Umea University, Sweden.
Truth and majority rule
Truth is indeed a strong word to use. But think carefully. Is this thing we call science really possi-
ble without a concept of truth? If we deny the possibility of true and false representations of his-
torical events, can history then be called a science in any plausible sense of the word? The question
is rather important, given the frustrating ambivalence which seems to pervade historical thinking
today. On one hand most historians embrace a certain amount of relativism, an awareness that
truth is always contextually and socially determined. For who would, if they intend to be taken
seriously, claim to present the tmth on a certain matter?
On the other, any attempt to actually articulate a relativist theory of truth, as we know, ends up
bitmg its own tail. Once spelled out, also relativist theories themselves make claims to represent
truth. If not the truth, then at least a more probable version of it. The problem of self-reference
applies to critiques of the role of narrative or denials of the possibility of rationality as well. Also a
critique of narrative has to be narrated. Criticism of rationality, in order to have any eAect on the
community of scientists, has to be presented in the form of rational arguments. Thus all attempts
to clarify the epistemological status of the historical sciences, are trapped within the very discourse
they propose to discuss.
Furthermore, defending relativism poses disturbing difficulties for the historian arguing for his
or her position in society, where the legitimacy of the writing of history, as a science, is still de-
pendent on the ability of historians to present the historical truth. Truth, is what public or private
funds are paying for.
How do historians handle the tension this contradiction creates? Well, a general impression is
that in pracrice, a large number of works operate with a dual conception of truth. Vague phrases
about the limited validity of the results are combined with a great confidence in the ability of the
empirical material to represent reality truthfully.
So the traditional, basically empirical, view pertains when truth is seen in relation to the ques-
tion of evidence. A certain amount of evidence is required for truth to be at hand, and the larger
the amount, the more sound a basis for the account. Not only acknowledging, but cynically ac-
cepting that truth is a social construct, historians now seem more and more inclined to reason in
the same way also when deciding which out of several possible interpretations of evidence, is the
most true. Since truth now resides solely in the ability of the argumen( to convince, accordingly
the interpretation which gathers the largest number of followers, among historians, or in society at
large, is held to be the most truthful. How can this be?
Could it be that historians in countries where majority rule and democratic mechanisms are
strongly advocated through power structures, have let this way of choosing among competing
truths fill out the theoretical vacuum created by postmodernism? Confronted on a daily basis with
the exact figures of opinion polls, historians have unknowingly come to accept the conflation of
what is politically right with what is universally true. The mechanic of majority rule has become at
once the method and theory for settling the issue of truth. This also fits in well with the recent
upsurge of liberal market ideals. Historians are now seen to operate as vendors of historical truths
on a free market whose value-free mechanisms of selection guarantees that the most truthful inter-
pretation automatically will be chosen by the largest number of consumers.
Upholding such a position calls for a profound awareness of the perspective of rhetoric, both
whereas dialogue within the community of historians is concerned, and in relation to the historians'
place in a market based society, where communication is mediated through large scale media net-
works. If the media decide what historical narratives come to be looked upon as truth by the ma-
jority of a society, and the ability to present truth is seen as a necessary condition for viewing his-
tory as a science, then the label 'science' is dependent on the ability of historians to influence media
representation of historical events. A bright prospect indeed