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THE JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHY

Kurt Riezler
H

THE HISTORIAN

AND TRUTH'

ISTORY is a science. It seeks the "truth." But science is


in quest of laws; historyis contentwith describingthe particular. What kind of particular? What is in the particular?
To the historianthe truth of a descriptionmeans in practice
its concordancewith a kind of reality, the "historical reality."
To himthe problemof truthis the problemof this historicalreality
and its specificcharacter. To him this question is independent
from and prior to the other problem-how to verify the truth.
ere he starts,
The historiancan not detach fromhis subject-matter,
those areas or layers that lend themselvesconvenientlyto specific
demandsof a scientificmethodand forgetabout the others. Thus
he can not share the general belief in the sovereigntyof the scientificmethodover the subject-matter. To him the methoddoes not
determinethe subject-matter;the subject-matterdeterminesthe
method. He can not assume beforehandthat the joints at which
the subject-mattershould be divided are those suggested by his
1 Paper read beforethe Conferenceon Methodsin Philosophyand the
Sciences,New Schoolfor Social Researeh,December,1947.

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preferenceforreliableverification. In devotionto a subject-matter


whose specifictexture he must respect,he develops methodsthat
are neitherless elaborate nor less exacting than those of the experimentalmethod.
If to the historiantruthmeans firstof all truthabout a definite
reality,what is this reality? I base my reasoningon the historiographerproper,who describesthe course of events; on the great
historian,who seems to have achieved something;on what he does
in practice,not on what he says in theory,as his theoreticalutterances may depend upon the philosophyof his day and not coincide
with his practice.
He selectsa topic. But thereis a limitation:his sub4ect-matter
is a piece of human life. By belongingto the past, a fact does not
therebybecome an historicalfact. The movementof cottonprices
in Alabama from1840 to 1850, if isolated and seen in an abstract
cosmos of prices, is material for history,not historyitself. Only
in the history of man do cotton prices move along with other
things. The historianis concernedwith the role these movements
of cottonprices played in the changinglife of these changingmen.
Even languages,institutions,religions,thoughthey certainlyhave
a history,are in themselvesnot "historical facts"; only in the
human context can their historybe written; here only are they
concrete. Whatevertopic is selected,the referenceto human life
remains silentlypresent-as question imposed upon the historian
by the subject-matteritself.
The historian wants to report how things actually happen,
"Wie es gewesen ist," as Ranke put it, or "to representthings
truly," as Thomas Madox put it. Thus he starts with a multiplicity of "facts." What guides his selection? He selects the
causally relevant and omits the ineffectualas irrelevant. So we
are told. The beauty of a lady becomesa fact of Americanhistory
when Alexander Hamilton falls in love with her. But the word
" causality" is looselyused. The so-calledchainof causes and effects
is merelya firstillusion of the historian. If such a chain means
a chain of eventsin time,in whicheach precedinglink is the cause
of the followingas its effect,no historianhas ever succeeded in
constructingsuch a chain. Between any two links thereare countless others. Any such chain has an inexhaustibleinner infinity.
Even if it did not,none could be isolated,even for a shortstretch.
Each event has as effectthousands of causes, as cause thousands
of effects.
The causalityof the historianis not the causalityof such chains.
An historicaloccurrenceemergesfrom the past and operates on
the future. The historianshows in the way he reportsthe course

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of events the fieldof historicalforces and their constellation,the


dynamicsituationin whichthe eventsoccur. Such a dynamicfield
is far from simple. It changes under the impact of the events.
It has many layers,some changingso slowlythat they seem to be
permanent,othersso quickly that their changes seem to be single
events. The differentlayers and their changes interact. In the
course of the concreteevents the historian describes,all the historical forces of the dynamicsituation entwine,in a way unique
in each case. We can not identifyall theseforcesby name. They
include not only mountainsand gods, institutionsand machines,
mentalitiesof collectivities,power of passions and words,interests
and ideas, but this powerfulman here and now and his dark heart
as well. This dynamic field, the fabric of slowly or quickly
movingforces,is the causality of the historian,thoughhe may talk
in terms of causal chains. After all, only by virtue of such a
dynamicfield do eventsbecome causes-everywhere and not only
in history. The historian,by reportingthe course of events and
constructingalways abbreviatedand never accurate causal chains,
describesindirectlythe dynamicfieldand its movement. For the
sake of this descriptionhe selectsthis and omitsthat datum froma
multiplicityof data.
If this is the case, the historianwill and mustsometimesreport
facts that in one way or anotherare representativeof the forcesin
the historical field, though as occurrencesthey may be without
relevanteffect. The historianmay occasionallyreportan anecdote.
Many a modernlooks down on Herodotus, the father of historywriting,because his historyseems to be sometimesmerely a sequence of such anecdotes. We should bear him no grudge, however, even if we suspect some of his anecdotes are not precisely
true. The representativevalue of his anecdotes is rather high.
Some are representativeof the dynamicfields,even of a "general
" in which the East overflowsthe West and recedes
movement
again.
Thucydidessays about his famous speechesthat he was unable
to ascertain the actual workingof all, though even in such cases
the speeches he reportscould or should have been made by these
men in these situations. Some of these speeches,masterpiecesof
rhetoric,are certainlynot the actual speeches. In general,statesmen, envoys,soldiers are not so articulate. Most of ours, their
ghost writersincluded, are not. These speeches obviouslyshould
bring to light the dynamicsof men and things in each situation
and this they do, in some cases perhaps better than the speeches
actually made.
The historicallegend is a particular case. If the truthis that

