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Documenting History and Politics

I.P. Khosla

Edited and Introduced by Avtar Singh Bhasin
Geetika Publishers, New Delhi, 2003, pp. 2869, Rs. 5000.00 for set of 5 volumes


The historian, and this applies all the more to the historian of contemporary times, has unavoidably to face the central problem of facts versus interpretation. From time to time, as eras and history writing traditions change, historians have sometimes maintained that the facts are all that matter, that the historian has simply to show how it really was, as L. Von Ranke put it in the nineteenth century. At other times that, following R. Collingwood, history is re-enactment in the historian’s mind, that without interpretation, perhaps founded on a philosophy of history, the facts by themselves can tell us very little; that, indeed, in the very process of selecting the facts the historian is, however unconsciously, revealing his interpretation of what happened.   There is an extensive body of writing on this central problem and its subdivisions: whether apparent facts such as we find in the memoirs of leaders, the agreements and joint declarations they sign, or the statements they make for the record, are really facts or some mix of personal predilection and what the author wants us to believe, or indeed what he himself wanted to believe; whether the usual assemblage of facts that we have, usually about the doings and sayings of a rather small group of people, need to be supplemented by information about the less privileged in order to make a meaningful history; whether the historian, located in a particular age and place, can so impose himself on the facts as to make them insignificant; and whether, on the other hand, he will allow the facts to so impose themselves on him by accepting that all history is a bundle of facts which have merely to be properly arranged and set down on paper, as to reduce interpretation to insignificance.   And these are only a few of the subdivisions of a problem made more difficult by the sheer superabundance of facts in contemporary times. The historian is therefore forced to choose, and thereby forced into interpretation and some rudiments at least of a philosophy of history. The present ascendancy of image and sound over text, of the snapshot and the sound bite which, by destroying the past promotes instant judgement at the expense of understanding, makes it all the more necessary for the dry facts to regain some prominence. And this is best done by appeal to the textual.   This of course is not the ...

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