Facts, Value Judgments, and History

Adrienne T. Chisolm `93, English 34 (1991)

Many post-colonial works of fiction address the ambiguities within that entity we call History -- the "inadequacies of historical absolutism" (Seth J. Kalvert, "Graves, Death and Travel Writing in Chatwin's In Patagonia" ). A newly independent population undergoes a process of reevaluating History -- the history of the nation as the colonizer has told it, and the feasibility of the existence of History as any sort of absolute entity at all; of the legends that contribute to the history of a post-colonial nation, it sometimes seems that all are true and none is reliable. It can be difficult to concede, as so many of the authors seem to want us to do, that what we know as history is just one storyteller's (or one culture's) version of what happened. Aren't facts facts? In his essay "What is Literature?" Terry Eagleton offers an applicable answer to the question:

Facts are public and unimpeachable, values are private and gratuitous. There is an obvious difference between recounting a fact, such as "This cathedral was built in 1612," and registering a value-judgement, such as "This cathedral is a magnificent specimen of baroque architecture." But suppose I made the first kind of statement while showing an overseas visitor around England, and found that it puzzled her considerably. Why, she might ask, do you keep telling me the dates of the foundation of all these buildings? Why this obsession with origins? In the society I live in, she might go on, we keep no record at all of such events: we classify our buildings instead according to whether they face north-west or south-east. What this might do would be to demonstrate part of the unconscious system of value-judgements which underlies my own descriptive statements. Such value-judgements are not necessarily the same kind as "This cathedral is a magnificent specimen of baroque architecture," but they are value-judgements nonetheless, and no factual pronouncement I make can escape them. Statements of fact are after all statements, which presumes a number of questionable judgements: that those statements are worth making, perhaps more worth making than certain other, that I am the sort of person entitled to make them and perhaps able to guarantee their truth, that you are the kind of person worth making them to, that something useful is accomplished by making them, and so on (Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory, 12-13).

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