Old facts spiced with a dash of ideology

A New Philosophy of History - An Intelligent Person's Guide to History - On "What is History"? From Carr and Elton to Rorty and White - Beyond the Great Tory

April 19, 1996

History is strange, perhaps because it is such an old subject and yet still a relatively young profession. And the philosophy of history is also strange, because no one seems entirely certain what the "question" is to be answered. Is it how to justify history as a pursuit? how to do it in the light of contemporary thought? how to deploy it? or simply how to get on with it? To write on the subject of "how to get on with it" has largely been the prerogative of those working historians who have reached a position of eminence in their profession and feel able to allow themselves the luxury of some reflection. More recently, as in works by Geoffrey Elton and Arthur Marwick, that luxury has become more akin to defence, in an effort to protect the citadels of "common sense" and "good practice" from the incursions of literary critics, philosophers and theorists. At the same time, works reflecting on the problems of doing history have started to appear from a more theorised direction. A new generation of historians has begun to find a voice, historians who have at least met with "theory", if not immersed themselves within it.

John Vincent could certainly not be accused of falling into the latter camp, and should probably not be encouraged to feel that he has a place in the former. An Intelligent Person's Guide to History would be flattered by the adjective "traditional"; in fact it is positively palaeolithic. Initially the book appears to be a "how to do it" manual of astounding simplicity: "Evidence that does not survive is no use, however plentiful it may once have been" is a representative statement, presumably aimed at those who have never done thinking before, let alone history. Soon after, however, one discerns an even more dubious project. History, according to Vincent, is about struggle. This promising premise, however, is swiftly contracted into a justification for Vincent's own brand of history - political history, or "kings and battles" as he terms it - and Vincent's own brand of politics - Thatcherite and social Darwinist.

Social history is the only alternative Vincent recognises, but one unfamiliar to the rest of the profession: a social history composed of pretty pictures of past lives, gentle excursions through the past, everything "pleasant" - as opposed to the red-in-tooth-and-claw, macho project Vincent himself envisages. This phantasm of social history is perhaps the only shibboleth upon which the argument rests, simply because any postwar developments in the profession are ignored: An Intelligent Person would be left sadly ignorant of the work of History Workshop, of cultural history, of feminist history, of any interdisciplinary approaches, or indeed any critical approaches at all, which is no doubt Vincent's desire. In all, a shoddy little book; the last third of the pages fell out of my copy on its first reading, which somehow seemed apt.

Vincent draws a distinction between "theories of history" and "theories of how to write history". A New Philosophy of History and Beyond the Great Story are both, by these lights, in the latter camp. A New Philosophy is slightly misleading: this collection of essays espouses several philosophies and approaches, from Nancy F. Partner's rather conservative suspicion of postmodernism to Alan Megill's insistence that the "crisis" suggested by postmodernism has always been immanent to historiography, and we should jolly well embrace it. If there is a predominant factor, it is a concern with "textualisation"; that is, with the manner and effects of the rhetorics and styles used in the writing of history.

Philippe Carrard presents a close, and rather dry reading of the subject positions adopted by various historians of the Annales school in their works; Robert Berkhofer, in an essay largely drawn from his Beyond the Great Story, examines the historian's problem of how to present the multiple viewpoints of historical characters; and Stephen Bann's "Notes on the ironic museum" elegantly suggests that we must represent and read the past in several modes simultaneously, constructing our "Great Stories", delighting in our antiquarian finds, and yet constantly criticising our claims to historical knowledge. Most invigoratingly, Linda Orr's piece on "Sta l, Michelet and Toqueville" celebrates the strong and impassioned subjectivity of those authors, and suggests that since "objectivity is not as effective as it used to be", present historians should embrace such energetic and engaging approaches. Richard Vann also produces a very useful history of the journal History and Theory, and Ann Rigney gives us a great title, "Relevance, revision, and the fear of long books", but a disappointingly simplistic essay.

