The State of the Discipline of History

by | Feb 5, 2003

An excerpt from the afterword of the second edition of The Killing of History: How Literary Critics and Social Theorists Are Murdering Our Past.

An excerpt from the afterword of the second edition of The Killing of History: How Literary Critics and Social Theorists Are Murdering Our Past.

Since the first edition of The Killing of History was published, many of the conditions it describes have become demonstrably worse. On the other hand, there are a few signs that some things might get better. This Afterword discusses both kinds of development.

Perhaps the most dramatic indicator of the state of the discipline of history today is that young people are abandoning it in droves. This was a tendency that, admittedly, was underway in the United States and other English-speaking countries long before the 1990s, but as this decade has progressed, the reversal has become a rout. In America, the proportion of high school students studying history had declined from two-thirds in the 1960s to less than twenty per cent by the 1990s. At university level, the annual number of graduates in history from American colleges peaked in 1970 at 45,000 but had declined to less than 20,000 two decades later. The number of PhDs awarded in history in the United States also fell by more than fifty per cent at the same time. This all occurred, moreover, during a period of great increase in overall college enrolments and degrees awarded. This absolute and relative decline in the number of history students has fed through to employment opportunities in the discipline and produced a similar result. By 1995, the American Historical Association recorded that the proportion of history doctoral graduates employed by universities had fallen to the lowest level on record. Commenting on these statistics, one of the most distinguished American historians of the twentieth century, C. Vann Woodward, observed in 1998 that, although there were several factors at work, including a shift in undergraduate preferences towards more vocational courses, postmodernist theorists deserved a significant share of the blame.

I am of course aware that radicals in cultural studies and their postmodern precursors are by no means the only causes for the decline that history and some of the other humanities have suffered in the academy in the last few years… But [it] is my conviction that unless we of the academy, here and abroad, muster the courage and find effective means to counter these forces, we face a shabby end to the discipline we have served and to any system of education we can respect.[1]

In Australia, there has also been a deterioration in student demand to the point where a large proportion of academic historians have been forced into what is euphemistically called ‘early retirement’, that is, they have been retrenched. The total number of Australian historians employed by universities declined from 451 in 1989 to less than 300 in 1998, with the number in some of the once most prestigious departments being reduced by half.[2] As in the United States, there are obviously several influences at work here as well. The fact remains, however, that until the end of the 1960s the writing and teaching of traditional history corresponded to the period of greatest health of the discipline, while the subsequent emergence of postmodern theory and identity group politics corresponds to its worst decline of the century.

This dramatic shrinking of the historical enterprise, however, has not had some of the effects that one might have expected. In the last five years, there has been little re-appraisal by the proponents of theory about what has gone wrong and whether they deserve any responsibility for it. Instead, there has been an even greater proliferation of publications pushing their now-familiar critique of the discipline: that historians can only express the ideology of their times, that they are deluded if they think they can be objective enough to see beyond their own class, sex or ethnic background, and that traditional historiography reflects the views and interests of white, middle class, Anglo-Saxon males. Some of these works have been devoted primarily to the theory or philosophy of history, such as Alun Munslow’s Deconstructing History,[3] Robert Berkhofer’s Beyond the Great Story: History as Text and Discourse,[4] Mark Poster’s Cultural History and Postmodernity,[5] and Frank Ankersmit and Hans Kellner’s A New Philosophy of History.[6] Others are surveys from postmodernist and poststructuralist perspectives of the shifting pattern of ideas about history. These include Keith Jenkins’s On ‘What is History?’ From Carr and Elton to Rorty and White,[7] Beverly Southgate’s History: What and Why? Ancient, Modern and Postmodern Perspectives,[8] David Harlan’s The Degradation of American History,[9] Joyce Appleby’s Knowledge and Postmodernism in Historical Perspective,[10] and Donald Kelley’s Faces of History: From Herodotus to Herder.[11]

