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THE PASTS

Authors

  • PAUL A. ROTH

    1. University of California-Santa Cruz
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    • Many individuals and many audiences have generously shared their comments with me on various versions of this essay. I benefited greatly from lively discussions when I presented this paper to audiences in 2010 and 2011 at the University of Lausanne, Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE), the University of Hradec Kralove, Catholic University (Ružomberok, Slovakia), University College, Cork, and the Society for the Philosophy of History. I would particularly like to thank Kevin Cahill, Larry Davis, David Hoy, Jon McGinnis, John Zammito, and Eugen Zelenak. Each kindly took the time to read a full draft of this work at different stages in its evolution. I alone bear responsibility for remaining errors and infelicities.


ABSTRACT

This essay offers a reconfiguration of the possibility-space of positions regarding the metaphysics and epistemology associated with historical knowledge. A tradition within analytic philosophy from Danto to Dummett attempts to answer questions about the reality of the past on the basis of two shared assumptions. The first takes individual statements as the relevant unit of semantic and philosophical analysis. The second presumes that variants of realism and antirealism about the past exhaust the metaphysical options (and so shape the epistemology as well). This essay argues that both of these assumptions should be rejected. It develops as an alternative an irrealist account of history, a view based in part on work by Leon Goldstein and Ian Hacking. On an irrealist view, historical claims ought to be treated as subject to the same conditions and caveats that apply to any theory of empirical or scientific knowledge. Irrealism argues for pasts as made and not found. The argument emphasizes the priority of classification over perception in the order of understanding and so verification. Because nothing a priori anchors practices of classification, no sense can be attached to claims that some single structure must or does determine what events take place in human history. Irrealism denies to realism the very intelligibility of any imagined view from nowhere, that is, a determinately configured past subsisting sub specie aeternitatis. A plurality of pasts exists because constituting a past always depends to some degree on socially mediated negotiations of a fit between descriptions and experience.

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