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History is in the Making: Pragmatism, Realism, and Knowledge of the Past 

While many philosophical topics are remote from public life, there are some surprisingly practical reasons to philosophize about history. Debates about historical events frequently stalemate not only on the meaning of events but on what should count as a relevant fact. And while politics has always complicated interpretation, there is also a deep ambivalence about what the past is, and how inquiry should characterize and evaluate its meaning. Debate on this issue has become quite polemical, even strident.

Consider, for example, Keith Windschuttle’s popular book, The Killing of History: How Literary Critics and Social Theorists Are Murdering Our Past. One reviewer praises it as "a masterly refutation of the pretentious theorizing of the enemies of the notion of historical truth and the traditional discipline of history." Another celebrates its "devastating account of atrocities against the intellectual environment." Terms such as "enemies" and "atrocities" show how high the ethical stakes are.

Philosophically, the dispute is between Realists and Postmodernists—who I collect here as "antirealists." The antirealist believes that,

History is a discourse, a language game; within it "truth" and similar expressions are devices to open, regulate and shut down interpretations. Such truths are really "useful fictions" that are in discourse by virtue of power. (Keith Jenkins, Rethinking History, 32)

The realist, in contrast, objects that,

For… 2400 years the essence of history has continued to be that it should try to tell the truth, to describe as best as possible what really happened. … Today, these assumptions are widely rejected…by theorists within the humanities and social sciences [who] assert that it is impossible to tell the truth about the past or to use history to produce knowledge in any objective sense at all. [But] history can be studied in an objective way and that there are no philosophical obstacles to the pursuit of truth. (Windschuttle, The Killing of History. preface)

As you can see, a chasm yawns between them. Specifically, I take the following three issues to be central to the general disagreement. First, what is historical knowledge about? Is the objective of historical knowledge to describe a "real past" which exists independently of the present? Second, what are historical narratives? Are they the constructions or discoveries of historians? If they’re discoveries of historical truths, what makes them true? If they are linguistic constructions, what demarcates history from fiction? Third, are there ethical implications attached to holding a particular theory of historical knowledge?

These history disputes replay the realist-antirealist conflict over how words link up with the world—or, more controversially, whether there is anything at all beyond interpretation. The apparent stalemate between realism and antirealism makes an alternative epistemological basis for historical knowledge, such as pragmatism, all the more needed.

To set up a pragmatist account of historical knowledge, I recount the approach of two early 20th century realists along with their criticisms of pragmatism. Next, I sketch the pragmatist approach and defend it against the charge of ethical relativism. I conclude by briefly disjoining pragmatism from antirealism (i.e., postmodernism) as regards historical theory.

I. Realism

A. O. Lovejoy: The Past and Transcendent Reference

Realist A.O. Lovejoy argues we must begin with the fact that we already possess genuine historical knowledge—i.e., knowledge not given in immediate experience. Since past events are, by definition, complete and remote from the present, it follows that knowledge is discovering (a) a transcendent realm by virtue of (b) a special mental ability—transcendent reference. As Lovejoy puts it,

…knowledge is thus necessarily and constantly conversant with entities which are existentially transcendent of the knowing experience. …For the critical realist…all our knowledge (beyond bare sensory content) is a kind of foreign commerce, a trafficking with lands in which the traffickers do not live, but from which they may continually bring home good store of merchandise to enrich the here-and-now. (DC 142, 152)


The pragmatist errs when she rejects transcendent reference as the bridge to historical truth, opting to tie justification to future experience instead. In Lovejoy’s view, this spoils the sanctity (or facticity) of the past in order to relativize it to the vulgar, practical interests of the present; it also disrespects the past, treating it as a mere means and not also as an end in itself. Fundamentally, pragmatists repeat idealism’s famous error of conflating how we know with what we knows. While both are correct to recognize the mind’s contribution to knowledge (through conceptualization of sensory data), they go too far in claiming that the mind’s contributions are logically necessary features of the object itself. This categoreal intrusion of mind adulterates the hermetic facticity of the past and so destroys the very criterion necessary to establish true propositions about history.

C.I. Lewis: Pragmatism’s Epistemological and Ethical Relativism

While C.I. Lewis makes similar epistemological criticisms of pragmatism, he also explicitly connects its perspectivism with objectionable ethical consequences. Let us see how.