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Luther at the Diet of Wormsutteredonly a simple "no " in a low


and hesitantvoice, instead of his famous "hier stehe ich; ich kann
nicht an,ders,"the legend may be thoughtto be more representative. For this reason the historianmay report the legend; however, if he is cautious, merely as a legend. It may be that the
timid"no" is more representativefor the particular man and the
particular situationand tells the deeper story. Even in this case
the birth of the legend can be representativetoo. In most cases
the real facts are richer-and queerer-than anythingman can
invent, though their riches are hidden. The particular in the
particularityof its historicalcontextis inexhaustible.
It can happen that the inaccurate facts of one historiantell a
true storyabout the dynamicfield,whereas the accurate facts of
anothertell a false storyor none at all. This, however,is not due
to any mystical intuition. There is no doubt that Jacob Burekhardt's GriechischeKulturgeschichteis far superior to all other
such attempts,though the evidence he presents,faulty in many
instances,is open to philological criticism. This does not mean
that he had no evidencebut that the evidence he presentedis not
preciselythat fromwhich he derived his answers. He was not a
philologist;he read the sources with a mind trained by the study
of many a culture, asked the relevant questions, and found the
right answers,though this and that particular evidence does not
provewhathe thoughtit proved.
The dynamicfield is only a modest and incompleteanswer to
our immodestquestion about the why of the single event. This
answer does not establish a must. Not everythingthat actually
happens has been probable, let alone necessary. Sometimeseven
the improbable happens in history; rather frequentlyindeed if
the "improbable'" is meant relatively to the knowledge of the
present situation we actually possess; less frequently if it is
meant relativelyto the maximumknowledgea finiteintellectcan
possess; perhaps even in rare cases if it is meant relativelyto a
perfect knowledge of the present a divine observer may have.
The historianavoids dogmaticpreassumptionsabout the structure
of his subject-matter. His main temptationand his capital sin
against concretehistoryis to draw conclusionsfromthe actual to
its probability,from the probable to its necessity. Things are
not so simple. In each dynamicfield the necessaryand the contingentpermeate each other in differentand changing ways and
mixtures. The particularityof theirmixtureis even the mostrelevant particularityof the "structure" of such a dynamic field.
It changes the day war is declared. It is differentin the age of
Charlemagneand in the last two centuriesof the Roman empirein

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the West. It is as if historywent on changingthe boards of the


children's games or slot machinesin which a ball rolls fromnail
to nail, to this or that hole or exit. Sometimesthe acting man
mattera
has but a narrow range of possibilities; little differences
great deal and divergingboundaries of the board widen the range
of possible consequences. Sometimesthe range of initial alternatives for action seems wide but convergingboundaries force the
rolling ball along differentways to the same exit. Hence the
historianshould not assume necessitiesin advance of his finding;
perhaps he should be rathercautious in using sentencesbeginning
with "because." It may even be that an all-knowingGod writing
the historyof man, the great fool,for human readers would begin
many a sentencewith "nevertheless" and in doing so might accurately describe the foolishnessof man as part and parcel of a
historythat is the historyof man,not God.
The historianis in love withthe particular. The dynamicfield
too is a particular one-this configurationof these forcesin these
men and things. When the steppes dry up, the cattle die, and the
childrenstarve,it happens to a particular people which is ossified
in ancestralhabits or still flexible,in these fettersto this past, this
country,these holy places and gods, with that particular power
structure. Only in such a contextdoes starvationbecome an historical fact. Hunger alone is repeatable, but hunger is never
alone. A particular contextof these stubborn things,men, and
gods moves in a unique way from a anique past into a unique
future.
The historian does not enumerate these forces or give them
general names. He has no high opinion of such names as capitalismor nationalism;he may distinguishbut he does not separate
factors. He refersthe one to the other-in one anotherthey are
effective. To him gods or their equivalents emerge in a world
of potential hunger-hunger occurs in a world full of gods and
ideas. To the historiannothingis the abstract universal. Only
the particularis really real. His practice,devotionto his subjectmatter,cures him quickly of any theoriesabout general priorities
of interestsover ideas or of ideas over interests. His priorities
change in history.
The historianreportsthe course of events,sequences of facts in
time. Owing to the relevanceof his facts and his ways of reporting, the dynamic field and its movementbecomes more or less
visible. His narrative is more or less transparent. As, however,
his view of the dynamicfieldmay be faulty,thoughhis facts may
be accurate, or vice versa, it is useful to distinguishbetween two
objects of the truthhe seeks: the truthabout the naked facts and

