Hall PHL 362 Assignment

PHL 362 Assignment 2
Shayne Hall
PHL 362 Assignment #2
Shayne Hall
Sunday, December 10th 2017
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PHL 362 Assignment 2
Shayne Hall
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In Narration and Knowledge, Arthur Danto examines the role historians have in giving an
account for the past, and posits that they have also a role in interpreting the past. Danto posits
that narrative sentences show us that history is not encapsulated by being a story of the past, but
it also involves the prediction and explanation of the history of future generations. In this paper I
will examine Danto’s position and identify what I think are the strengths and weaknesses of his
In practicing history, historians seek to make accurate statements regarding the actual
events of history. Danto thinks that they both can in principle and do in fact succeed in this in
many cases. He argues that historians can answer questions of the form “what happened at x?”,
where x is some place at some past time. However, the answers to these questions can vary
broadly in explanatory power. He gives the example of a summary of the battle of Waterloo in
1815 as “Napoleon lost.”. While this answer might be entirely satisfactory depending on what
the questioner wanted to know, it is certainly not a maximally detailed depiction of the battle
itself. We can take a maximally detailed description of a given event by examining a set of
sentences that when combined state everything that happened within that event. In addition, the
order of these sentences must be aligned in some way with the order that the sub-events within
the main event occurred. Danto contends that to expect this level of accuracy to the level of
perfection in a depiction of the past would miss the objective of what historians are trying to do.
He uses artwork as an analogy for this.
An artist who thinks that imitation of reality is the prime focus of art should conclude that
any imitation of reality necessarily fails to perfectly reproduce its subject. Therefore, only the
thing itself can be a proper imitation, so artists must perfectly duplicate every detail of their
subject in their actual forms. Danto notes that in this case, even if the artist succeeds in their
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recreation of the subject, they have failed in the pursuit of art, because they have not created a
work of art but the subject for one. In the same way, historians are tasked not with recreating a
perfect simulation of the past, but instead use selection, emphasis and elimination to bring
forward a historical truth.
There is a distinction drawn between narratives in what Danto calls “proper history” and
chronicle. Chronicle is merely an account of the events that took place, and nothing else. Proper
history is concerned with assigning meaning or discerning some meaning of the facts that are
reported in chronicles. Chronicle can be termed as plain narrative while proper history is
expressed in significant narrative.
To further his case that history is not merely a perfect recollection of events, Danto
introduces his “Ideal Chronicler”. This character is someone who can collect every single piece
of data available from a situation and instantaneously transcribe it into a perfect record. The
chronicler can access the entirety of the past and adds new information without error. However,
the work of the ideal chronicler is not congruent with history on Danto’s view in the same way
that in the previous example, the artist’s perfect recreation of the subject is not art. The
chronicler’s work is merely a source by which we can both discover and assign significant
narrative to.
Expanding on this idea, if we suppose that the chronicler’s work is accessible by
historians, we find that since the chronicler’s work is necessarily infallible as it has full access to
all of the data available and is perfectly transcribed, that any contradictory accounts provided
must be missing some information that the chronicler’s work has access to, and should be taken
as incomplete accounts. However, if we assume that the account is based on real evidence, we
should be able to add missing information, eliminate contradictory information and rearrange
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events such that we are left with a segment of the chronicler’s work. It would seem that the
business of a historian in that they gather data and use it to construct a hypothesis about the past
would be fruitless if they had a copy of the chronicler’s work. However, Danto thinks that this
would merely be the beginning of a historian’s work.
The chronicler’s work can be taken the same way as any other eye witness account in that
it will not tell him every possible thing the historian might wish to know about a particular event.
Although this seems contradictory, there is a class of description that is necessarily excluded
from the chronicler’s work. This being truths about the event that can only be known with a
retrospective eye. For instance, on the day that Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, the
chronicler’s work would not have contained statements like “This was the beginning of world
war one.”. Since the ideal chronicler describes only that which is true and is unchanging other
than the addition of present information, we can conclude that the ideal chronicler is incapable of
creating what Danto calls narrative sentences.
For me, this is where Danto’s position in this work is at its strongest. I find it very
convincing that it is the job of historians to not only provide as accurate a chronicle of the past as
can be made, but also to interpret the events in this chronicle given knowledge of events out of
the order of their succession. In this case I think the art analogy is particularly apt, because we
can realize new truths about the subject of the art in light of an artist’s perception of that subject.
