Distinguishing truth from partiality

September 26, 1997

ASI understand it, postmodernist ideas make a positive contribution to intellectual life not only for all the reasons tucked away in the final paragraph of Richard Evans's caricature of the subject (THES, September 12), but also, and perhaps primarily, because they show utmost sensitivity to the all-important distinction between "truth" and "partiality", a world of difference that Evans's critique glosses over.

Postmodernists are only too well aware that the relativity argument can be turned upon them too and Evans's tu quoque is derivative and unsurprising. What is surprising is the lack of reflexivity (a much-valued postmodern virtue) in his apparent unawareness that all his "validity" claims are preferences, assertions and opinions, almost all of which, incidentally, I (and most postmodernists I know) happen to share without raising them to the status of incontrovertible, self-evident, universal objective truths. To lump those who deny the Holocaust and other dangerous cranks in with postmodernist historians and theoreticians is not only empirically mistaken but simply bad faith and hardly what one might expect of a historian of Evans's eminence.

What he does not do is tackle the vexing question of the arbitration of competing "truth claims" or historical preferences/prejudices. Maybe it is around this complex problematic that postmoderns, moderns, traditionalists and anyone else who wants to have a go can engage in mutually enriching open discussion. Postmoderns are likely to feel that all authority in these matters is up for grabs in principle - conjectural and provisional, in Popperian terms. This is hardly the end of the open society, or in another sense, it is its "end".

A question here is whether an open discussion is at all possible when so many potentially leading players such as Arthur Marwick, Sir Geoffrey Elton and now Evans, the professor-elect of modern history at Cambridge University, seem bent on approaching postmodernist perspectives in negative stereotypical fashion and as part of a modernist ideological crusade to cleanse academic life of views contrary to their own.

William Keenan Bramcote Lane, Wollaton Nottingham

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