllan Megill and Gabrielle Spiegel to engage Fasolt's argument. Fasolt begins the exchange with a synopsis ofhis book and concludes with a rejoinder. The Limits of History in Brief' Constantin Fasolt The purpose of this essay is to state in brief what I have written at much greater length in The Limits of History. I would prefer you read my book. Yet the book is long, and life is short. And it would neither be honest nor polite not to acknowledge the pleasure this author takes in being given another venue for his ideas. Moreover, authors generally like to hear informed responses of the sort this essay is intended to provoke, and readers have a right to ask the author just what he had in mind. Let me divide my answer to that question in two parts. First, I will present the main points I tried to make in The Limits of History. Then I will explain the method I used to get those points across. First what; then how. What? The Limits ofHistory deals with history in the sense of a certain kind of knowledge— knowledge of the past—as well as the techniques by which such knowledge can be gained and the activities required to that end. It makes three basic points. First, history is not as innocent as it appears to be. It is not merely a form of understanding, but also a form of self-assertion. As such, it is tantamount to taking sides and inseparable from political activity, at least political activity ofa certain kind. Second, history's most important function—the function that makes it inseparable from political activity—is to remove the possibility of doubt from certain ? 2004 by Constantin Fasolt. All rights reserved. elementary assumptions that tell us who we are, what we can do, and what the world is like. The knowledge of the past that history provides is merely a means toward that end. Third, ever since the purpose ofhistory came to be identified with the pursuit ofknowledge of the past as such—Ranke's wie es eigentlich gewesen—the means and ends of history have been confused. That has cast growing doubt on both. As a result, the ability of history to furnish adequate knowledge ofthe past as well as its ability to remove the possibility of doubt from certain elementary assumptions have been impaired. Let me take up each point in turn. First, we tend to think of history as nothing other than a form of knowledge. The value of that knowledge is debated among humanists, historians, philosophers, social scientists, natural scientists, and other kinds of people. Some think it is essential to the survival of civilized society; others, that it is a kind of unnecessary frill. But there seems no dispute at all that history is harmless in itself. Harmful are only the lack of history, the misrepresentation of the past, the ignorance and lies that history is intended to correct . Everyone agrees that lies about the past can be the source ofgrave injustices to living human beings and to their memories. Historians spend their lives in libraries and archives in order to prevent that sort ofharm. They lie awake at night worrying ifthey have missed important evidence or misinterpreted its meaning. But so far as I can tell the sleep of historians is never once disturbed by the possibility that they might get their history right. In that regard the conscience ofhistory is completely clean. This seeming innocence of history is probably its most seductive quality. It allows historians and their readers to go about...


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