Urged on by a view of reality as one of continuous intertwining processes, the pragmatist comes to overvalue a number of ideas. Concrete things are prized over abstractions; expedient, practical action supersedes more noble pursuits undertaken for their own sake. Pragmatism is so preoccupied with knowledge’s prospective function, it discredits its retrospective foundation—the settled past. Thus it fails to see that while, indeed, knowledge has significance for the future (as predictions), only the past may warrant its truth.

This confusion engenders ethical relativism. For when the pragmatist doubts the realist claim that only the settled past can anchor historical knowledge, she also dismisses the very criterion which might settle disagreements and build consensus. In lieu of a correspondence between historical propositions and a single, completed Past, the pragmatist grounds truth claims upon "experiment" and "experience."

This answer is unacceptable to Lewis as it is a renunciation of the search for the Good. For if the standards and purposes by which we judge our knowledge and conduct were derived merely from present experience, we would lack assurance that our criteria could (a) remain stable over time, and (b) remain within the bounds "decency" or "goodness." Fashions and customs may shift, but the good is supposed to stay still. The pragmatist criteria of "experience" and "experiment" are by definition transitory, and they do not refer to anything fixed as their guide. About this, Lewis complains that,

The sense in which "experience can develop its own regulative standards" is not clear. [Is] it not the case that we must ourselves bring to experience the ultimate criterion and touchstone of the good; that otherwise experience could no more teach us what is good than it can teach the blind man what things are red? (DC 263)

The pragmatist may claim that experience guides us, but what guides it—more experience? For Lewis, that is a vicious regress. A standard must preexist experience to provide the criterion of what is good. By replacing fixed criteria (such as The Past) with "experience," the pragmatist leaves behind a venerable and indispensable philosophic quest.


In sum, realists believe that

  1. The past is a discrete and transcendent realm; it exists, in some sense, independently of what we think or say about it. It can known for its own sake.
  2. The mind knows the past in virtue of transcendent reference. This an act of retrospection matches propositions with past states of affairs.
  3. Historical narratives can be objectively true.

Realists reject pragmatism because it denies these points. They criticize pragmatism for

  1. Holding a prospective account of knowledge. By unduly emphasizing knowledge’s practical orientation pragmatists destroy the facticity of the past. Knowing the past for its own sake becomes impossible.
  2. Promoting ethical relativism. A view that denies any fixed and independent criteria of objects rejects the very standpoint which guarantees objective moral norms for human conduct.

II. Pragmatism

The pragmatist cannot adopt realism’s view that the past is a realm independent of what we think or say about it. The idea of such a past which can arbitrate "what really happened" may fit with customary speech but it raises some very disquieting questions. One might demand, for example, how such a realm exists—or where. One might press the point, asking, "If the past and the present are discrete realms, then how is it possible to map propositions from one to the other? Would that require occupying some third and independent, standpoint?" And so forth. These questions appear insurmountable.

Temporal quality vs. Temporal Order

Pragmatists begin with a view of reality as processual, as one made up of ongoing transactions rather than of discrete temporal realms. Under such a hypothesis, the past has to be reexamined and reconstructed.

How should we rethink the past? We might begin by considering that the past may be characterized in both quantitative and qualitative terms. Some event-sequences—e.g., a waltz—are experienced qualitatively. A waltz is unique in drama, feeling, and duration. A waltz marathon, in contrast, require that certain quantitative determinations be applied such as "number of steps taken," "time of start/finish," and "total time waltzing." For the purpose of judging a marathon, quantitative descriptions are preferred since quantities are discrete and "statable in terms that are systematically comparable with one another." (LW 12: 476) But notice, quantitative descriptions are chosen not because they exhaust experience—describe the marathon "as it really happened"— but because of their function in a particular inquiry. The "accuracy" of a measurement (e.g., 23.6 hours waltzing) derives from its performance as a logical function.

Because terms like "past", "future", "space", or "mass" are so fundamental to usage we forget their functional origins. These terms emerge from experience, they don’t preexist or contain it. These terms name concepts that relate experiences for the purposes of inquiry, purposes which concresce to resolve problematic situations. Again, their status "is logical, not ontological." (LW 12: 476-77)

The pragmatist, then, disagrees with the idea that the past subsists ontologically; the past is neither thing nor realm, and does not co-exist, somehow, alongside our present. The past is an abstraction; while it has tremendous utility, it is not substantive. Daybreak divides night from day, but it’s position in that order does not exhaust its qualitative character. Though temporal qualities may remain retrievable (through memories, photographs, etc.) for activities of ordering, they are no more reducible to the order we impose then love is reducible to neurons firing in the brain.

