History, Truth and Postmodernism

by | Jan 25, 2003

The writing of history is one of the most enduring cultural activities of Western civilisation. It originated in ancient Greece some 2400 years ago and has continued in roughly the same form down to this day. Its first great practitioner, Thucydides, decided that to learn about the course of human affairs, he would not consult […]

The writing of history is one of the most enduring cultural activities of Western civilisation. It originated in ancient Greece some 2400 years ago and has continued in roughly the same form down to this day. Its first great practitioner, Thucydides, decided that to learn about the course of human affairs, he would not consult oracles, prophets, sacred texts or the sanctioned scribes of the era. Rather, he would go out, witness events himself, compile other evidence only from those, he said, “of whom I made the most careful enquiry”, and then draw conclusions that his evidence would support. This might seem a simple procedure to us but Western culture, so far, has been the only one to bring it off, that is, to give an account of what happens in society that remains independent of the prevailing religion and the dominant political system.

For most of the last two thousand years, the essence of history has continued to be that it should try to tell the truth, to describe as best as possible what really happened. Over this time, of course, many historians have been exposed as mistaken, opinionated, and often completely wrong, but their critics have usually felt obliged to show they were wrong about real things, that their claims about the past were different to what had actually happened. In other words, the critics still operated on the assumption that the truth was within their grasp.

Today, these assumptions are widely questioned, even among some people employed as historians themselves. Many theorists of postmodernism, or of cultural studies, which is another name for the same thing, assert that it is impossible to tell the truth about the past or to use history to produce knowledge in any objective sense at all. We can only see the past through the perspective of our own culture. Let me summarise the prevailing assumptions:

1. Truth is not an absolute concept but a relative one. Different cultures and even different political positions each have their own truths.

2. History cannot give us any knowledge in an absolute sense. Different ages reinterpret the past for their own purposes.

3. We do not have access to any such thing as a real world. What we think of as reality is a construct of our own minds, our language and our culture.

4. The meaning of any text is in the eye of the interpreter. People of different ethnic, sexual and cultural backgrounds will read historical evidence their own way, and that way will be different to people from other perspectives.

5. History is thus not fundamentally different to myth or to fiction. When historians look at past cultures they cannot be objective, nor can they escape from the cocoon of their own politics or culture. What historians see in the past are their own values and interests reflected back at them.

One of the original gurus of the postmodernist movement, the American historical theorist, Hayden White, author of Metahistory, tells us we should “recognise historical narratives as what they most manifestly are: verbal fictions, the contents of which are more invented than found”. One of the movement’s newest advocates, Hans Kellner, co-author of A New Philosophy of History, goes further and claims: ” ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ are, of course, the primary authoritarian weapons of our time”. The three authors of the new national history standards for American high schools (Gary Nash, Charlotte Crabtree and Ross Dunn, History on Trial, 1997) assure us: “Modern historiography has taught us that historians can never fully detach their scholarly work from their own education, attitudes, ideological dispositions and culture.” Disinterested scholarship “is not simply an uneducated view. It is also an ideological position of traditionalists and the political Right.”

In short, they say that if you believe in truth and objectivity you reveal yourself as a conservative. If you reject these concepts you become a radical. From this latter, radical perspective has emerged the most influential single idea: the notion that history is inescapably political. Let me quote Australia’s best known author of Aboriginal history, Henry Reynolds, who has written in his recent book Why Weren’t We Told?

I have thought from the beginning of my career that historical writing was inescapably political – the history of race relations especially so. How could I pretend otherwise? Historians do not shed their ideological clothing or their personal feelings when they venture back into the past seeking to hear the words and to enter the minds of their chosen subjects.

Now, I think this argument, the claim that it is impossible for the historian to shed his political interests and prejudices has been the most corrupting influence of all. It turned the traditional role of the historian, to stand outside society in order to seek the truth about the past, on its head. It allowed historians to write from an overtly partisan position and to justify this both to themselves and anyone who dared challenge them.

