Can We Truly Know The Lives of Historical Figures?

From a LECTURE SERIES BY Professor Robert LaFleur, Ph.D.

We have a problem in everyday language when we want to talk about “what happened” in the lives of historical figures. “What happened” is surprisingly complicated, even when we wish to explain an event that occurred earlier today, much less the actions of a person living 2,500 years ago.

Image of 4 historical figures over watchesThe “Truth Versus Veridicality” Problem

Veridicality. It’s not a term that comes up very often in our everyday lives. I think that it should, though. In a nutshell, it means that something is in accordance with the historical sources.

Learn more about the History of the Ancient World

Let’s unpack the implications of that. We have a problem in everyday language when we want to talk about “what happened.” What happened is surprisingly complicated, even when we wish to explain an event that occurred earlier today, much less the actions of historical figures living 2,500 years ago. “What happened” is an especially slippery question when we start to count time not in hours, days, and weeks, but rather in centuries and even millennia. For the sake of my explanation, I refer specifically to the study of Confucius’ life. The subject of my course Books That Matter: The Analects of Confucius.

Image of Confucius - historical figure
Confucius (551 BC – 479 BC) was a Chinese teacher, editor, politician, and philosopher.

A quite worrisome realization starts to creep in if you think about this problem deeply. You see, we will never know what happened in Confucius’s life with any degree of certainty. It is hard enough to learn with accuracy what your neighbor had for breakfast this morning without interpretive challenges: what kind of milk? Imagine trying to understand a person and a world a million breakfasts ago. There are just too many gaps and too little clarity for any kind of certainty. Some philosophical thinkers have looked at this quite common kind of problem and written long tomes of existential despair: How can we ever know anything about anything?

A Kind Of “Postmodern Debacle”

My favorite experience here came from the first time I taught a course called Chinese Historiography. One of my students, taking the course as a breather from his premedical studies, was so bothered by our inability to know the past with certainty that he came to talk to me about it at least once a week. Finally, at the end of the semester, he talked to his parents and decided to take what was called a vacation term so that he could ponder the uncertainty further. I feared that I had created a kind of postmodern debacle that threatened a promising young career.

image of student in library studying historical figuresIt turns out that he did reflect further, came to terms with what we can never know and what we might never know, and went on to become a successful doctor. I wish that I could say that historians around the world had grasped the same message—not all have. Some have tried just to ignore it, hoping that enough research would just make the truth versus veridicality problem go away. I once had a fellow historian tell me that with enough research, in this case about 15th-century Europe, we can know the past with certainty; just read more.

Nope—not even close. There are gaps we will never fill. The trick is knowing that some might eventually be filled with great research, penetrating questions, and even new archaeological evidence. The key to understanding veridicality is knowing that we can’t fill all of the gaps.

Learn more about the History of Civilizations

Don’t Despair — Accept!

Our inability to know everything does not make me despair; far from it. Not only are the gaps among those so-called facts the things that make history absolutely fascinating, but we now have a concept that can give us some kind of grounding. In the case of Confucius, it requires that we learn to think on a new level far beyond any kind of objective certainty about what happened in a little teaching academy in the eastern state of Lu more than two millennia ago.

It requires that we strengthen our resolve, and know what we can know, accept that some things we might well never know, and keep learning all of the time.

It requires that we strengthen our resolve, and know what we can know, accept that some things we might well never know, and keep learning all of the time. It is the path of doing real history, and it requires that we understand this concept of veridicality. Remember, it doesn’t mean what happened; it’s more nuanced and source-driven than that. Veridical: in accordance with the sources. The term conveys that one document might state that Confucius was intensely serious about court rituals, and several others convey similar messages. We now are on the path of veridicality, and are not searching for the path of exactly what happened.

For instance, when I state that Confucius emphasized the centrality of ritual in the life of his society, I am not stating that this is exactly what happened; no one living today can ever know that. I am stating that there is documentation that leads me to believe that this emphasis on ritual is not just something I created in my own mind. It is veridical—it is in accordance with the sources of Confucius’s own time. I have mixed my intellectual labors with the sources of Confucius’s era to reach my conclusion. I am speaking about veridicality in a kind of shorthand meant not to slow us down with philosophical asides at every turn. We don’t know much, but what we do know is wonderfully enticing.

From the lecture series Books That Matter: The Analects of Confucius
Taught by Professor Robert André LaFleur , Ph.D

Read more:
Napoleon and the French Revolution
The Ottoman Empire at Total War, 1914–1916
Europe on the Brink of the Black Death: The Plague Begins

1 Comment

  1. What a gorgeous, beautiful concept and way of explaining it. What an incredible piece of understanding to bring to those of us who are lucky enough to encounter this. And this pertains not only to history, of course. It also refers to our political differences and our religious differences. And our family squabbles. In disputing with each other, each party is often SO SURE of their own correctness. Can we perhaps learn to be a little less certain?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.