Beyond the Great Story returns to the theme of "textualisation". Berkhofer's aim is to examine "the possibility of a new rhetoric and poetics of history". To this end, he analyses various modes of historiography and unpicks them with great care, seeking to understand how the "Great Stories" that historians tell might, or might not, need to be sustained by reference to real "Great Pasts". If this concrete foundation cannot be sustained - and Berkhofer's interest in Hayden White leads him to believe that this is the case - the project turns to questioning whether historians could benefit by better understanding the rhetorical strategies they use, rather than unconsciously being led by them.

Berkhofer concludes that the "question" finally is to ask how we get beyond a study of metahistory to a new kind of textualisation. This, he feels, is "the challenge issued and the burden bestowed by Hayden White and others". This is undoubtedly the case, although one perhaps ought to add the question, "textualisation to what purpose?" So far, the "burden" of White has been taken as a rather arid examination of the way in which history is written, rather than a response to the realisation that history is written as a political act. Given their roots in the theories of poststructuralism, these textualist analyses also cling to curiously "modernist" notions of the historiographical text as a fetishised, discrete object, and the historian as a lone author. Quite clearly no one history book can satisfy the entire gamut of contemporary, critical demands, and it is not entirely clear to me why it should. Linda Orr notes that the "urgency" of 19th-century historians seems to have disappeared in much contemporary writing, and this is certainly the case with Berkhofer, Ankersmit and Kellner. The "problems" of multiculturalism, race and gender are all noted, present and correct, but in these examinations there is no sense that there is anything at stake.

This is thankfully not the case with Keith Jenkins's On "What is History?" From Carr and Elton to Rorty and White, which not only negotiates the "burden" of Hayden White, but also implicitly the "burden" of John Vincent. As with his earlier book Rethinking History, Jenkins has produced an accessibly written, confessed polemic, aimed at students but essential for historians of all ages. On "What is History?" usefully summarises a range of critical arguments, and demonstrates that much of the suspicion over poststructuralism has rested on misreadings and misrepresentations of such theorists as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. After the introductory chapter, E. H. Carr and G. R. Elton are dispatched in an illuminating and entertaining manner; in particular, Jenkins shows that Elton's Return to Essentials had to base much of its argument on ad hominem attacks against the postmodern brigade, because that was the only way Elton could attempt to privilege his "experience" over theirs; and "experience" is essentially all that sustained his view of how to do history.

This demolition of traditional historiography's "impotent modernism" is pedagogically directed: Jenkins is trying to suggest what should form the basis of historiographical instruction. Consequently, he goes on to invoke and explicate the relativist philosophy of Richard Rorty to argue that rhetoric is now "the only game in town". White then provides the tools for understanding how rhetoric in history writing is constructed and what it implies. Crucially, however, Jenkins emphasises White's major fault: that he downplays the importance of the ideological in favour of his taxonomic analysis of the tropes of metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche and irony. On "What is History?" concludes by noting that a theory of history, and a theory of writing history, are inextricably intertwined; and that both are ideological.

If Jenkins has flaws, it is perhaps that his accessible style sometimes collapses into confusion under the strain of trying to translate the more obscure elements of critical theory, particularly in his first chapter; and that his choice of theorists might be disputed. Foucault enters tantalisingly at the point where White leaves off, as an illustration of how to put theory into practice, but then disappears once more.

However, Jenkins is the only writer here to recognise and make a virtue of the fact that historians do not write into a vacuum, and to grasp that any history text is inevitably in dialogue with all the other words our profession produces. Although one might argue that Carr and Elton are perhaps two of the easier targets from the traditional, "English" approach to history, On "What is History?" also presents what is perhaps the most radical position of all these books: it is political, and it is aimed at the next generation of historians. The "burden of history" may yet be successfully carried into the utopian future of a new practice of writing.

John Arnold is a postgraduate researcher at the Centre for Medieval Studies, University of York.

A New Philosophy of History

Editor - Frank Ankersmit and Hans Kellner
ISBN - 0 948462 78 7 and 77 9
Publisher - Reaktion
Price - £29.95 and £12.95
Pages - 304

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.


Featured jobs