Is history just a series of events, or an interpretation of those events? Is there progress in history? Can history be objective, or is it, as Napoleon said, just the version of past events that
It seems likely that an important part of the evolution of language (and thought and consciousness, for that matter) had to do with sharing information. Intelligence means using information to guide action. With much of what we do, the link between information and action is hardwired; we perceive that we are falling, we balance ourselves; we see a projectile coming at us; we duck; we feel hunger, gaining the information that we need food, and we eat.
But humans have developed the ability to accumulate information about particular things, and types of situations that go far beyond what we can pick up through perception at the time action is required, and to make our actions appropriate to this accumulated information. When I react to Ken, it's not just in terms of what I see about him at the time, but my memories of previous encounters. I can't see that his name is `Ken', or that he has a son who plays baseball, but I'll use these remembered bits of information to guide my behavior when I see him, and say, ``Hi Ken. How is Kyoshi's team doing?"
Language provides a way of pooling information, so that the perceptions of one person end up providing information for another. When I go on a trip to London, I take along a guidebook, and read reviews of the plays available at the West End. What I do in London will not be guided only by what I see and have seen, but what numerous others have experienced.
But an enormous amount of language has to do with providing information about things and people we will never encounter, that can't possibly be of value to us in guiding our interactions with those things and people. I mean fiction and history. In the case of fiction, the people don't even exist; I know a lot about Sherlock Holmes, but I'll never be in a situation to greet him by name, and ask how he really feels about Dr. Watson. In the case of history, the people, for the most part, are dead. I know a lot about Aristotle, but I'll never be in a position to ask him what Plato was really like. What's the point of all of these books about dead people, and unreal people, and all the time we spend reading about them and talking about them?
The best answer, it seems to me, is that exchanging information about people turned out to be too much fun to limit ourselves to people we might encounter. The people we are liable to interact with don't provide enough stories to sate our appetite for this activity. So we continue to talk about people after they are dead, and invent new people to talk about that don't exist.
This information in the end does prove useful. We each build up files about dead and fictional people, and a lot of the information we exchange is intended to keep those files similar enough to make the conversations work. It's not interactions with the dead and fictional people, but interactions with other people who are talking about them, that makes the information useful. I'll never talk to Aristotle, but I had to take exams about Aristotle, and need to occasionally say things in lecture about Aristotle, and these activities go better if my Aristotle-file pretty much agrees, in so far as it goes, with what the experts think about Aristotle.
Is there more to it than this? Are there lessons to be learned from fiction and history? Are they of a fundamentally different nature? In the case of history, how important is truth? If we all agree about a past event, so that we gain the same lessons from it, does it really matter if we got it right?