The influence of this theory and the politics that accompany it can now be seen in the design of the history curriculum at both high school and university level. Among those who designed the new national history standards for American high schools were educationalists opposed to the traditional notion that history should be disinterested and above ideology. According to Gary Nash, Charlotte Crabtree and Ross Dunn, this concept is both out of date and politically contaminated. ‘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, they assure us, ‘is not simply an uneducated view. It is also an ideological position of traditionalists and the political Right that particular facts, traditions, and heroic personalities, all untainted by “interpretation”, represent the “true” and “objective” history that citizens ought to know.’[12] Fortified by the claim that it is impossible to be non-political, they advocate a reversal of the traditional account of American history with its emphasis on the War for Independence, the making of the Constitution, westward expansion and the Civil War. Instead, they recommend a high school syllabus that focuses on how women, blacks and ethnic minorities ‘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’.[13] Were it not for the unprecedented intervention of the Republican-dominated US Senate in November 1994 voting to prevent two government educational bodies from certifying these national history standards, a program of this kind would now be taught to the majority of American high school students.

The university syllabus the critics recommend for the methodology of history has a similar theoretical bent. It is described in the 1997 anthology edited by Keith Jenkins, The Postmodern History Reader. Although this book contains a token number of anti-postmodernist articles by Lawrence Stone, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Geoffrey Elton and a handful of old-style Marxists, the bulk of the selection comes from the familiar pantheon of French theorists–Jean François Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault–as well as the latest English-language theorists mentioned above–Berkhofer, Ankersmit and Kellner–plus a sprinkling of poststructuralist feminists.

Like the advocates of the new high school curriculum, the editor of this collection is quite frank in supporting a political agenda as much an academic one. Jenkins candidly admits that the collection is neither balanced nor disinterested and that ‘the weight of the readings come down in favour of postmodernism’.[14] He justifies his position by the claim that all approaches to history are themselves already politicised, even those that think themselves above ideology, and that politicisation is impossible to escape. This is equally true for traditional empirical historiography, Jenkins claims, which has a hidden prejudice that needs to be outed. Traditional academic history is, in his own words, nothing but ‘bourgeois ideology’. He arrives at this conclusion by the following reasoning: Traditional historians say they are opposed to teleological versions of history, which hold that history has a purpose that leads either to a Communist utopia (Marxist version), or to ever-improving progress (Whig version). The proper role of history, the traditionalists say, is not to create some kind of trajectory into the future but to study the past for its own sake. But if they take this line, Jenkins argues, this means they must be satisfied with the status quo. Because they don’t want to change the present, they must be committed to it.

The fact that the bourgeoisie doesn’t want a different future (the fact that it has now arrived at its preferred historical destination–liberal, bourgeois, market capitalism) means that it doesn’t any longer need a past-based future-orientated fabrication. Thus at this point, the point where the links between the past, present and future are broken because the present is everything, the past can be neutralized and studied not for our various sakes but for ‘its own’. For this is exactly what is currently required, a history which is finished now that it has led right up to us.[15]

Now, this is plainly a specious argument. The wish to understand the past in its own terms is compatible not only with satisfaction with the status quo but with several other positions as well, including a critical attitude towards, and even despair about, the present condition of society. The ranks of traditional historians constitute a broad church that includes apolitical cynics as well as conservative, romantic, social democratic, Christian and even some old-fashioned empirical Marxist historians who each, in their different ways, regard the prevailing social system as far from satisfactory. Yet all believe that the proper role of the historian is to try to shake off his own prejudices and interests and to study the past for its own sake. To argue that positions of this kind represent bourgeois ideology is to enforce the crudest kind of ideological reductionism, more akin to vulgar Marxism than postmodernism’s purported appreciation of ‘difference’. Rather than any revelation about traditional historiography, all that Jenkins’s argument illustrates is, first, the level of politicisation that prevails within the postmodernist mindset, and, second, how quickly this political approach descends into ad hominem abuse. In this kind of debate, instead of addressing the evidence and reason deployed by your opponent, the tactic is simply to identify his political position and then rest your case as though enough has been said. This is not only an unsatisfactory way to assess historians but is the antithesis of any kind of respectable intellectual activity.

