On Truth, or do we need a pragmatist philosophy of history?

The final paper of the current series, delivered at the IHR on the 4th December by Marek Tamm (Associate Professor of Cultural History, Tallinn University, Estonia).

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Marek Tamm’s paper, ‘On Truth, or do we need a pragmatist philosophy of history?’, was to be taken, he explained, as an explanatory supplement to some of his arguments as laid out in an earlier paper, ‘Truth, Objectivity and Evidence in History Writing’, which had been made available to the evening’s attendees a week or so prior to the seminar. Accordingly, in this very brief review I shall attempt a broad sweep of his whole argument as articulated across both papers.

The central thrust of Tamm’s argument, then, is directed towards the establishment of a performativity[1] based pragmatist philosophy of history resting on what strikes me as a curiously itinerant relative notion of “truth”. That is to say, a notion of a non-absolute truth (isn’t this an oxymoron?) which must surely be forever on-the-move since it is obliged to keep pace with a shifting ‘disciplinary consensus as to methods of inquiry, cognitive values and epistemic virtues’[2] on which, apparently, it depends. Moreover, this is a notion of truth that is ‘”guaranteed” by fellow historians’[3] through what Tamm describes as a ‘truth pact’ between historians’ and their readers. A truth pact founded on, for instance, an explicit understanding by the reader of a history text that its author, the historian, when writing it, intended to sincerely and professionally tell the truth – not least through the rigorous application of the disciplinary consensus just mentioned – and that the historian should thus be trusted or be given, as it were, the benefit of the doubt on matters of truth in history writing. In addition to the foregoing, Tamm also claims to have established ‘a clear connection between truth and proof in history writing [by] arguing that the “truth pact” is grounded in a critical analysis of the available evidence’[4].

Now, while Tamm’s exposition on pragmatism was well informed and interesting, I remain hugely sceptical about his underlying position as (accurately, I hope) sketched above. And it was clear from the at times animated reception of Tamm’s paper, particularly with regard to his specific take on “truth”, that I can safely assume that some of my own doubts were equally shared with a number of those present. Although I should just point out in Tamm’s defence, even though I find the following consideration at odds with his overall position as stated, that during the after-paper debate he did make it clear that his truth claims were not, after all, based on any proposed direct relation between text and past but, rather, on that between text and disciplinary consensus[5].

But is Tamm’s primacy of this particular relational strategy actually observed throughout his own text? For instance, I fully understand that Tamm’s idiosyncratic style of truth claim with respect to history writing, a claim that rests solely on an “internal relation” between text and disciplinary consensus (as just noted), could not address truth claims regarding the actuality of the past itself or of its supposed meaning. Yet the quotation occupying the last two lines of paragraph two above suggests that Tamm is actually able to establish ‘truth and proof in history writing’ through the agency of a truth pact grounded by way of critical evaluation of evidence. And the idea of a provable, grounded in evidence truth seems to imply some sort of definitive claim on the past, albeit a claim resting on that always problematic notion of ‘a grounding in evidence’, and thus it cannot be of the same kind as the aforementioned internally circulating relational truth claim which Tamm sets up between the text on the one side and a regulating, institutionalised consensus on the other. So, how can these apparently conflicting statements and their associated truths be reconciled?

One might also reasonably question how it is that Tamm’s theory can really be legitimated as a ‘philosophy of history’ when it rejects all interest in the investigation of putative relations between the history text and the actuality of the past, that particular interest being, I believe, a central concern for probably all historians and most theorists of history as well?

However, and to end this review on a more positive note, it has to be said that Marek Tamm’s paper attracted a larger than average attendance and, as intimated above, it also provoked an unusually lively and engrossing post-paper debate which, running late as usual, finally brought this current series of IHR seminars to a close.

Peter P Icke

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[1] Marek Tamm’s interest is in the doing of history; in the practical and the performative aspects of historians’ efforts.

[2] ‘Truth, Objectivity and Evidence in History Writing’, Journal of the Philosophy of History, 8 (2014), p265.

[3] Ibid, p265.

[4] Ibid, p265

[5] It might not have crossed Tamm’s mind that the construction ‘disciplinary consensus’ is not an adequate description since it has the effect of covering over and thus losing sight of the underlying operating mode and purpose of a dominant discourse.

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