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the truth about the dynamicfieldsuggestedby or transparentin


these facts. The aim of the historianis neitherthe one nor the
otherof thesetruthsseparatelybut the transparencyof the second
in the first. Though this seems relativelysimple, of course it is
not. -The term "dynamic field" hides many difficulties.The
conscious and professedintentionof the historianmay end here.
The highestaim he admits may be to describe truly conspicuous
eventsshowingthe dynamicfieldin its movementfromits past to
its present. He may sometimeslook beyond the individual historical form he describes and strain his eyes to discover in the
wanderingfogs at least some recognizablecontoursof a piece of
allgemeinergeschichtlicher
Bewegungof a greaterperiod,as Ranke
did, and let the feudal state of the Middle Ages grow into the
absolute monarchyand the absolute monarchyinto the national
state or anythingelse of the same order of magnitude. But whatever his intention,wittinglyor unwittingly,
in his very devotionto
and compelledby the particularityof his subject-matter,
he reaches
another truth and achieves another transparence-unless his interestfor thosegeneralmovementsor a concernfor the meaningof
the historical process as a whole transfershis concern from the
innerlife of the particularto the constructionof roles or meanings
in such a generalmovementor the historicalprocessas a whole.
What is-in concreto-such a dynamic field? A last hope
drives the ancestors of the ancient Egyptians from the expanding desert into the still uninhabitable swamps of the Nile. For
centuries they wrestle with the River for some pieces of fertile
soil. The particularsituationrequiresand finallyelicitsan organized effort:power, command,compulsion. Kings arise, taxes, accountants,priests. The new power, chaining the River, reinterprets the world. In the image of this world man reinterpretshis
own existence. The interests of men, their needs, their ideas,
norms,and gods grow in one another. A distinctway of life, an
individual historical form,is established and strives to maintain
itself. Man made it. In its frameman moves,eitherpatientlyin
fixedhabits or lugging and tugging at its fetters. The historian
tries to describe it in its particularity-this River behaving differentlyfromall otherrivers,thesestrangegods, roles of the dead,
institutions-unique particularities. In his description the dynamic field,a constellationof forces and factors,geographic,economic,social, political,ideological,comesto life. But it has never
been anythingelse than the answer to men and to the thingsand
the responseof the thingsto that answer.
As in the narrative of the historian,the events proceed one
after the other, partly dependent, partly independent,of one

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another, and the many forces and factors of the many-layered


dynamicfields entwine,it happens that in this narrative a third
kind of truth becomes visible. Though this third kind of truth
can not be separated from the event and the forces in the field
and hence is difficultto identifyseparately, it is differentand
should be distinguished. By virtue of this second transparence
the mere eventsand factorsare no longer merelyobjective things
in an order of the many things in space and time; they are seen
and are what they are by virtue of the role they play or the functions theyhave in the life of man. Here is their concretereality.
The absolute potestas of the Roman pater familias is no longer an
institutionin an institutionalrealm,to be definedby its differentita
specifica. If it were, it would be but an abstraction,lifeless and
dead. It is what it is in the contextof Roman life. It would be
somethingentirelydifferent
in the familyof today. The historian
looks throughthe thingsas thingsto the particularhuman context
in whichtheseinstitutionsand passions and dreamsof man entwine
with these things and gods, to this kind of miseryand happiness.
The historian,devotedto the concreteparticularityof his subjectmatter,can not help avoiding any isolation and separation of any
of these forces and factors we would like to analyze and study
separately,thinkingas we do of the dynamicfieldas a sort of aggregateof all thesefactors. They are forgedtogetherin the unity
of a context;here theyoriginateand here they change.
By the ambiguous terms "roles" and "functions" I do not
mean the "historical" role or functionof a man, a thing,an event,
in this or that development,in the success of a revolutionor anything else of the kind in which the observer may be interested.
Though Ranke says the role of the Byzantine Empire was to keep
Asia from Europe, the Byzantines certainlydid not think about
theirrole. I do not mean such historicalroles. I mean roles and
functionsin a contextwe call human life, thoughlife here is not
merelylife in the mirrorof biology.
This human context,in whichthe thingsare theirroles or functions, is again but a particular one-of this life in this country
and age. But its particularityis no longerthe particularityof the
single facts and factors out of an indefinitemultiplicityof possible facts and factorsof an objectifiedworld. It is the particularity of a variation of human life that becomes manifestin the
cloak of the historicalconditions,institutions,things,words,events.
I may be permittedto call this particularitya third kind of
truth-and the transparenceof the facts and the dynamicfieldin
which it becomes visible the second transparence. Historical
descriptionsdifferwidely in this second transparence. In some of