Most pointedly, it represents the desire to continue the Marxist critique of western society by other means. Instead of the transformation of society being made in the name of old blue collar proletariat, the approved constituency is now composed of anyone who claims to be oppressed by Western culture–feminists, blacks, gays, indigenes, ethnics, the disabled, the insane, prisoners, drug addicts or members of any other minority group. The politics of all this are crude enough on their own but to base an education program on a critique of this kind is to destroy the probity of any field through which it is taught. Yet in the past decade this has increasingly been the fate of history. What was once the central discipline through which Western culture defined itself is now being used by radical educationalists to deny the integrity of the West altogether.

Even when they are focussing specifically on methodological issues, the critics of history openly acknowledge that this is their aim. Robert Berkhofer claims that traditional history is an authoritarian practice that reflects the ‘ethnocentrism’ and ‘cultural hubris’ of contemporary society. This is true, he argues, no matter which of the prevailing political divisions within Western culture–conservative, liberal or radical–its authors support. All are couched within the same humanistic tradition and are driven by the same desire for power. ‘Normal history orders the past for the sake of authority and therefore power over its audience … By assuming a third person voice and an omniscient viewpoint, authors, be they left or right or in between politically, assert their power over their readers in the name of REALITY.’[16] By undermining history’s claims to represent the past, Berkhofer hopes to demystify the discipline and to replace it with the methodology of ‘poetics’, which will introduce different methods and endorse different voices.

This is a prospect that also excites Keith Jenkins who, in endorsing Berkhofer’s approach, argues that it opens the way for those who are currently excluded to write their own histories, while at the same time silencing the voice of traditional authority.

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.[17]

On this issue, I agree that the last implication drawn by Jenkins does follow, except that, unlike him, I find it appalling. It is also, ironically, self-defeating for the political aims of the postmodernists themselves. They are happy to legitimise a multiplicity of voices as long as they all belong to leftist groups of which they approve. However, by abandoning truth and endorsing the interpretation of the past ‘anyway we like’, they unwittingly provide equal legitimacy to political positions they might find less congenial, such as those of neo-Nazis, neo-Stalinists, white and black supremacists, holocaust deniers, ethnic cleansers or any other variety of political depravity. If we accepted Jenkins’s view, we would deny ourselves both the right and the ability to contest their versions of history, no matter how offensive, absurd or inaccurate they might be.

Now for the better news. Although the view that history has been fatally compromised is more entrenched than ever, there are also growing signs of a fight back in defence of traditional values. In 1998, in response to the postmodern influence on the American Historical Association and its journal, the American Historical Review, a group of US historians formed The Historical Society. They described their objective as being to ‘concentrate on the constructive work of reshaping our profession’. By mid-1999 they had attracted 1200 members. The society’s membership is drawn from across old political boundaries–‘from the Marxist Left to the traditionalist Right’, according to the open letter that announced its founding. It deplores what it calls the endless controversies of the ‘cultural wars’, and intends to avoid ‘the perpetuation of the irrationalities of recent years’.

There have also been a number of new books analysing the challenge to history and providing persuasive counter arguments. They include Richard Evans’s In Defence of History[18] and Behan McCullagh’s The Truth of History.[19] Of the two, Evans, who is professor-elect of modern history at the University of Cambridge, has had the most publicity, being widely reviewed in both the popular and intellectual press.

