Distinguishing truth from partiality

September 26, 1997

WHILE Richard Evans rightly criticises some of the more idiotic pronouncements of the new hyper-relativism, he is surely being unduly belligerent and alarmist in his attitude to postmodernism. Many philosophers and cultural theorists have long derided history as pointless and historians as deluded, well before Foucault or the "linguistic turn" were ever heard of.

However this should not be allowed to obscure the achievements of those historians whose research and writing have been informed by the new cultural theory. Evans fears that theory ultimately will subjugate facts, but this is unlikely in a discipline whose practitioners are traditionally pragmatic and empirical by training, if not by nature. Historians have always been eclectic and instrumentalist, appropriating methodologies and interpretational frameworks from a variety of other disciplines drawn from across the social sciences and humanities. Indeed it is the latitudinarian character of history which justifies its privileged place in the academy, and a narrowing of that vision would therefore be not merely unnecessary but detrimental.

Why postmodernism should be a more serious challenge to the discipline than theories sequestered by previous generations of historians eludes me. Indeed the complexity of historical events and motivation accords much more to the relativist ethos of postmodernism than it does to the one-dimensional over-arching class-based narratives promoted by Marxist and other modernist theories, which were so influential in the profession until very recently. Surely there is little to fear, and indeed much to welcome, in the new cultural history?

If, as Evans claims, it "allows oppressed groups to develop their own vision, and to achieve empowerment by articulating a working-class, African American, feminist or gay 'truth'", surely this is a reason for celebration rather than condemnation.

Professor Evans's "reasoned response" to postmodernism is to be welcomed and deserves to be widely debated by historians and the wider academic community. But he needs to be a little less inflammatory and apocalyptic if his views are to carry conviction.

Martin Francis Department of history Royal Holloway College University of London

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