Postmodernism and the Study of History

By Evans, Richard J. | History Review, December 1998 | Go to article overview

Postmodernism and the Study of History

Evans, Richard J., History Review

In defending the study of history, Richard J Evans argues that the extreme exponents of Postmodernism are Emperors with No Clothes.

Reading through recent articles published in this magazine, whether they are dealing with Bismarck, Peter the Great of Russia, the French Revolution, or the origins of the First World War, or indeed with any of a whole range of major and largely traditional topics in modern political history, it is hard to avoid the feeling that they are as much concerned with historiography as with history. In order to understand any aspect of history, it seems generally agreed, we have first to understand what historians have written about it. But what if that was all we needed to understand? What if the past itself was unrecoverable in any meaningfully objective sense, what if historians, instead of merely interpreting and reinterpreting it, simply made it up as they went along? What if, in other words, there was no difference between history and fiction?

This, or something much like it, is the argument put forward, with varying degrees of emphasis, by a growing number of literary theorists, critics, and indeed historians themselves, as they contemplate the discipline of history and how it is written and researched. The ideas they are advancing can roughly be grouped under the convenient label of `postmodernism'. For most of the twentieth century, so the argument goes, we lived in a culture of `modernism', grounded in a strong belief in science and progress. In historical studies, this was expressed in the belief that history was a science, and used a particular range of theories and techniques to analyse the documentary and other remains left behind by the past in order to achieve an objective assessment of what happened and why.

The failures of `Modernism'

This view was well expressed for example, in E. H. Carr's classic introduction to the discipline, What is History?, first published in 1961. But Carr's work makes curious reading today. An expert on, and sympathiser with, Communist Russia, Carr believed that the future of modern society lay in progress towards a Soviet-style planned economy. Thus he defined historical objectivity, for example, as judging past events and processes by the extent to which they contributed to this ultimate goal. Similarly, in assessing the cause of something that happened in the past, Carr argued that the only things worth looking at in the spectrum of possible causes were generalisable aspects of causation which had something to teach us in the present. It was pointless, for example, to argue that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand caused the outbreak of the First World War because assassinations of archdukes do not generally lead to outbreaks of wars.

The collapse of Soviet Communism has pulled the rug from under the feet of Carr's entire approach to history. Moreover, ultimately it led to distortion and downright dishonesty in dealing with the past. What would Carr have us do if we discovered an accidental and non-generalisable cause of an event in the past, or one which was generalisable but went against the beliefs which we held about the present and the future? His own treatment of such things in his monumental History of Soviet Russia suggested he believed in simply repressing such inconveniences. Carr's approach therefore was anything but scientific and objective in any normal sense of these concepts. He simply rewrote the past to serve his own political beliefs in the present, just like postmodernists think all historians do.

Not only have such modernist creeds as Communism collapsed, but it is in general more difficult now than it was in past decades to hold general beliefs about the progress of human society. Industrial and economic growth are polluting the planet as well as delivering improved living standards, for instance. Moreover, while Marxist and other left-wing historians used to believe in class struggle as the motor of history, and argue that the economy, the division of wealth and the mode of production ultimately drove all other aspects of society and politics forward, the left in advanced industrial society today is confronted by other problems, in particular discrimination and even oppression on grounds of race, ethnicity, national identity, sexual orientation, religion or gender. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Postmodernism and the Study of History


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

    New feature

    It is estimated that 1 in 10 people have dyslexia, and in an effort to make Questia easier to use for those people, we have added a new choice of font to the Reader. That font is called OpenDyslexic, and has been designed to help with some of the symptoms of dyslexia. For more information on this font, please visit

    To use OpenDyslexic, choose it from the Typeface list in Font settings.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search


    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.