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HOME > Classical Novels > Theory & History of Historiography > VII CHOICE AND PERIODIZATION
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Since a fact is historical in so far as it is thought, and since nothing exists outside thought, there can be no sense whatever in the question, What are historical facts and what are non-historical facts? A non-historical fact would be a fact that has not been thought and would therefore be non-existent, and so far no one has yet met with a non-existent fact. A historical thought links itself to and follows another historical thought, and then another, and yet another; and however far we navigate the great sea of being, we never leave the well-defined sea of thought. But it remains to be explained how the illusion is formed that there are two orders of facts, historical and non-historical. The explanation is easy when we recollect what has been said as to the chroniclizing of history which dies as history, leaving behind it the mute traces of its life, and also as to the function of erudition or philology, which preserves these traces for the ends of culture, arranging scattered items of news, documents, and monuments in an orderly manner. News, documents, and monuments are innumerable, and to collect them all would not only be impossible, but contrary to the ends themselves of culture, which, though aided in its work by the moderate and even copious supply of such things, would be hindered and suffocated by their exuberance, not to say infinity. We consequently observe that the annotator of news transcribes some items and omits the rest; the collector[Pg 109] of papers arranges and ties up in a bundle a certain number of them, tearing up or burning or sending to the dealer in such things a very large quantity, which forms the majority; the collector of antiques places some objects in glass cases, others in temporary safe custody, others he resolutely destroys or allows to be destroyed; if he does otherwise, he is not an intelligent collector, but a maniacal amasser, well fitted to provide (as he has provided) the comic type of the antiquarian for fiction and comedy. For this reason, not only are papers jealously collected and preserved in public archives, and lists made of them, but efforts are also made to discard those that are useless. It is for this reason that in the recensions of philologists we always hear the same song in praise of the learned man who has made a 'sober' use of documents, of blame for him who has followed a different method and included what is vain and superfluous in his volumes of annals, of selections from archives, or of collections of documents. All learned men and philologists, in fact, select, and all are advised to select. And what is the logical criterion of this selection? There is none: no logical criterion can be named that shall determine what news or what documents are or are not useful and important, just because we are here occupied with a practical and not with a scientific problem. Indeed, this lack of a logical criterion is the foundation of the sophism that tyrannizes over maniacal collectors, who reasonably affirm that everything can be of use, and would therefore unreasonably preserve everything—they wear themselves out in accumulating old clothes and odds and ends of all sorts, over which they mount guard with jealous affection. The criterion is the choice itself, conditioned, like every economic act, by knowledge of the actual situation, and[Pg 110] in this case by the practical and scientific needs of a definite moment or epoch. This selection is certainly conducted with intelligence, but not with the application of a philosophic criterion, and is justified only in and by itself. For this reason we speak of the fine tact, or scent, or instinct of the collector or learned man. Such a process of selection may quite well make use of apparent logical distinctions, as those between public and private facts, capital and secondary documents, beautiful or ugly, significant or insignificant monuments; but in final analysis the decision is always given from practical motives, and is summed up in the act of preserving or neglecting. Now from this preserving or neglecting, in which our action is realized, is afterward invented an objective quality, attributed to facts, which leads to their being spoken of as 'facts that are worthy' and 'facts that are not worthy of history,' of 'historical' and 'non-historical' facts. But all this is an affair of imagination, of vocabulary, and of rhetoric, which in no way changes the substance of things.

When history is confounded with erudition and the methods of the one are unduly transferred to the other, and when the metaphorical distinction that has just been noted is taken in a literal sense, we are asked how it is possible to avoid going astray in the infinity of facts, and with what criterion it is possible to effect the separation of 'historical' facts from 'those that are not worthy of history.' But there is no fear of going astray in history, because, as we have seen, the problem is in every case prepared by life, and in every case the problem is solved by thought, which passes from the confusion of life to the distinctness of consciousness; a given problem with a given solution: a problem that generates other problems, but is never[Pg 111] a problem of choice between two or more facts, but on each occasion a creation of the unique fact, the fact thought. Choice does not appear in it, any more than in art, which passes from the obscurity of sentiment to the clearness of the representation, and is never embarrassed between the images to be chosen, because itself creates the image, the unity of the image.

By thus confounding two things, not only is an insoluble problem created, but the very distinction between facts that can and facts that cannot be neglected is also denaturalized and rendered void. This distinction is quite valid as regards erudition, for facts that can be neglected are always facts—that is to say, they are traces of facts, in the form of news, documents, and monuments, and for this reason one can understand how they can be looked upon as a class to be placed side by side with the other class of facts that cannot be neglected. But non-historical facts—that is to say, facts that have not been thought—would be nothing, and when placed beside historical facts—that is to say, thought as a species of the same genus—they would communicate their nullity to those also, and would dissolve their own distinctness, together with the concept of history.

After this, it does not seem necessary to examine the characteristics that have been proposed as the basis for this division of facts into historical and non-historical. The assumption being false, the manner in which it is treated in its particulars remains indifferent and without importance in respect to the fundamental criticism of the division itself. It may happen (and this is usually the case) that the characteristics and the differences enunciated have some truth in themselves, or at least offer some problem for solution: for example, when by[Pg 112] historical facts are meant general facts and by non-historical facts those that are individual. Here we find the problem of the relation of the individual and the universal. Or, again, by historical facts are sometimes meant those that treat of history proper, and by ............
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