Mistaken identity

May 2, 1997

Crisis? What crisis"? That was my first reaction to Alan Munslow's claim that history as a discipline is facing a growing crisis of identity, a philosophical crisis of its empiricist foundations ("The plot thickens", THES, March 21).

Outside of the imagination of some postmodernists, I see no evidence for such a claim. Far from experiencing an identity crisis, history is booming, mainly because of the continuing relevance and coherence of the discipline's central focus on human action, human reasoning and human experience in different settings and contexts.

At the heart of Munslow's postmodernist jumble is the notion that history as it is traditionally conceived and practised is about inferring "the meaning of the past from the evidence of unique events". Since "meaning" is a subjective linguistic construction there are considerable (if not insuperable) barriers to the accurate reconstruction and representation of past reality.

This curious, but common postmodernist characterisation of historical discourse as the study of meaningful connections between past "events" has little or no relevance to the research and writings of most historians.

Historical research is largely about grappling with the meanings and inter-relationships of the evidence of past human thought and action. To attempt to deny the possibility of at least some degree of success in this enterprise is to cast doubt on the very possibility of human communication and coexistence.

"History," Munslow asserts, "is not a discipline that can generate truthful interpretations. The very notion is an oxymoron." Why in that case bother with evidence and validation if it is all a creative fiction anyway?

Munslow does not go quite that far. He contents himself with the more moderate conclusion that historians need to be more reflexive about their discipline and, in particular, to recognise their imaginative and creative role in the construction of historical narratives. Agreed, but could we ask in return that postmodernist critics of the discipline are more rigorous and self-reflexive when it comes to their own standpoint?

Geoffrey Roberts

Department of history

University College Cork

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