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. …

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