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themman himself,concretelife,disappears completelyin the process of the developmentof objective facts and abstract forces and
factors.
The thirdparticularityseemsno less unique than the particular
cloak of the historicalconditionsin whichit becomesreal. Yet as
a variationof a definitecontext,the particularcarrieswithit somethingthat is no longer a particular: the structureof this context.
We may learn fromthe strangepeculiarityof a past life the peculiarityof our own way of life or of our own age of whichwe mostly
are unaware. Thus we may learn somethingabout die Breite des
Menschenwesens,the broad range of human possibilities. It is,
however,not only the stupid quantityof this range; in it and behind it somethingelse becomesvisible,thoughperhaps only dimly
and at a remotedistance,and shines throughthe narrativeof the
historian:the unity of a context,the fabric of man's existence,the
tissue of many strands, as the frame no historycan transgress,
withinwhose iron bounds all developmentsdevelop and all evolutions evolve.
Thus in this secondtransparencethe particularcourseof events
in its dynamicfieldis a particularaspect of mutable man. In this
aspect,however,a generalcontextbecomesvisible,as a fourthkind
of truth in a third kind of transparency. It is the context in
whichman binds himselfin the deeds he does,the wordshe creates,
the powerhe establishes,in whichhe starvesand cares and reaches
out for gods or their equivalents. Restless man, who only for a
shorttime and never entirelyis what he could be, can be what he
wants to be, wants to be what he ought to be, foreveron his way
in between "is," ''can," "'willy "'must,"2 "iought," and many
,othersuch "in betweens," knowing and ignorant, fearful and
greedy,full of care and careless,potentiallythe most magnificent
and the meanest of all animals. I call it for the momentthe
" eternalhumanum."
This humanum is not human nature as the term is used in
scientifictreatiseswhichdistinguishinheritedand acquired traits;
it is not the "human being," let alone the organism,not life in the
mirrorof biology. It is not the individual as individual. It is
historicalman, man as he moves and is moved in the movementof
history. There is no otherman. Man is mutable,the "humanum"
is but the eternalframeof his mutability. It is not the usual universal of a class, a species, a genus of beings, let alone an essence
in a realm of essences. It is the universal context,present in all
situations and their changes. I could call it, in the language of
Michel de Montaigne,1'entiereformede la conditionhumaine. I
could call it, using the language of geometry,the topologyof the

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human space, present as unity of a context in all the countless


figuresof all the possible euclidean and noneuclidean spaces. It
is in all the dynamicfields,and none of their changes can transgressits rules.
However, the topological axioms of the human space are unknown to man. Goethe says in a poem: das Besondere ist das
Allgemeine. This proposition,thoughmeaningless,has a meaning.
This universalhumanumbecomesvisible only in the innerrichness
of the particular. Here it becomesconcrete. "Concretum" stems
from "concrescere." The particular is concreteby virtue of the
many forces,relations,factorsgrowntogetherin its particularity.
No scientificisolation and separation of factors ever reaches this
concretenessof life in the particular.
The historiandoes not make this humanumthe contextof any
proposition. We may sense it or see it with an inner eye. Such
feelingor sensingmay not be at all the consciousintentionof the
historian. He simply can not help himself,though he may not
knowwhat he does and only describesever mutable man. It happens to us in reading or to the great historianin writing-to his
own astonishment-andpromptshim to confessin the middleof his
devotionto the particularityof this mutable man, that, after all,
man is what he always has been and ever will be. This happened
to Jacob Burckhardt.
Hence we may understandthat Thucydidesnot only pretended
to have writtenbut really wrote a ktema eis aei, a thing forever.
Whatever his reasons for his belief, it is by virtue of the transparence of an eternalhumanum,in a transientparticulargone forever.
Modern man no longer lives in the world of his grandfathers.
We know it. The space in whichwe move has moved and goes on
in manyrespects. Historical
moving. Motionin motionis difficult
consciousnessis bornwhena societyrealizes that the space in which
it moves moves. Many identifyhistoricalconsciousnesswith history. But this consciousnessof historyis itself a product of history. As man,aware of this awkwardmotionin motion,may easily
lose his balance,he triesto extendthe orderwhoseidea should guide
and supporthiminto the unknownfuture. When the timelessgods
desert him, he contrivesa philosophyof historythat pretends to
knowor to be able to interpretthe meaningof the universalprocess.
This is a natural, politically efficientthough theoreticallyvain
effort.
But how should the historian,himselfstanding in history,not
sittingoutside it on the throneof a divine observer,describe motion in motion? What is his frameof reference? His own ephemeral age and its prospective activities? The historian may not