Evans presents a number of effective arguments against attempts by postmodernist critics to undermine the credentials of history, especially their denial of the historian’s use of facts and pursuit of the truth. He shows how they cannot even state their objections without depending on the very notions they deny. For instance, the postmodernists Ellen Somekawa and Elizabeth Smith argue that ‘within whatever rules historians articulate, all interpretations are equally valid’. Hence, they say historians should reject the traditionalists’ belief in the truth of what they are writing, and instead affirm the moral or political position they are taking. But if all interpretations are equally valid, then these authors should admit that their own perspective is just as valid as that of its opposite, traditional realism. But they only arrive at their postmodernist position by arguing that realism is false. ‘Once postmodernism’s principles are applied to itself,’ Evans observes, ‘many of its arguments begin to collapse under the weight of their own contradictions.’[20] Evans also dissects the claims of the feminist historian Diane Purkiss who, in her book, The Witch in History, rejects the use of empirical methods to investigate her subject and instead decides to ‘tell or retell the rich variety of stories told about witches’. Evans points out, however, that in telling these stories she acknowledges that she has ‘assembled evidence’ about witches and has thus adopted the very procedures she derides in others. And although she dismisses the notion of truth in empirical history as ‘male’, this does not stop her from criticising the claims of some other feminist historians as inherently ‘improbable’. Evans points out that she is thus ‘arrogating to herself a right of scepticism which she denies to men–a sexist double standard if ever there was one, and an impossible one too, for if truth were really a male concept, then Purkiss could never even begin to claim that anything she said herself was true’.[21]

The publishers of Evans’s book claim it is a ‘worthy successor’ to E. H. Carr’s What is History? which has stood since the 1960s as one of the standard accounts of the practice of the discipline. There are at least two reasons, however, why Evans will have difficulty in filling these shoes for a similar length of time. First, he addresses his arguments almost exclusively to the phenomenon of postmodernism, which, even as he wrote, was a label some of its original proponents were beginning to evade. In late 1997, one of the principal progenitors of the postmodernist mindset, the American philosopher Richard Rorty, was recommending that, since nobody has ‘the foggiest idea’ what the term postmodernism means, ‘it would be nice to get rid of it.’[22] If there is one thing that is consistent about the current generation of radical academics it is their penchant for intellectual fashion. Their views about what is intellectually chic shift as rapidly and as regularly as that of the garment industry. In a little more than two decades the same people have been adherents of structuralism, semiotics, poststructuralism, postmodernism, postcolonialism, radical feminism, queer theory, critical theory and cultural studies. The main reason academics have adopted this shifting pattern of allegiance has been to immunise themselves against empirical criticism. On several occasions in the recent past when they have seen a strong body of opinion emerge to publicly deride the currently favoured position, they have quickly declared the latter out of date (their own sharpest rebuke) and have abandoned it.[23] (Indeed, in the very week I write this, the post brings a review copy of the galleys of a book by the poststructuralist literary critic, Gayatri Spivak, in which she announces she is abandoning ‘postcolonialism’, a movement that until now counted her as one of its celebrities.[24]) Unfortunately for Evans, he is likely to find his targets will soon be dismissing him on the grounds that nobody subscribes to postmodernism any more. In fact, the majority already prefer the less provocative term cultural studies which, although it subscribes to the same combination of anti-realist philosophy and anti-Western politics, has a terminological blandness that offers a thicker veneer of academic respectability.

The second problem for Evans is that, in wanting to be diplomatic and to promote a spirit of academic ecumenism, he concedes too much to the movement he is criticising. In its more constructive modes, Evans writes, postmodernism has ‘encouraged historians to look more closely at documents, to take their surface patina more seriously, and to think about texts and narratives in new ways’.[25] The principal piece of evidence he offers for this assessment is Robert Darnton’s 1983 book, The Great Cat Massacre. Its author based his entire work on a three-page pamphlet written some thirty years after the incident it purports to describe. The ‘cat massacre’ was supposedly conducted by a group of apprentices in the 1730s and Darnton used it as a symbolic prefiguration of the great massacres of the French Revolution during the 1790s. Apart from the one pamphlet published in 1762, however, Darnton has found no other evidence the massacre took place. Although Evans acknowledges that some critics have charged that Darnton’s thesis does not stand up to the most cursory scrutiny, he still goes on to praise the sophistication of the book’s interpretation of its single text.[26] However, Evans’s early chapters provide a clear enough account of the development of historical scholarship to show that the close scrutiny of documents long predates postmodernism and has been part of the province of history for the past 170 years. The German historian, Leopold von Ranke, who introduced rigorous new criteria for veracity in the 1830s, derived his techniques from the textual practices of philology, in which he had initially trained. Moreover, unlike postmodernist studies, the traditional historical approach brings a scepticism to its analysis of texts that allows it to distinguish between the relevant and the irrelevant, the verifiable and the unverifiable, and between the authentic and the fraudulent. There is nothing in Evans’s book to persuade historians they have anything to learn from postmodernism about the scrutiny of documents.

