By Louise Forsyth
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But, as in that instance, it is almost never the case that the document itself is the only evidence of that context. If it were, historians might have a problem. Usually other documents yield much information about the context so that the uncertainty about the historical significance of a document is not difficult to resolve. (iii) The same is true when historians search for the author’s intention in writing a document. Often there is a lot of independent information about the author and the circumstances in which the document was written that enables historians to get a fair idea of the author’s intention.
The literal, basic and intended meanings are indeed objective, established in the ways indicated above. Public documents, such as laws and instructions, have an objective meaning which is generally recognized, and appealed to in courts of law. People are expected to interpret them, not in a personal, idiosyncratic way, but according to the procedures mentioned before. These procedures normally suffice to fix the meaning of the texts, so that all educated people would be expected to understand them correctly.
They know how to reconstruct the social setting in which the documents were produced, and quite properly relate their meaning to that. What the sceptics have ignored is that the documents to which historians refer in the process of their research provide evidence of social realities which it is reasonable to believe really existed. Those who have the law, money, guns or status on their side can exercise real power, making others obey their will; those without any of these can easily be victimized.