History's pseuds

April 4, 1997

THE PARTY political broadcast on behalf of postmodernism by Alun Munslow (THES, March 21) confirms the bankruptcy of history's pseuds' corner.

Mr Munslow paints a caricature of the state of historical study. "Old" history (presumably everything from Herodotus to the 1970s) is condemned for its empiricism and airily dismissed as "naive" and "facile". The way forward apparently lies with the "new wave" of "young" historians who have "moved away from traditional empiricism to exploit philosophical theorising".

The question, he says, is "whether any historical narrative can be accurate". He argues for "the unavoidable relativism of historical understanding". Towards the end, though, he suddenly realises how far out on the limb he has crawled. The new history does not, he says, mean denying the existence of the Holocaust, nor are its supporters prevented from making judgements on historical events in terms of "right" and "wrong", presumably having considered the "facts".

His problem is that our knowledge of the Holocaust and our judgement on it are based on an acceptance of the approaches and credibility of the "old" history the postmodernists reject: empirical research to determine the facts and a willingness to make absolute judgements based on a non-relativist intellectual/moral code. If postmodernists reject empiricism in favour of philosophical theorising and embrace relativism in place of "threadbare claims to truthfulness", then how do they know that the Holocaust happened and on what set of permanent values do they base their judgement? Postmodernism, it seems, can only be played in a minor key. Faced with the big questions of history postmodernists retreat back to the "old" history of facts and judgements.

Far from being the "new wave", postmodernism is yesterday's fashion, a collection of poses and style statements which have increasingly threadbare claims to historical credibility.

David Russell, history department Bolton Institute

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