Two other claims for postmodernism made by Evans are, first, that it has shifted the emphasis in historical writing away from social-scientific to literary models, thus making history more accessible to the general public, and, second, that it has restored individual human beings to history, whereas social science approaches had largely written them out. The first claim is plausible in view of the postmodernist credentials of Simon Schama (discussed in Chapter Eight of this book), who has been one of the best-selling authors of the past decade. However, it is hardly accurate as far as some of the works cited by Evans himself are concerned, such as that of Diane Purkiss, which would be appetizing to the palate of only the most hardened radical feminist. Nor does it apply to other works discussed earlier in this book, such as the anti-narrative theoretical poses struck by Greg Dening and Paul Carter. Similarly, Evans’s second claim has a surface plausibility but overlooks entirely the legacy of the anti-humanist genre of Michel Foucault with its assertion that the autonomy of the human subject is an illusion and that the individual is merely an instrument of language and culture. Foucault and his followers have rendered the individual human agent non-existent in ways that few of the social sciences ever thought possible or desirable.

There is one outcome of postmodernism, however, about which Evans is certainly correct. Its emergence has, as he says, forced historians to interrogate their own methods and procedures as never before. His own book is itself good evidence of this. Despite the reservations I have recorded above, In Defence of History is indeed a fine defence, a valuable contribution which would have been unlikely to be produced were it not for the provocation of postmodernist theory. However, one question raised by this fight back is whether historians themselves are the people best qualified to engage an adversary of this kind. In The Truth of History, Behan McCullagh points out that because this debate is ultimately over such fundamental concepts as truth and objectivity, and because the postmodernist critique takes place more at the level of philosophy than historical method, a defence mounted primarily through the rationality of the procedures used by historians is less than adequate. McCullagh is a realist philosopher who wants to defend the practice of history from its philosophical opponents. He maintains that, in this debate so far, the historians have focussed on the justification of historical descriptions, interpretations and explanations while the philosophical critique has been aimed at the assumptions that historians make and the standards of rationality that they employ. Hence, he claims, each side has not done justice to the other’s arguments.[27]

Now, this characterisation is not completely accurate as far as the historians are concerned. Evans, for instance, certainly tackles the postmodernists over their own standards of rationality, and my own book attempts the same in terms of the logic of their position and the philosophy of science that has influenced them. Nonetheless, it is true that there are a number of philosophical issues in this debate that the historians have not addressed. McCullagh not only takes up these additional issues but he pursues the arguments involved to a depth that is more characteristic of a philosophical than a historical controversy. Although I am not persuaded by all his arguments, his book is a tour de force. It deserves to be seen as the best defence of history yet made by any philosopher and a major contribution to the field.