Recognizing that the qualitative cannot be reduced, toto cœlo, to the quantitative concepts can free the historian from purblind expeditions to The Past. Yet the freedom is not unbounded. Historical inquiry must still be regulated by numerous other factors: the purpose it serves, the scrutiny of fellow historians, the materials available to serve as evidence, and the social and political context. All these factors comprise the situation.

The Facticity of the Past (The Past "for its own sake")

The pragmatist denial of the past’s independent existence is closely connected to the assertion that knowing the past "for its own sake" is an unintelligible project. Historical inquiry cannot "replay" events they actually happened; no moment in a processual universe can ever be reinstated. Not only is the matrix of events unique later on, but more importantly, the act of ordering events (writing history) is a distinctly different act than living through them. To put it more bluntly, the past cannot be known for its own sake because it is gone, and because it does not have a sake.

There is, however, an acceptable construal of this phrase. The phrase, "For it’s own sake," Dewey writes,

Is…valuable…when interpreted as a warning to avoid prejudice, to struggle for the greatest possible amount of objectivity and impartiality, and as an exhortation to exercise caution and scepticism in determining the authenticity of material proposed as potential data. Taken in any other sense, it is meaningless. (LW 12: 236)

The pursuit of the past for its own sake substitutes reminiscence for effective intelligence, and this, too, has a cost. Hayden White points out that,

In the world in which we daily live, anyone who studies the past as an end in itself must appear to be either an antiquarian, fleeing from the problems of the present into a purely personal past, or a kind of cultural necrophile, that is, one who finds in the dead and dying a value he can never find in the living. The contemporary historian has to establish the value of the study of the past, not as an end in itself, but as a way of providing perspectives on the present that contribute to the solution of problems peculiar to our own time. ("The Burden of History" in Tropics of Discourse, Essays in Cultural Criticism, [Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978], 41.)

So, pragmatists repudiates realism on both logical and ethical grounds. Not only is the idea of a singular, absolutely true description of past events logically groundless, it is an objective that should be rejected as an unhealthy ideal.

Transcendental Reference

To quickly consider the second tenet of realist history, transcendent reference, we should first call attention to the term "history." "History" is equivocal, meaning both "that which happened in the past" as well as "the intellectual reconstruction of these happenings at a subsequent time." (LW 12: 235-236) A similar equivocation occurs when well-documented historical events are called "truths." But of course only propositions can be true or false— not the events they describe. Whether "Caesar crossed the Rubicon" is warranted or not depends on extant evidence. But the events described no longer persist.

The realist doctrine of transcendent reference blurs this obvious distinction between events and propositions. To the realist, Caesar crossing the Rubicon may serve as both existential object (what we’re trying to determine) and epistemological criterion (which determines whether we’re right or not)! And even if one allowed this bizarre view, the realist would still owe an explanation as to how one could know whether a proposition about the past hits its ancient target. Skeptically, Dewey asks,

…How can the present [historical] belief jump out of its present skin, dive into the past, and land upon just the one event (that as past is gone forever) which, by definition, constitutes its truth? … [H]ow [could]we manage to know when one thought lands straight on the devoted head of something past and gone, while another thought comes down on the wrong thing in the past? (MW 6:6-7 )

Again, the questions raised by the realist epistemology (i.e., the correspondence view of truth) is too implausible to pursue further.

To explain how claims about the past are warranted, the pragmatist relies upon scientific, experimental inquiry located in the present. Past events are ordered and described hypothetically, their plausibility resting upon existing evidence and collaboration with other inquirers. Accounts are "warranted" not when they succeed in referring to the "real past" but when they resolve something problematic in present experience. needed

A plane crashes. We initially ask "what happened" and then "what went wrong on Pan AM 103." But notice how the question’s intent is already quite determinate; it evokes a very specific set of subquestions and offers detailed direction as to how we should make controlled observations, select and collect data, and devise statements about causes and motives. These operations aim for a plausible theory about causes of the disaster based on the evidence on hand. Talk about "figuring out what really happened" is in fact an accounting for the evidence we have on hand so we can fulfill numerous purposes. The judgments rendered are fallible not certain. But though we can’t go back in time, a bomb-sized hole allows for explanations adequate for physical, as well as political and legal, judgments. Conclusions are final when they satisfy questions, not when they provide a perfect account of several fateful minutes.