Narrative sentences refer to at least two events that are separated by time in order to
establish a relationship between the first event and the rest. These sentences are for Danto the
work of historians to construct to give significance to any instance of chronicle. They provide
context for prior events given their effect on future events.
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The creation of narrative sentences is the means by which historians can add significance
to past events in chronicle. The context of current events can only be established with the
knowledge of events which have not taken place yet. An instantiation of this is given by Danto’s
coin flip scenario. If a man calls heads on a coin flip and it turns out later that when the coin is
flipped and it lands on heads, we can construct a narrative sentence that says “The man correctly
called heads on the ensuing coin flip.”. This has more explanatory power than the chronicle’s
version of events which would sound something like “The man called heads.” followed by “The
coin fell on heads.”. Furthermore, if this coin flip led to further events, with the benefit of
retrospect, we can create more narrative sentences that discover more significance in the man’s
calling heads than the chronicler was able to transcribe. Danto uses the example of a narrative
sentence such as: “Aristarchus anticipated in 270 B.C. the theory which Copernicus published in
A.D. 1543.”. This sentence cannot, by definition, appear in the chronicler’s work because the
chronicler in 270 B.C. cannot have known that there would be a man named Copernicus later on
and that he would have published his work in 1543.
Events that take place later in time can give new meaning to those that took place earlier
as well. The chronicler’s work cannot express a sentence that describes an individual by an
action that they have yet to take. Danto’s example here is that when Isaac Newton was born, we
can use a narrative sentence such as “In 1642, the writer of the Principia Mathematica, Isaac
Newton was born.”, even though when he was born, his contemporaries would not know that he
would eventually write the Principia Mathematica.
By combining retrospective historical perspectives and an accurate chronicle, I think
historians are able to better explain past events than the ideal chronicler, who is only able to
describe events as they happen. As long as a historian remains objective with their narrative, they
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can provide an emphasis on events by the use of narrative sentences that the chronicler’s work
A criticism that I have of this position is that it only holds true as long as we take it for
granted that there will be future events yet to unfold. If there were no events that took place after
the present moment, there would be no further context for events that have happened in the past,
and at some point there would be no more space for historians to construct meaningfully distinct
narrative sentences upon the chronicler’s work. We don’t know for certain that events now will
have a meaningful effect on the future. In this case, I think it is possible for the chronicler’s work
to eventually become a complete account of history.
The next feature of Danto’s argument here is discussing what he calls “project verbs”.
Project verbs are the present tense version of an action that we presume will have future
consequences. A man who is planting seeds in a hole can be said to be “planting roses”, even
though there is much work yet to be done in the cultivation and eventually the actualization of
the roses from the seeds he is planting. Danto argues that the ideal chronicler is not allowed to
use project verbs in its work. This is because it is entirely possible for someone to be planting
roses at one time and at a later time for those potential roses to never become actual. If the rose
planting man performs some part of the set of actions that we deem necessary for him to be
planting roses, and then at a later point does not finish his job, the chronicle would have been
incorrect in saying he was planting roses in the first place, and the chronicler isn’t allowed to
make revisions after the fact.
So, it seems that to know the full historical significance of events as they happen, the
chronicler would not only need to know future events, but which future events become relevant
to providing context to current events. Danto invokes David Hume’s ideas on causation to
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elaborate on this. We cannot perceive an event as being a cause for some future event, as if the
future event fails to occur, then it would be false that the current event was the cause of the
future event in the first place. Being the cause of another event is not something that is accessible
in the chronicler’s work. Historians can only realize causation in retrospect and by the use of a
narrative sentence that explains the causation with knowledge of both the cause and its effect.
In summary, I found Arthur Danto’s work in Narration and Knowledge to be quite
convincing when it comes to describing the role of historians in not only accounting for past
events but also to use narration to give context to those events. I think his ideal chronicler
character provides a useful tool for examining the limitations that mere chronicle has in terms of
history. By examining the things that this tool has uncovered I think Danto is right to say that
proper history is more than just providing an accurate account of past events, and that only future
historians will be able to provide a narrative for current events.
PHL 362 Assignment 2
Shayne Hall
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Danto, A. C. (1985). Narration and Knowledge. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
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