McCullagh takes the debate into the philosophy of language, which is the original source of a number of postmodernist critiques of historical knowledge. For instance, the French theorists Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida, and their more recent English-language followers like Robert Berkhofer and Keith Jenkins, argue that language has no important or regular relation to the world. Words and texts get their meaning not from their relation to the world itself but from their relation to other words and texts. Hence descriptions couched in language about what has happened in the world cannot reveal reality. History thus refers not to the reality of the past but, like language, only to itself. As Jenkins puts it: ‘The signified (the past) is thus nought but the signifier (history).’[28] However, McCullagh draws on the work of other philosophers of language, Michael Devitt and Kim Sterelny,[29] to refute this. He shows that when people make assertions through language they are not merely producing a set of words related to other words. Instead, they are referring to something in the world that is capable of producing certain kinds of experience. To learn what the word ‘brown’ means, McCullagh points out, one must be shown brown objects and not just learn that brown objects are not yellow, blue, red and so on. The word ‘brown’ is associated with the experience of a certain colour.[30] Hence, the meaning of words and the use of language are compatible with both referentiality and realism.

McCullagh also examines Derrida’s claim about the textual dependence of historical descriptions, which is another that both Berkhofer and Jenkins have repeated. This case is as follows: Although historical descriptions purport to be about the world, their authors refer not to the real world but to other texts, such as reports about what occurred and documents about how people experienced events. So these descriptions are not related directly to the real world, but are themselves products of other texts. As Greg Dening puts it: ‘I retext the already texted past’.[31] McCullagh notes that it is of course true that historians draw inferences about what happened in the past from largely documentary evidence, that is, from written texts rather than from their own direct observations. However, he points out that this only implies their accounts of the past cannot be true if that textual evidence is not connected with, or does not establish, what happened. ‘It is not the fact that their descriptions are inferred from other texts which makes their truth suspect,’ he observes. ‘It is suspect only if the evidence does not strongly entail their truth in the first place. When the evidence strongly supports the truth of an historical description, one is rationally entitled to believe it is very probably true.’[32]

Another thesis advanced by Derrida, and developed into a critique of history by Jean François Lyotard, is that descriptions of the world always omit details. Historical descriptions use common nouns and verbs that pick out only general features of what they refer to. It is thus naïve to assume that our descriptions of the world can portray reality accurately. No description using language can capture the whole. In particular, Lyotard says, readers of works of history need to be reminded that they are looking at artifices, that the text and the event are separate, different things. Lyotard argues that since it is impossible to represent past events in all their particularity, history is thus impossible.[33] But as McCullagh points out, the fact that an historical description refers only to some aspects of an event or situation, and makes no reference to others, does not mean that it must be false. It simply means it is not exhaustive. The fact that a description does not capture every detail about the past, that descriptions are always incomplete and can never ‘mirror reality’, does not mean they cannot represent it with some degree of precision. ‘The more general the description, the less precise it is,’ McCullagh acknowledges. ‘Nevertheless, very general descriptions can be completely accurate, in that they are entirely warranted by the known facts, even though they are far from precise.’[34]

Now, at this point in his discussion, McCullagh says that the postmodernists deserve some credit for their having advanced this last case. ‘We must honour the postmodernists for having exposed the limitations of descriptions so vividly. There is no denying that descriptions do use common nouns and verbs, and there is a range of sets of the truth conditions for any statement about the past. They do not capture every detail … ‘[35] This seems to me, however, a strange compliment to offer. No historian has ever seriously claimed that his work ‘mirrors reality’ in the sense of reproducing the past in all its particularity. No description of the world, as McCullagh himself acknowledges, could ever pretend to tell everything, and there is no historian who ever imagined he could perform such a feat. Moreover, no reader of history has ever been so innocent that he needed a Lyotard to remind him that the historical text and the historical event are different things. The postmodernists’ argument is an assault on a straw man, the demolition of a position their opponents have never held. It is also extraordinarily patronising towards readers, who are assumed to have the mentality of pre-school children watching television. Historians certainly claim to have uncovered truths about the past but they have never maintained that these constitute the entire truth about everything. It should be perfectly obvious to anyone not mesmerised by theory that descriptions on the printed page of a history book could never pretend to be a reproduction of the whole of the lived past. The Rankean entreaty to discover ‘what actually happened’ is a recommendation to pursue truth about the past, not to pursue all the truths or to reconstruct everything that happened in it.

