True stories save lives and change the world. Historians, cultural anthropologists and other students of the culture, ideas and inner workings of societies past and present are unique among academics in that their primary concern is telling true stories.
That is not to say that other disciplines’ stories are not true. What is different about history? History, and I’ll use this as a shorthand for everyone who is going to the past to look for evidence to explain something and then tries to understand it for its own sake, is inseparable from narrative. History is never just what was, but always also how this is told.
Humor a quick nerdy aside. Wilhelm Windelband was a Neo-Kantian philosopher. That’s not really important here, though. What is important is that, in addition to having a pretty memorable name, Windelband had the memorable idea that scholarship could be divided into two equal camps.
One he called “nomothetic.” The word translates from Greek into “that which creates laws”. The natural sciences are nomothetic. They observe things, they test hypotheses experimentally, and then they set down laws that will always be true under identical conditions. If chinks appear in the armor of such a law, scientists keep hitting at it until a new law emerges that can better explain the phenomenon. Think of Newtonian physics being replaced by Einstein’s. That, or watch Mythbusters.
The second camp Windelband called “idiographic,” meaning “describing the particular.” This is the camp historians are in. For the most part, anyway. There is no hard and fast separation of the two ways of searching for knowledge, and many of the best scholars in either camp thrive on pulling both approaches together. The idiographic approach relies heavily on narrative. The idiographic approach tells true stories. As a discipline, history has, at least in theory, moved past pretending there is one objective truth to be found, one gold standard to be adhered to. We should all be aware of our own situatedness, of our being born in a certain place and time, with certain cultural preconceptions and friends and family and knowledge.
At the same time, we must apply source criticism when we rely on facts and hold to a voraciusly-stoked fire the feet of those who tell their stories knowing that the facts will not support them. In history as a discipline, the need to do this has given rise to the footnote. Footnotes have in the past been much abused, and they are not always well-liked today. They are, however, a great way of putting things in context. Footnotes point to what the basis of a claim made is. They can and want to be checked for accuracy. They do all this while staying out of the way of the story being told. They are hyperlinks in print. Use both, and where you cannot, still try to point people to where they can find reliable sources.
True stories told with care, conviction and craft can hold their own in debates dominated by lies. They are the only thing that can. If you know how to tell compelling true stories without being ashamed of evoking emotions, you can get people to also feel instead of only understand. And that may make all the difference.
True stories told with care, conviction and craft can hold their own in debates dominated by lies. They are the only thing that can.
Stories are in large part what makes us human. Appeal to humanity. Now, more than ever, tell true stories well.