Our various discussions about spit and memory reminded me of my favorite passage on the subject of truth and observation, which I had thought was probably everybody’s favorite, but the Internets wouldn’t yield it up to me in full. So here it is, John Steinbeck from The Log from the Sea of Cortez:

We knew that what we would see and record and construct would be warped, as all knowledge patterns are warped, first, by the collective pressure and stream of our time and race, second by the thrust of our individual personalities. But knowing this, we might not fall into too many holes—we might maintain some balance between our warp and the separate thing, the external reality. The oneness of these two might take its contribution from both. For example: the Mexican sierra has “XVII-15-IX” spines in the dorsal fin. These can easily be counted. But if the sierra strikes hard on the line so that our hands are burned, if the fish sounds and nearly escapes and finally comes in over the rail, his colors pulsing and his tail beating the air, a whole new relational externality has come into being—an entity which is more than the sum of the fish plus the fisherman. The only way to count the spines of the sierra unaffected by this second relational reality is to sit in a laboratory, open an evil-smelling jar, remove a stiff colorless fish from a formalin solution, count the spines, and write the truth “D.XVII-15-IX.” There you have recorded a reality which cannot be assailed—probably the least important reality concerning either the fish or yourself.

It is good to know what you are doing. The man with his pickled fish has set down one truth and has recorded in his experience many lies. The fish is not that color, that texture, that dead, nor does he smell that way…. [W]e were determined not to let a passion for unassailable little truths draw in the horizon and crowd the sky down on us. We knew that what seemed to us true could be only relatively true anyway. There is no other kind of observation. The man with his pickled fish has sacrificed a great observation about himself, the fish, and the focal point, which is his thought on both the sierra and himself.1

I read the passage to mean that the single falsifiable statement is both valuable and insufficient as a record of human experience. We want to know how many dorsal spines the Mexican sierra usually has; we also want to know about this Mexican sierra (and this gin and these sandwiches), the specific being the business of history. And as Steinbeck points out, the weaving together of specifics into an account of experience necessarily involves the construction of a warp, which does what warps do.

Which is not a mushy-headed form of relativism, I think; it is rather the position that Friend-of-This-Blog (well, more accurately, one-time commenter; come back, Shane!) Michael Bérubé intelligently takes, in another passage the Internets seem to have denied me:

I always assume that the phenomenal world exists, that terms such as “deoxyribonucleic acid” or “cosmic microwave background radiation” describe phenomena that exist independently of human observation. I also establish a working relationship with realism—and I do mean “working relationship” literally—whenever I am searching for my keys, because I have learned that I do not live in Jorge Luis Borge’s Tlön, where everyone who searches for an object finds some version of it (and these versions are called hrönir). However, should any of my interlocutors demand philosophical proof of this phenomenal world, I refer them to the history of philosophy and wish them the best of luck. The problem is not merely a problem of distinguishing the real world from the neuron firings that give us our sense impressions of it, though that problem is complex enough to discourage most of us; it is also a problem of accounting for the character of human knowledge of the phenomenal world as human knowledge.2

As historians we are like Bérubé looking for his lost keys. We know the keys are out there—we can describe them, or perhaps our kids can describe them, as last seen sitting in a pool of sunlight on the kitchen counter, peeking out from under the flyer some kid left at the door, offering to paint the fence. We know what keys for that model of car look like; perhaps there is a picture of them and their specialized fob in the owner’s manual of the vehicle. We can remember the feel of them and the jingle in our pockets. But they are not here, and no amount of story-telling is going to conjure them up—but if we do it right (and when we are looking for our keys we have a strong motive to do it right) our story might reconstruct a narrative of the past that will lead us to the place where they are, right now.

And suppose we are wrong? We would not wish to be wrong. We want our keys. Yet we do not shy away from constructing a definite account of the keys’ whereabouts for fear of being wrong. We do not say, “some have claimed the keys were used as home plate in a baseball game played by toy soldiers on the living-room floor” and then stop at wondering why the keys might thus have been used (although their user might indeed have some explaining to do); we jolly well go and look among the toy soldiers on the living-room floor. And suppose the keys are not there: our narrative of where the keys have gone is wrong. Maybe they got kicked under the couch, though. Let’s look under there.

Which is to say, the construction of historical narratives should also entail the construction of tests for those narratives’ possible relation to the things that actually happened. Dude, the keys are somewhere.

We likewise rule out the impossible and the improbable. The keys are somewhere. They did not just vanish. It is possible but highly unlikely that they were carried off by a magpie swooping through the front door and exiting without trace. We confine ourselves therefore to the realm of likelihood. And unless magpies have swooped through here, or nearly done so, we leave aside the possibility of an unobserved act by a key-stealing magpie.

And we look again. And either we find the keys or else we take a bus, having decided the jingle we can vaguely remember hearing last night as we slid out of the vinyl booths at the restaurant was the sound of the keys falling out of my pocket, and we’ll have to call them later once they’ve opened but right now we have to get to work.

This is what we do: either we find the keys or we construct an explanation of why we cannot find the keys, but we still go. (Also, because we are historians and skeptical, sometimes when we find the keys and they look as the keys should look and they operate the car we nevertheless consider the possibility that someone has made a copy of the keys and left them helpfully about and that although these are functioning keys that represent the original keys they are not, properly speaking, the original keys and might be altered in some meaningful way—but normally, we try to confine such speculation to the realm of the plausible; why would someone do that to a set of keys?)

And maybe we were wrong. Maybe we abandoned the search, took the bus, and the keys were in the desk drawer all along. Then we feel stupid, and we have to apologize to those whom we might have blamed for leaving the keys on the floor or dropping them in the restaurant. But it doesn’t mean we were wrong to decide to cut our losses and hit the road.

In no part of this ludicrously extended metaphor, though we have strived endlessly for certain knowledge, have we committed malfeasance: that only happens if, say, we know where the spare keys are, we drop them on the front doorstep, and then claim to have discovered them. That’s just tacky. That some historians are tacky, I suppose, is undeniable. But being tacky isn’t an intrinsic hazard of the search for certitude, whether of car keys or fish. It’s a human failing, into which human beings can fall whether they’re striving for truth or not.


1John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez (London: Penguin, 1986), 2-3.
2Michael Bérubé, Rhetorical Occasions (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 37-38.