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ask the question and may not have a theoreticalanswer. Objective nature-the mountainswhich stand still and the trees which
become green again-is but his apparent frameof reference. His
real frameis that "humanum" or the wide or narrow,rich or poor
image of it he or his age may cherish. Thoughhe does not even try
to formulatethis image, he can not help indicating its width or
narrowness,richnessor meagerness,and in it his own measure.
Under a twofoldaspect the historianlooks at the confusedand
ever-changingspectacle of history. Under the one aspect things,
posited as objective, identifiedin an order of an objective world,
stand still and cling to their identity. Against their unmoving
backgroundrestlessman altersbut theirmeanings,roles,functions.
This is the natural aspect of our daily life. Under the otheraspect
thesethingsare what theyare only by virtueof human uses, roles,
functions,meaningswhich,thoughinvestedin or carriedby changing things,are as mereroles and functionsfundamentallythe same.
They have theirplace in the same humanumwhichis foreverfirethough here flaringand blazing, there glowing dimly under the
ashes, it changesbut the color and the shape of the flame.
When in theworkof thegreathistorianthetwo aspectsblend,he
succeeds in an astonishingfeat: he makes manifest the eternal
humanumin the changeof mutablethings,the ever mutableman in
the quiet permanenceof objective things. Though his image of
man, narroweror broader,may be the historian'ssecret frame of
reference,he need not answeror evenpretendto answerthe question
"What is man?" It may even be that he denies that such a question has a meaning and be contentto show how mutable man, in
the course of his history,builds up and tears down and varies and
revises his images of "eternal man." In all these images man is
identifiedby his place in, or is describedin termsof, an historical
world-the Christian,the Greek,the Chinese image of the cosmos
of many things,one of which is man. To the historiannone of
these worlds is absolute,thougheach has been posited as absolute.
They come to be and pass away in history. Thus if there is any
eternal humanum,mutable man lays hands on it only in termsof
his own mutable images of a mutableworld.
The historian,confrontedwith the paradox of a knowledgeof
man he must presuppose and can not claim, escapes into an historical relativism-in theory. Yet it may be that the inner life of
the particularityto whichhe is devotedforceshis practiceto transgress his theory.
Of these mutable images some are wide, others narrow; some
are rich, others poor; some are more, others less, articulate.
Though all are images in termsof an historicalcosmosand easily
weave the image of what man should be into the image of what he

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is, they are unequal, containingmore or less knowledge. Though


man need not be what he says he is, even the words by which he
deceives himselfcan tell a story. Moreover,his deeds are more
honestthan his words. As thereis moreor less knowledgein these
images,thoughthey may be mere opinions,the knowledgeof that
eternalhumanumhas a historyin whichnot only opinions change
but knowledge grows and decays. There is more knowledge of
man in the Greek than in the Germanicmythology. Thucydides
knowsmorethan others. Shakespeare's knowledgeis greaterthan
Dryden's. Shakespeare's favoriteauthorwas Michel de Montaigne.
But Montaigne,thoughhe pretendsmerelyto describethe onlysubject he knows,himself,Michel de Montaigne,1'hommeparticulier,
succeeds in makingtransparent"the entire conditionof man" as,
proceedingfrom one particularityto another,he uses and refers
to the wholebody of inheritedknowledgehe got fromthe ancients.
Thus it may still be that the historian,his relativismnotwithstanding,by virtueof his devotionto the particularityof a bygone
past, loosensthe fettersthat tie him to the narrowimage of man of
his own ephemeralage and becomes a knowernot only of man's
changing opinions but of an eternal humanum, of which these
mutableimages are the mutable aspects. As this knowledgegrows
with his knowledgeof history,he may in practice be a great interpreterof an eternalhumanumwhichhe denies in theory.
KURT RIEZLERa
NEW SCHOOL FOR SOCIAL RESEARCH, NEW YORK