As I noted above, McCullagh is a realist who defends traditional historiography. Rather than supporting a correspondence theory of truth, which is the usual accompaniment of the realist position, McCullagh offers what he calls a ‘correlation theory’ of truth, which is similar but, he argues, more sophisticated. The correspondence theory holds that a description of the world is true if there is something in the world that resembles one of the conventional truth conditions of the description. The theory is normally accompanied by the belief that we can check the truth of a description by directly observing whether part of the world resembles or corresponds to the truth conditions of the description or not. McCullagh’s correlation theory modifies this to take into account the perceptions of different cultures. He believes that the knowledge of different peoples is conditioned by their culture, even though the things in the world are not determined by culture. He states his correlation theory as follows: ‘A perception of the world is accurate if there was some state of the world such that it would normally cause a person of a certain culture to have perceptions of that kind.’ Thus, he says, realism about the world is compatible with cultural relativism about knowledge.[36]

Without recapitulating the objections I raised to cultural relativism in Chapter Nine, let me point out that one of the problems in this debate is that philosophers and historians come to it from opposite directions. Philosophers usually approach from the abstract end of the spectrum by asking questions to do with how we justify our beliefs or whether we can know anything for certain. Historians often start from the position that we actually do have knowledge and a high degree of certainty about many aspects of the past. They then seek to justify why this is so, or to respond to objections from those who claim that historical knowledge is not well grounded.

From this latter perspective, 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. Some of the philosophical critics of history, even those like Keith Jenkins who claim ‘epistemology shows we can never really know the past’, acknowledge the existence of historical facts but dismiss them as inconsequential. Facts such as the dates of events, Jenkins says, are ‘ “true” but trite’.[37]

It is not difficult to show that there are a great many facts or propositions about history which are not subject to any doubt or uncertainty at all. That such facts exist is itself quite enough to dispel any attempt from philosophy 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 relativistic about it. It is a proposition that is equally true in either French culture or Vietnamese culture, as well as the culture of any other peoples of the world. Moreover, far from being trite, 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 political allegiances and the lives of the inhabitants of the countries of the region would not be as they are today if this proposition were untrue. Any reader with the slightest familiarity with the world he 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 10,000 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.

On the other hand, whole works of history are often culturally biased. An extended historical explanation may use as evidence historical propositions that in themselves are objectively true, but may nonetheless provide a cultural or political slant on this material that distorts the reality under discussion. Lack of objectivity often derives from the process of selection when the historian chooses some facts as evidence for his case but omits others. But as I argued in Chapter Eight, just because the process of selection is often based on the historian’s cultural predilections, this does not mean that it must necessarily or always be so. The simple act of selection does not endorse Simon Schama’s assertion that ‘claims for historical knowledge must always be fatally circumscribed by the character and prejudices of its narrator’.[38] The selection process of the historian is a contingent matter that may itself be criticised by other historians. Indeed, the charge of cultural, political or moral bias is one of the most common criticisms that historians make of each other’s work. In some cases, criticism of this kind might mean that the historical community jettisons an entire explanation. In others, however, it may allow some aspects of a work to be rejected while permitting the remainder to go on to become part of the overall store of historical knowledge. But if all historians were as cocooned within their own cultural mindset as postmodernist philosophers claim, they would lack the very ability to detect cultural bias in their colleagues. They would be unable to make the kind of extra-cultural critique of each other’s work that is so common. Bias and lack of objectivity among historians are issues that have to be decided in individual cases, not by an appeal to epistemological necessity.

This quarrel for the preservation or overthrow of traditional historical methods is likely to appear to many people outside the ranks of the profession as an esoteric domestic dispute that is all too characteristic of the feuds that often break out in academic life. Moreover, since contemporary Western society places a high value on competition and innovation, there is likely to be little external support for those who take a conservative position to preserve traditional ways of doing things. Yet this altercation deserves to taken 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 religion and to write from a position outside both. To look down, as it were, upon your society and become a critic of your own practice is a characteristically Western notion and, indeed, is one of the great strengths of Western culture–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 the culture. Outside the ranks of epistemological critics, we now take this notion–the attempt to be objective and self-critical, rather than subjective and 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. The preservation of this intellectual heritage is what is ultimately at stake in the current contest over the status of history.


