Historical Theory

Historical Theory

Historical Theory

Historical Theory

Synopsis

Practising historians claim that their accounts of the past are something other than fiction, myth or propaganda. Yet there are significant challenges to this view, most notably from postmodernism. In Historical Theory , a prominent historian develops a highly original argument that evaluates the diversity of approaches to history and points to a constructive way forward.Mary Fulbrook argues that all historians face key theoretical questions, and that an emphasis on the facts alone is not enough. Against postmodernism, she argures that historical narratives are not simply inventions imposed on the past, and that some answers to historical questions are more plausible or adequate than others.Illustrated with numerous substantive examples and its focus is always on the most central theoretical issues and on real strategies for bridging the gap between the traces of the past and the interpretations of the present. Historical Theory is essential and enlightening reading for all historians and their students.

Excerpt

This book addresses essential issues about the nature of historical knowledge. It is not about ‘approaches to history’ in the sense of distinct theoretical traditions, nor is it a ‘history of historiography’, nor a guide to varying ‘historical skills and methods’. There are many good books on all these sorts of topics. Rather, it is about the ways in which all historical writing is inevitably theoretical; and about the ways in which we can hope to make progress in developing enhanced accounts of selected aspects of the past in the light of the interests and perspectives of the present, while yet being able to devise criteria for saying that some accounts are ‘better’, more empirically adequate, than others.

My primary concern is thus to explore just how far, and under what conditions - or with what qualifications - we can hold a view of history as saying something true (however limited, temporary, inadequate) about a real past (however essentially ‘unknowable’ in any totalising sense), even in the wake of the postmodernist challenge and in the light (if that is the right word in this context) of the political ‘noise’ which surrounds all historical writing. These are questions which have bothered me for a long time, as a practising historian who is committed to a notion of history as trying to say something true about the past, and yet is highly aware of the ways in which different historical traditions and conflicting interpretations of the past are closely linked to political and moral positions.

One of my more specific purposes has been to construct a theoretically tenable route out of the rather entrenched positions of an arguably increasingly sterile debate between empiricists and postmodernists. I do not find the variety of postmodernist positions acceptable or convincing, for a number of reasons outlined below; but I do not feel that they have as yet been adequately answered by historians coming from a basically empiricist position. A related purpose, against any simple empiricist view, is to establish that all history writing inevitably entails taking a stand on key theoretical issues, whether or not the historian is aware of these - and many practising historians are not. There is no escape from having a theoretical position, whether explicit or implicit. But I argue that it does not follow from this that all historical approaches are in principle equally acceptable - or equally fictional, as the relativist case would suggest. It may be possible to agree on criteria for preferring one historical approach or interpretation to

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