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Back when I was majoring in History in college, one professor explained to the class that when a person made multiple statements about a time or event they lived through or were involved with, and they contradicted each other, it was generally best to give more weight to the earlier statements. The reasoning was primarily that the person's memory would be fresher and the actual course of events would tend to be more clear in their mind. Additionally, earlier comments would be less likely to be colored by long term reactions to the events (example: a politician who had been vocally pro-segregationist in the 1950s but then says in the 1990s that he never really liked the idea of segregation).

Since that time I have come across this principle stated in histories that I have read. Invariably when I see it, I am reading a very well-sourced history with solid analysis (most recently Playing at the World by Jon Peterson).

My question is this: is there a commonly used or accepted term for this historical principle?

Note that opinions on the validity or usefulness of the principle are not the subject of my question. Thank you.

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    Possibly relevant Eyewitness memory, page 15 reinforces, but does not name the principle, bias. Paper on Shoah is too broad to quote, but seems relevant. – Mark C. Wallace Sep 9 at 17:10
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    That overstates the case. I did enough research to prove to myself that I couldn't answer the question, but I wanted to share some potentially useful breadcrumbs in case they might help someone else find the answer. I also wanted to recognize the question as interesting. Good luck. – Mark C. Wallace Sep 9 at 17:55
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    Every site has its own culture. One of the features of ours is that it is relatively unforgiving about what constitutes a proper answer, with the side effect that we are relatively forgiving about putting informative information in comments. – T.E.D. Sep 9 at 19:10
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    My understanding is that there is no specific name—largely because there would be hundreds of such interpretations per paragraph of monograph or paper—but the description of “privileging the prior statement,” is poetic and has a false chime of authority like most one line quips do. – Samuel Russell Sep 9 at 19:34
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    It's not the name for the principle, but a term for the evidence itself is contemporaneous evidence (evidence from the time of the event itself rather than later evidence). It's also used in courts to give more weight to earlier evidence. – JBentley Sep 10 at 8:15
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I don't believe there is a canonical name for that one principle, all by itself. Rather this is one of the common principles of Source Criticism, which are intended to be used together (highlighting mine):

The following principles are cited from two Scandinavian textbooks on source criticism, written by the historians Olden-Jørgensen (1998) and Thurén (1997):

  • Human sources may be relics (e.g. a fingerprint) or narratives (e.g. a statement or a letter). Relics are more credible sources than narratives.
  • A given source may be forged or corrupted; strong indications of the originality of the source increases its reliability.
  • The closer a source is to the event which it purports to describe, the more one can trust it to give an accurate description of what really happened
  • A primary source is more reliable than a secondary source, which in turn is more reliable than a tertiary source and so on.
  • If a number of independent sources contain the same message, the credibility of the message is strongly increased.
  • The tendency of a source is its motivation for providing some kind of bias. Tendencies should be minimized or supplemented with opposite motivations.
  • If it can be demonstrated that the witness (or source) has no direct interest in creating bias, the credibility of the message is increased.

I'm not sure how (/if?) this is taught in schools, but it doesn't look like there's an accepted universal mental framework/jargon for learning and applying the principles, like say we Computer Science students got for the Software Analysis principles of Cohesion and Coupling. Perhaps professional Historians' brains don't work that way, or perhaps there just aren't as many Source Analysts out there as there are coders.

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    Thanks for the interesting and enlightening answer! The language of historiography developed over a much longer timeframe than that of computer science. In addition, it occurred in a wide range of different languages whereas CS has English as its lingua Franca, so it’s not surprising the language of historiography is more diffuse. Also, precise wording on processes is probably more critical in CS. – ruffdove Sep 9 at 19:04
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    I believe that these are sometimes called 'Rankeian principles', after the influential historian Leopold von Ranke. – svangordon Sep 10 at 16:58
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    @svangordon - I turned up some interesting stuff looking for that. Rankeian does appear to be considered the father of scientific history, but if that specific term is commonly used, it appears to be in whispers that have yet to be picked up by google. – T.E.D. Sep 10 at 19:42
  • It's been three weeks and I think this answer is the best. It gives a general term for the type of principle I'm talking about and cites a source that lists the exact principle under the general term. Well done! – ruffdove Oct 2 at 1:07

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