There are actually two claims made in this argument. The first is that historians like Reynolds are justified in taking their particular political line because everyone else is taking a political line too. The second is that the writing of history is an unavoidably political pursuit in itself, as a matter of epistemological necessity. The first claim is obviously unacceptable. If a particular historian’s case is based on false evidence, invented incidents and mistaken interpretations then it is insupportable, no matter what political line anyone else takes about the same subject. The second claim is little better. Just because it might be difficult for historians to shake off their own political prejudices and preferences, this does not mean it is impossible. It is a well-known truism that historians are creatures of their time and tend to set themselves problems that they and their contemporaries want answered, but this does not entail that their work must be fatally circumscribed by their politics. Advocates of this position often argue that because history is necessarily selective, the choices the historian makes must always be based on value judgements. But while it is true the historian must be selective, the rest of this argument does not follow. Selection is often based not on authors’ value judgements but on what they discover when they look at the evidence. There is a world of difference between historians who go to the past to investigate the evidence about their subject and those who go to vindicate a stand they have already taken. The former, the investigators, usually begin with an idea of what they hope to find but are always prepared to change their expectations and conclusions in light of what the evidence itself reveals. The latter, the vindicators, only select evidence that supports their cause and either omit, suppress or sometimes even falsify the rest. In the long run, however, truth is above politics and politically fabricated history will always be revealed for what it is.

The notion that historians should have a political agenda originated in the Nineteen Sixties. It was originally developed in order to “open up” scholarship so that all those voices that were allegedly excluded by traditional history could be heard. The authors of the American high school history standards tell us their version of history will open the field to women, blacks and ethnic minorities, who “have suffered discrimination, exploitation, and hostility but have overcome passivity and resignation to challenge their exploiters, fight for legal rights, resist and cross racial boundaries”. One of their supporters, Keith Jenkins, editor of The Postmodern History Reader, says this approach means the end of traditional history:

Such demystification can thus “free up” historians to tell many equally legitimate stories from various viewpoints, with umpteen voices, emplotments and types of synthesis. It is in this sense that we can interpret the past ‘anyway we like’. And it is this conclusion which signals to many (normal) historians the end of their kind of history.

On this issue, I agree that the last implication drawn by Jenkins does follow, except that, unlike him, I do not welcome it. It is, ironically, self-defeating for the political aims of the postmodernists themselves. The advocates of this idea are happy to legitimise a multiplicity of voices as long as they all belong to radical interest groups of which they approve: feminists, ethnics, blacks, gays and the like. However, it is not difficult to see that the politicisation of history undermines the aims of these interest groups themselves. By abandoning truth and objectivity, they unwittingly validate political positions they might find less congenial, such as those of white supremacists, ethnic cleansers, homophobes and misogynists. The result is cultural relativism in which the beliefs and prejudices of any culture, no matter how bizarre or anti-humanist, are given their own integrity.

This position not only nullifies its own political goals but is also fatal to the pursuit of history itself. If all history is political then all perspectives are legitimate. Nothing can ever be resolved and opposing sides are reduced to talking past one another or calling each other names. Genuine historical debate comes to an end.

Let me make my own position clear. I am not arguing against writing the history of women, or blacks, or any other group that a historian wants to define as oppressed. You can legitimately do this, by all means, using the tools of traditional history. What I do mean is that, if you pursue this objective, you have to conform to the traditional criteria of proof used by the discipline. You have to have documentary and other kinds of reliable evidence to support your case. You have to be able to put your work into the public arena where other scholars can scrutinise it and criticise it for both its logic and its evidence. If the subjects of your history genuinely are oppressed, then the historical evidence will establish this. But if you cannot support your case with sufficient evidence, you have to accept this too, and admit that the thesis about their oppression is not true. In the long run, establishing the truth of your case through objective evidence, so that it is beyond doubt and cannot be dismissed as a piece of ideology, is the only way to serve the genuine interests of the people whose lives you are discussing.

In all this, there is a crucial distinction that needs to be made. This is between propositions about history and works of history. This is the distinction between particular pieces of knowledge about what happened in the past, or the facts of history, and the explanations made by historians, that is, explanations made in extended pieces of writing such as articles and books.

It is not difficult to show that there are a great many facts or propositions about history that are not subject to any doubt or uncertainty at all. That such facts exist is itself quite enough to dispel any attempt to impose a blanket scepticism on the whole of the field. Historians know countless numbers of facts about the past that no sane person would question. The names of the elected officials of most democratic nations over the past two centuries, for instance, are obviously in this category. Or take the following proposition: The Viet Minh defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Every term in this proposition — the names of the two protagonists, the concept of military defeat, the name of the place, the date the event occurred — is a construct of language and culture. Yet the proposition is true. What’s more, it is true in a culturally objective sense. There is nothing relative about it. It is a proposition that is equally true in either French culture or Vietnamese culture, or the culture of any other people of the world for that matter. Moreover, this is a very important proposition. Because the event it describes actually occurred, it affected the subsequent history of the whole of South East Asia. The lives of the inhabitants of the countries of the region would not be as they are today if this proposition were untrue. Anyone with the slightest familiarity with the world he or she inhabits can immediately think of dozens of historical facts with the same status, that are just as objectively true and just as substantial in their consequences.