Pragmatist views have often been received with considerable controversy. Consistently, the chief worry has been relativism. If capital ‘T’ Truth is ruled out as the objective of historical inquiry and The Past is disallowed as Truth’s steadfast criterion, then what will serve instead? Dewey’s answer, "experience", worries realists who believe it implies that the meaning of past events can be twisted for present whims. Not only does this seem like acceptance of unstable standards, it is likened to the dishonest methods totalitarian regimes use to rewrite history.

The question becomes, how can pragmatists both appeal to experience and preserve the line between factual history and fictional propaganda? The best answer will mention two central pragmatist views about knowledge: its genesis in and through experience and its development through social transactions.

Relativism is an objectionable charge because it implies both wobbly and self-interested standards. Pragmatists like Dewey defend standards based upon experience by pointing out that while historical judgments derive from and are tested in experience, experience is not subjectivistic. Our transactions with the world do not start from an isolated mental standpoint nor from a self-enclosed linguistic scheme. The premise, shared by both early realists and idealists, that knowing constitutes the fundamental relation between persons and their environment is denied because it is too narrowly delimits the variety of transactions which actually obtain. The sum of those various connections Dewey calls "experience."

Pragmatists often employ "experience" as a technical term but one can approximate its meaning through common usage, as in the phrase "work experience." "Experience" connotes "events participated in or lived through," i.e., all our modes of interaction, not just the subjective psychic affairs of an individual consciousness. Dewey distinguishes two basic modes of experience, primary and secondary. Secondary experience is reflective; as the product of our inquires, it is "known." Theorizing is mostly secondary experience. Yet, much of experience is not known; it is undergone, suffered, or enjoyed, but while it is certainly real, it is not reflective. Dewey calls this "primary experience," and it is the living context permeating what we think, say, and do. This context is shot through with immediate qualities that are not the products of reflection, not the products of language use. They are existential, experienced but not known.

            This simple insight—that experience describes a relation between organism and environment that is not coextensive with knowing—is crucial to avoiding subjectivism. For if pragmatist metaphysics claims that experience includes both elements within and without our influence, then the charge of relativism has already been invalidated. William James sowed a century of pragmatist backpedaling when he spoke too loosely and claimed that truth was that which is "useful" or "satisfying" for us. But Dewey did not repeat James’ mistake. Truth is satisfying, Dewey wrote, but the satisfaction is not merely

a private comfort, a meeting of purely personal need. …[S]atisfaction is of the needs and conditions of the problem out of which the idea, the purpose and method of action, arises. It includes public and objective conditions. It is not to be manipulated by whim or personal idiosyncrasy. (mw 12: 170, my emphasis.)

Truth satisfies not only an experiencer but the entire domain of conditions that make up the situation, including both subjective and objective aspects. To seriously answer a question, to conduct inquiry, we must reckon honestly about what is at stake; generally, consequences are both mental and physical, public and private. Such a reckoning can limit "interpretation solipsism" without necessitating an appeal to a God’s Eye Point of View, an External World, or "Past as it Really Was."

Pragmatists, then, are not subjectivists about historical knowledge. They clearly deny that the data selected and ordered as evidence may form any conclusion whatsoever. Experience is by and large not subject to our wants and wills and thus constrains the uses to which data may be put in inquiry. At the same time, pragmatism is not a traditional realism either since it rejects the idea that "the past" is a singular thing which may condition all its possible meanings. Such meanings depend both upon qualities that present themselves beyond our control in experience, and also upon factors within our control such as the scope and character of the specific inquiry in which we’re engaged.

Knowledge A Democratic Process

Pragmatism may also elude the relativism label by citing their social-basis account of knowledge. While the pragmatist maintains that a plurality of perspectives exist, she insists that perspectives are an outgrowth, not a distortion, of nature. Some fear that if there are only perspectives, then each perspective must be as good as any other. This fear is unfounded. The warrant of judgment relies on verification beyond the individual wish—on judgment’s ability to resolve what was problematic in a situation that is not exclusively subjective or mental.

