Historical Knowledge, Historical Error
A Contemporary Guide to Practice
In the past thirty years, historians have broadened the scope of their discipline to include many previously neglected topics and perspectives. They have chronicled language, madness, gender, and sexuality and have experimented with new forms of presentation. They have turned to the histories of non-Western peoples and to the troubled relations between “the West” and the rest. Allan Megill welcomes these developments, but he also suggests that there is now confusion among historians about what counts as a justified account of the past.
In Historical Knowledge, Historical Error, Megill dispels some of the confusion. Here, he discusses issues of narrative, objectivity, and memory. He attacks what he sees as irresponsible uses of evidence while accepting the art of speculation, which incomplete evidence forces upon historians. Along the way, he offers succinct accounts of the epistemological road historians have traveled from Herodotus and Thucydides through Leopold von Ranke and Alexis de Tocqueville, and on to Hayden White, Natalie Zemon Davis, and Lynn Hunt.
“Historical Knowledge, Historical Error is part of a resurgence of interest in the philosophy of history. Allan Megill knows his history and is more than usually sophisticated as a philosopher. He has useful and wise things to say on a host of topics including memory, counterfactuals, narrative, and professionalization. By no means do I agree with all that Megill has argued, but he is intelligent, clear, and displays a scholarly integrity that is rock-solid. The book deserves our extended attention.”--Bruce Kuklick, University of Pennsylvania
“Megill’s book represents a major and much-needed intervention in the debates that have engaged historians and philosophers of history in the last two or three decades. Coming from someone who has thought deeply, carefully, and long on the meanings of historical objectivity for our times, this is a book that presents a fresh and clear point of view. Megill’s argument deserves attention from everybody who wonders about where the discipline of history might be headed once the dust has settled on the tired debates over objectivity versus relativist skepticism.”--Dipesh Chakrabarty, University of Chicago