Moreover, facts with this degree of certainty are by no means confined to events within living memory but go back to the medieval and ancient worlds, and even well beyond antiquity. That the Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453, that the ancient Greeks wrote poetry and philosophy, and that human beings have inhabited Australia for at least 40,000 years, are all facts that one would have to be either highly ignorant, or decidedly perverse, to want to question. Of course many of the details surrounding or supporting these facts may not themselves be finally known. We may not know all the tactics or armaments General Giap used when he surrounded the French forces at Dien Bien Phu, but incompleteness in our accounts of his victory does not affect the fact that we know it occurred.

Now let us look at works of history, that is, whole books. Today I’ll use the example of the postmodernist historian, Greg Dening of the University of Melbourne. In his book about the mutiny on the Bounty, Mr Bligh’s Bad Language, Dening claims history is not ‘something we learn’ from the past but is a matter of interpretation, of reading off from the past whatever our present values, systems and preoccupations dictate. In other words, the past is a text we interpret, the same as we would a work of literature. Different people and eras will make different interpretations. This is why he chose to write about the mutiny on the Bounty. Since it occurred in April 1789, this incident has generated more than 1,000 books and articles and its progeny includes an epic poem by Byron, a nineteenth century English musical, a pantomime, and no less than five movies. Dening wants to show that the different interpretations made over the past two centuries each reflect the values of their own times. Thus, history has no permanency and it is an ‘illusion’ to try to know the past ‘as it really was’. Unfortunately for Dening, it is not difficult to show that his own practice in Mr Bligh’s Bad Language contradicts his theory. There are at least two important parts of his book where he relies upon knowledge of the past ‘as it really was’ in order to argue his own case.

The first of these is the one piece of real knowledge he has contributed to the debate himself. This is his conclusion about the level of floggings that Bligh ordered aboard the Bounty. One of the common assumptions about Captain Bligh, Dening writes, is that he was an especially violent man who provoked his men into mutiny. To show this is untrue, Dening looks at the records the British Navy kept about the flogging of sailors at sea. He shows that among the major naval commanders in the Pacific in the eighteenth century — including Cook, Vancouver and Wallis — Bligh ordered the smallest number of floggings. Since Dening has published these statistics, no one in the future will be able to argue that Bligh was more violent than the other commanders at the time.

To argue that Bligh was less violent, Dening does not put forward his statistics as merely an interpretation with which others might take issue. He uses his conclusion to demolish what he calls the “common myth” of Bligh the sadist. He can only do this if he uses it as a truth in an objective or absolute sense. Moreover, he uses the two points he has now established — (1) the statistics show that Bligh was less violent; and (2) previous explanations of the mutiny based on Bligh’s violence merely reflected the values of their time — as the central premises of his wider argument that different ages generate their own myths about history. So his major thesis, that we never know history “as it really was”, is itself derived from an argument about what really happened in history. His case is self-contradictory. He cannot make a case against historical truth without recourse to the historical truth he seeks to deny.

Dening makes the same mistake in his critiques of the Hollywood movies about the mutiny. He delights in pointing out some of their grosser inaccuracies, such as the 1935 film which made Bligh the captain of the Pandora, the ship which, after Bligh returned home, sailed from Britain to capture the mutineers and bring them to justice. Dening says when he shows these films to his students — who know that Bligh actually stayed at home while the Pandora was under the command of Captain Edward Edwards — they become “angry and scornful” about how “irresponsible” and “negligent” Hollywood can be when it comes to representing the past. He also points out that the 1962 movie saw Marlon Brando as Fletcher Christian dying on Pitcairn Island after he had heroically tried to stop the other mutineers from burning the Bounty. Dening tells us the real Fletcher Christian was, like most of the remaining mutineers, murdered by their Tahitian slaves on Pitcairn four years after the ship had been burned and sunk.

