Historical realism is the view that we can really study and know about history. Philosopher William Craig explains that “on the realist view such enterprises really do tell us something about the world we live in, as opposed to historical or science fiction” (1). One writer explains what it means to be a historical realist:
“That essentially means that I believe that history is a fact, and a fact that we might know, but not necessarily a fact that we can know we know – not something that can be proven as fact. That said, a historical reconstruction doesn’t have to prove itself, but merely be convincing” (2)
Being a historical realist does not deny that in many cases certain historical reconstructions will be undermined. That historians disagree with each other over historical reconstructions “in no way implies that there is no objective past or that in other cases where the evidence is clear we cannot know with confidence what really happened” (3). Historical evidence, to the realist, is important and thus must be considered. The late philosopher Nowell-Smith points out that “Some results of historical thinking are so well established that it would be madness to doubt them; others have only the status of being a more probable explanation of the evidence than any rival hypothesis” (4).
Smith emphasizes the importance of evidence that, for example, “we took seriously the hypothesis that there never was any such person as George Washington, we should be faced with the problem of accounting for the existence of such a vast body of evidence—not testimony, but evidence, documents of whose existence and nature we are now aware – that it would soon become obvious that the task is impossible. To put it mildly, the hypothesis that there was no such person is in a very weak position vis-a-vis the hypothesis that there was; and that is all that the standard of proof in history requires” (5).
1. Craig, W. 2008. Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics. p. 481. (Scribd ebook format)
2. Responding to Skeptics. 2007. The Resurrection: What Do I know? Available.
3. Craig, W. 2008. Ibid. p. 482. (Scribd ebook format)
4. Craig, W. 2008. Ibid. p. 483. (Scribd ebook format)
5. Nowell-Smith. 1977. Constructionist Theory of History. p. 4.