[1] C. Vann Woodward, ‘The core curriculum as intellectual motivation’, Partisan Review, 3, 1998, pp 406-7
[2] The Australian, 30 June 1998, p 3, citing figures produced by the president of the Australian Historical Association, Stuart Macintyre.
[3] Alun Munslow, Deconstructing History, Routledge, London, 1997
[4] Robert Berkhofer, Beyond the Great Story: History as Text and Discourse, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 1995
[5] Mark Poster, Cultural History and Postmodernity: Disciplinary Readings and Challenges, Columbia University Press, New York, 1997
[6] Frank Ankersmit and Hans Kellner (eds.) A New Philosophy of History, Reaktion, London, 1995
[7] Keith Jenkins, On ‘What is History?’ From Carr and Elton to Rorty and White, Routledge, London, 1995
[8] Beverley Southgate, History: What and Why? Ancient, Modern and Postmodern Perspectives, Routledge, London, 1996
[9] David Harlan, The Degradation of American History, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1997
[10] Joyce Appleby et al, Knowledge and Postmodernism in Historical Perspective, Routledge, London, 1997
[11] Donald R. Kelley, Faces of History: From Herodotus to Herder, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1998
[12] Gary B. Nash, Charlotte Crabtree and Ross E. Dunn, History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past, Alfred A. Knopff, New York, 1997, p 10
[13] Nash, Crabtree and Dunn, History on Trial, p 101. For a review and critique of this program see Keith Windschuttle, ‘The problem of democratic history’, The New Criterion, 16, 10, June 1998
[14] Keith Jenkins (ed.) The Postmodern History Reader, Routledge, London, 1997, p 2
[15] Jenkins, The Postmodern History Reader, pp 15-16
[16] Robert Berkhofer, ‘The Challenge of Poetics to (Normal) Historical Practice’, in Jenkins (ed.) The Postmodern History Reader, pp 152-3, 155n, (his upper case)
[17] Keith Jenkins, The Postmodern History Reader, p 20
[18] Richard J. Evans, In Defence of History, Granta Books, London, 1997
[19] C. Behan McCullagh, The Truth of History, Routledge, London, 1998
[20] Evans, In Defence of History, pp 219-21
[21] Evans, In Defence of History, pp 98-9
[22] Mark Leyner, ‘Geraldo, Eat Your Avant-Pop Heart Out’, New York Times, 21 December 1997
[23] In fact, as long ago as 1991, the Australian literary theorist John Frow displayed a very French predilection for keeping one-step ahead of the pack by publishing a monograph entitled What Was Postmodernism? Local Consumption Publications, Sydney, 1991
[24] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present,, Harvard University Press, 1999
[25] Evans, In Defence of History, p 248
[26] Evans, In Defence of History, p 248
[27] McCullagh, The Truth of History, pp 3-4
[28] Jenkins, The Postmodern History Reader, p 20
[29] Michael Devitt and Kim Sterelny, Language and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Language, Blackwell, Oxford, 1987
[30] McCullagh, The Truth of History, p 38
[31] Greg Dening, Mr Bligh’s Bad Language: Passion, Power and Theatre on the Bounty, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1992, p 5
[32] McCullagh, The Truth of History, p 40
[33] McCullagh, The Truth of History, pp 40-1
[34] McCullagh, The Truth of History, p 42
[35] McCullagh, The Truth of History, p 42
[36] McCullagh, The Truth of History, pp 26-8
[37] Keith Jenkins, Re-Thinking History, Routledge, London, 1991, pp 19, 32
[38] Simon Schama, Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations), Granta Books/Penguin, London, 1991, p 322

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