However, someone with Dening’s view of history cannot talk about what “actually” happened, nor can he discuss the fate of “real” characters. Since he believes that history is not something we ‘learn’ or discover, but only a procession of shifting interpretations made by successive generations, he lacks any solid ground of fact upon which to stand and make the kind of criticisms that he does. To be able to write about who actually commanded the Pandora, or how Fletcher Christian really died, or any of the numerous other facts that Dening uses to disparage other people’s accounts of the mutiny, one has to accept that history is not merely something that present generations invent for their own purposes but that history actually provides a record that can gives us knowledge about the past. If we are to have a sensible debate, we have to accept that some of the historical record is true, that there are facts about the past which we know from history, that the past is not merely an invention of the present but is something that happened quite independently of those of us who have inherited its consequences.

Now, even if you accept the case I’ve been putting about the facts of history and about factual works, what about value judgements? Aren’t we all entitled to our opinions about values, that is, about what is good and what is bad. Let’s look at another work of Australian history, Robert Hughes’s international best-seller The Fatal Shore. Hughes portrays the early penal colony as a place of unnatural cruelty and horror, where male convicts were starved and flogged in labour camps and where female convicts endured enforced prostitution. His book was written for the Bicentenary in 1988 but the underlying politics of his thesis derive from the arguments about “moral equivalence” that were common during the Cold War. His case was that, just as the commissars of Stalin’s Russia in the 1930s hid their own labour camps deep in Siberia, the British Empire had its own nineteenth century “gulag archipelago” hidden half way around the world in Australia. Hence the communist east and the capitalist west were morally equivalent.

Hughes took most of his information from other and older history books. However, those historians who had been working more recently on the primary sources were scornful of Hughes’s portrait because they had spent the previous twenty years uncovering research that showed it was largely a myth. (see Stephen Nicholas ed., Convict Workers: Reinterpreting Australia’s Past, 1988.) It is true that Hughes has got the facts right about those events he chose to write about. There were some brutal prisons and some convict women were forced to become prostitutes. But the great majority of convicts never experienced these conditions. Most never even saw the inside of an Australian prison. The great majority served their sentences as assigned servants, that is, they were labourers obliged to work for certain employers. They earned wages and they lived openly in society. When their period of servitude was over, or they received a pardon for good behaviour, some of them, including the women, became leading citizens of the colony. They comprised Australia’s first traders, industrialists and architects. One of the founders of Australia’s first bank in 1817 was a female ex-convict. The first novel written and published in Australia was by a convict author. Charles Dickens’s character Magwich in Great Expectations, the convict who made a fortune out of wool, was based on real life. The Australian convict system, it is now clear, was a remarkable success story of the rehabilitation and reform of convicted felons.

So, while the facts of Robert Hughes’s book are not all in dispute, his exceedingly narrow selection of those facts and the way he has organised his argument are a very different matter. His interpretation, his value judgement about Australian history, can be challenged by the presentation of a different set of facts, that is, those he omitted from his story. So, even though we are dealing with an ultimate value judgement — whether the convict system was unnaturally cruel or a considerable success — it is factual historical evidence that decides the issue, not the ideology, not the ethnic background, not the colour, not the sex of the historian. In good history, debates about values are settled not by each side simply asserting its own values, but by empirical evidence, that is, by investigating the evidence and seeing what it reveals.

This great debate we are having about history is likely to appear to many people outside the field as an esoteric domestic dispute, typical of academics who don’t live in the real world. Moreover, since contemporary Western society places a high value on fashion, innovation and the new, it is not easy to find support for those who take a conservative position to preserve traditional ways of doing things. Yet, this debate deserves to taken much more seriously than this. It has much wider implications. It is a conflict that goes all the way to the core of Western culture. For if we deny the possibility of discovering knowledge about human affairs through historical investigation, we throw away some of our most powerful intellectual equipment. Ever since Thucydides wrote the History of the Peloponnesian War, writers in the Western intellectual tradition have been distinguished by their efforts to distance themselves from their own political system and their own religion, and to write from a position outside both. To look down, as it were, upon your own society and become a critic of your own practice is a characteristically Western notion and, indeed, is one of the great strengths of Western civilisation — possibly even its greatest strength. Moreover, the freedom to engage in such criticism has long been one of the most cherished possessions of those who have inherited this culture. Outside the ranks of academic critics, we now take this notion — the attempt to be objective rather than subjective, and to be self-critical rather than self-defensive — so much for granted that we assume it is a perfectly natural thing to do, whereas to many other cultures it has long been something shocking. In the current debate over the status of history, the preservation of this vital part of the intellectual heritage of Western civilisation is what is ultimately at stake.

First released during The Great Debate, HSC Extension History conference, University of New South Wales, July 2002.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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