The Killing of History: Preface

by | Apr 6, 2003

An excerpt from the second edition of The Killing of History: How Literary Critics and Social Theorists Are Murdering Our Past. History is an intellectual discipline which is more than 2,400 years old. It ranks with philosophy and mathematics as one of the most profound and enduring contributions which Ancient Greece made not only to […]

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

History is an intellectual discipline which is more than 2,400 years old. It ranks with philosophy and mathematics as one of the most profound and enduring contributions which Ancient Greece made not only to European civilisation but to the human species as a whole. Instead of the mythical tales which all other human cultures had needed to affirm their sense of self-worth and their place in the cosmos, the Greeks decided to try to record the truth about the past. Their historians did this even though they knew their stories would expose how fragile was their existence, how their heroes could not guarantee their victories, their oracles could not foretell their future, nor their gods ensure their fortunes. The greatest of them, Thucydides, revealed how the fate of people was entirely contingent upon human actions and social organisation. Myth had been comforting, but history was bracing. For most of the last 2,400 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 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 now widely rejected, even among some people employed as historians themselves. In the 1990s, the newly dominant theorists within the humanities and social sciences 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 and, hence, what we see in history are our own interests and concerns reflected back at us. The central point upon which history was founded no longer holds: there is no fundamental distinction any more between history and myth. This view is not itself new. It was forcefully argued more than 100 years ago by the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, and has been nurtured by his followers ever since. What is new is the success these ideas have had among English-speaking universities and academic publishers in the last ten years. I have long agreed with E.P. Thompson’s assessment that history is the

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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