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Standards of Evidence in Historical Research: How Do We Know When We Know?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 February 2017

Carl F. Kaestle*
The University of Wisconsin–Madison


This article seeks to give a brief response to the question, how do historians know when they know something? The question involves ideas about certitude and truth, and most historians today would make very modest claims about certitude or truth in our statements about the past. Many would echo Charles Beard, who said sixty years ago, “We hold a damn dim candle over a damn dark abyss.” Today the historical profession is fragmented, ideologically diverse, and somewhat relativistic, a situation that is applauded by some and bemoaned by others.

Methodological Note
Copyright © 1992 by the History of Education Society 

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1 Beard, Charles, cited in a communication by Smith, Robert F., American Historical Review 94 (Oct. 1989): 1247.

2 Novick, Peter, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge, 1988), 1, 51.

3 Rorty, Richard, cited in Novick, , Noble Dream, 540–41.

4 Ibid.

5 Cited in Levine, Lawrence, “The Unpredictable Past: Reflections on Recent American Historiography.” American Historical Review 94 (June 1989): 671.

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11 Furet, François and Ozouf, Jacques, Lire et Écrire: L'alphabetisation des francois de Calvin à Jules Ferry (Paris, 1977), published in English as Reading and Writing: Literacy in France from Calvin to Jules Ferry (Cambridge, 1982).

12 Kaestle, Carl F. and Vinovskis, Maris A., Education and Social Change in Nineteenth-Century Massachusetts (New York, 1980).

13 See Kaestle, Carl F. et al., Literacy in the United States: Readers and Reading since 1880 (New Haven, Conn., 1991), ch. 2.