The Meaning of Facts
Tue Jun 24 17:53:55 2008
I could accept that “Japan bombed Pearl Harbor” is something we know with a high degree of certainty. I certainly don’t have any evidence to the contrary. But that fact alone is relatively uninteresting and historically trivial. What is more interesting and relevant to our purpose is the meaning of that fact. What are the causes, the effects? Was it an act of aggression, or of self-defense? What does it tell us about the world, about power, about government, about humanity? Is it important? Can we draw a lesson from it? This is what is of interest to historians and human beings generally. And that is anything but certain. As we saw previously with the Pequot War [Find the Americans in this picture Sun Jun 22 12:53:13 2008] —our interests, background and preconceptions influence the meaning and interpretation of historical details. For that reason I find Fischer’s sixth rule of thumb to be the most critical. “The meaning of any empirical statement depends upon the context from which it is taken.” And I would have to add, perhaps more importantly, the context in which it is made.