Truth in an age of challenge

In Defence of History

November 28, 1997

At a time when some feel that history is under siege from a ravening horde of postmodernists, Richard Evans offers a spirited and elegant defence of the discipline that engages seriously with postmodernism, while demonstrating with wit and acumen that historians have never been quite so credulous as is sometimes suggested. Seeking to update the seminal works of G. R. Elton and E. H. Carr, the author deals with a wide range of issues germane to the practice of history in a manner that is blessedly free of jargon, making the book of interest to a wide readership. His central concern, however, is to rebut the different strands in the postmodernist critique that collectively serve to undermine the historian's claim to produce true knowledge about the past.

As a leading historian of Germany, Evans is acutely aware of the moral importance of history, especially in a century that has seen so many efforts by rulers to suppress the past and by citizens to forget it. His commitment to the ideal of telling the truth about the past is admirable, but his view that there is a singular truth to be told is highly questionable. For though he registers the "partial" or "probable" character of historical truth, Evans subscribes, like federal agent Mulder of The X Files, to the view that the truth is out there, waiting to be discovered by the historian.

His claim that historical truth is ascertained through "discovering the facts of the past" rests on two basic arguments. The first is that there is a "historical method" common to all historians - basically the method of source criticism pioneered by Leopold von Ranke. The second is that "interpretations really can be tested and confirmed or falsified by an appeal to the evidence".

In respect of the first, it is doubtful whether historians today can be said to share even a common aim, still less a common method, since as Evans observes, "virtually everything of meaning or importance to contemporary humanity now has a written history". The protocols of von Ranke were devised for an age when political and diplomatic history were paramount and when the nation state constituted the framework of historical investigation. A glance at any historical journal will show how far historical practice has moved on since then: the latest number of History Workshop Journal, which is sitting on my desk, has articles on topics as diverse as prosthetic reconstruction after the American civil war and tattooing in 19th-century Europe. But even supposing that Evans is right, it is doubtful whether as much flows from this common historical method as he assumes. Certainly, uncritical or dishonest use of sources will lead to falsehood, but the claim that historical arguments "stand or fall" by the extent to which they "conform to the rules of evidence and the facts on which they rest" is unpersuasive.

This brings us to the second and related line of argument concerning the relationship of interpretation to evidence. Again, one may agree that the historical record constrains the scope of historical interpretation, yet the distance between "evidence" and "interpretation" is far greater than Evans assumes. He is not an empiricist, in so far as he recognises the role of interpretation, language and theory in historical analysis, yet he does ultimately seek to anchor the claim to historical truth in the "facts" of the past and the capacity of "historical method" to retrieve them. If this were so, however, it would be difficult to explain how a work such as Richard Pipes's account of the Russian revolution, which adheres scrupulously to historical facts and rules of evidence, is nevertheless considered by many to provide a deeply distorted representation of that event. The reason, surely, has to do with the postmodernist recognition that the meaning of a historical narrative derives far more from the historian's own writing than from the meanings that inhere in the documentary record. And though there may be "rules of evidence", there are few rules that govern how historians construct their narratives on the basis of the evidence.

This has far-reaching implications for any commitment to tell the truth about the past, since it makes truthfulness a relative matter that depends on the persuasive and creative deployment of, as well as on fidelity to, the documentary record: in other words, on those rhetorical strategies to which postmodernists have so fruitfully drawn attention. One might also add that truthfulness is a function of qualities that postmodernists tend to disparage, such as the imagination and empathy of the historian and his or her awareness of their own historical situatedness. This does not entail, as some postmodernists assume, that the past has no reality outside historians' representations of it, but it still leaves open many difficult questions concerning the criteria by which we judge how successfully or otherwise a historian has represented that reality.

Evans leaves such questions aside, content to assert that historians "identify, or posit with a high degree of plausibility, patterns, trends and structures in the human past". And though he raises the issue of whether such "larger patterns" are "already there, waiting to be discovered by a neutral process of cognition", or whether "historians put them there themselves", it is swiftly brushed aside. Similarly, in chapter five he registers the question of whether there are real causal connections inherent in the past which historians can discover, but again fails to pursue it. A postmodernist, for example, might argue that the Marxist assumption that changes in the mode of production determine changes in social relations is simply a causal relation projected onto the past for political reasons. But is it quite so easy to say the same of a causal statement such as: "The Depression caused the price of wheat in France to fall by more than half"? Such issues may seem empty metaphysics to some, but they have been raised forcefully by postmodernists; and historians who wish to assert the objective existence of the past and, by extension, the claim that the past possesses certain immanent properties, have to do far more philosophical spadework than Evans here provides.

In reviewing the diversity of present-day historical practice, Evans reveals admirable open-mindedness and democratic sympathies. Yet he never quite faces up to the postmodernist question: "Whose history gets told?" His strictures against partisan history aimed at self-empowerment are fair enough, but they overlook the fact that until recently most of the history produced in this country was intimately bound up with the empowerment of culturally dominant groups. More fundamentally, he balks at drawing the obvious inference from the pluralist condition of contemporary historiography: namely, that it suggests that there are many truths to be told about the past which different historians will tell differently; and that these different accounts will not necessarily be commensurable with one another, even though they all deal with things that actually happened. If this is so, then perhaps Evans's desire to write the What is History? de nos jours is nostalgic, since both Carr and Elton, despite their differences, belonged to a culture in which the claim of the historian to tell a singular truth about the past went unchallenged. For better or for worse, that age has passed.

Steve Smith is professor of history, University of Essex.

In Defence of History

Author - Richard J. Evans
ISBN - 1 86207 068 7
Publisher - Granta
Price - £15.00
Pages - 307

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