Just as significantly, the pragmatist denies atomic individualism which is a key premise motivating fears of perspectival truth. Instead, she adopts, with inductive justification, the axiom that the self exists in and through relationships and must forge consensus to advance growth. "Since men have to act together," Dewey writes, "[and] since the individual subsists in social bonds and activities, [when we] convert [one] another to a certain way of looking at things [we] make social ties and functions better adapted, more prosperous in their workings." (MW 6: 10)

Inquiry, too, is socially based. To be mutually understood, our very terms must arise through collaboration. And while others may not be immediately necessary for observation or theory construction, they are indispensable for verification of the meaningfulness of conclusions. The sociality of inquiry in hardly accidental; it is integral to the meaning of "knowledge" and "truth." Consensus about meaning is forged—it is truth-making not truth-witnessing.

When it is recognized that historical inquiries are undertaken to address problems with practical implications, it will be fully acknowledged that their evaluation cannot be divorced from the values and aims of those who use them. You might call my history "biased", but consider what this means to a pragmatist. "Bias" does not mean I have inaccurately represented some fixed past. It means that the norms of inquiry have been so egregiously disregarded that my method is too idiosyncratic—too "undemocratic"— to be repeated by others; it means that the results are of little worth for future inquiries.

It is here, then, that inquiry and democracy meet. For the pragmatist, democracy is the experimental method writ large; it is the belief, justified by past experience, that we solve problems best when methods are cooperative and corroborative, drawing their standards from no authority outside of lived experience.

There is a tragedy buried in the assertion that a given historical proposition is true because "it really happened that way." It is tragic because it is dogmatic, a sign that the democratic processes essential to successful inquiry are faltering or breaking down. For if this assertion intends more than an enthusiastic confidence in one’s own conclusions, than what it invokes—a transcendent ground—is something which cannot be questioned or disproved. Empirically, it may not be verifiable, for one who is not blessed with a similar transcendent access cannot repeat the discovery. At this point the only recourse left to defeat such a theory is to either stifle it, using political or personal force, or to propose an alternative. But that is to retreat, not progress, in history.

III. Conclusion: Pragmatism and Antirealism

I have tried to introduce pragmatism’s philosophy of history and show how it departs from traditional realism. While it is beyond my compass to explore why pragmatism is preferable to postmodernism/antirealism, it is instructive to note one difference.

Keith Jenkins is a postmodernist who argues lucidly against realist theories of history. Roughly, he holds that since we have no direct access to the past, we cannot know it with any finality, and so the empiricist project of escaping the evidence-selection-interpretation circle is futile. Realism’s opposite, what Jenkins’s calls "hapless relativism" is equally unattractive, though, and we needn’t adopt it. Interpretations have different plausibilities, Jenkins says, because of the relation between knowledge and power. He writes,

[K]nowledge is related to power and …those with the most power distribute and legitimate "knowledge" vis--vis interests as best they can. This is the way out of relativism in theory, by analyses of power in practice, and thus a relativist perspective need not lead to despair but to the beginning of a general recognition of how things seem to operate. This is emancipating. ( Re-Thinking History, 25-26.)

It is not explained here how one adjudicates among rival theories of power, but Jenkins would argue that this question answers itself: adjudication among theories is also a matter of power. To ask for a more ultimate standard, such as truth, is to ask for something which does not exist. What, then, is history for Jenkins? It is "a discourse, a language game" in which "useful fictions" play out contests of power.

There is a regress here, I think, and one to which pragmatists are not prone. Jenkins theoretical escape from relativism is itself justified by some further theory; Jenkins’ choice of theory sees historical truth as the product of language and power. At this point, there seems to be only two options: one either seeks some further ground for taking language and power as ultimate notions, or one simply agrees with Jenkins on aesthetic grounds. As Rorty might put it, we just prefer some vocabularies.

In contrast, pragmatists justify historical interpretations by reference to experimental consequences, specifically whether or not the actual, living, and problematic situation generating the inquiry is resolved. Thus, there are tests for interpretive theories which are not themselves theoretical. This kind of test cannot offer any perfect hermeneutic criterion; its acceptability lies in action.

In the final analysis, to paraphrase Emerson, each age must write its own histories. "As culture changes," Dewey writes, "the conceptions that are dominant in a culture change. Of necessity new standpoints for viewing, appraising and ordering data arise. History is then rewritten." (LW 12: 233)