Truths and facts in history

September 19, 1997

PROFESSOR Evans is in no way to blame for linking Michel Foucault to the postmodernist label because so many others have done so; but he is mistaken all the same.

I believe that Foucault's only reference to the term (which was just emerging) came when he was asked about postmodernity near the end of his life. He replied: "I must say I have trouble answering this. First, because I've never clearly understood what was meant in France by the word 'modernity' I But neither do I grasp the kind of problems intended by this term. While I see clearly that behind what was known as structuralism, there was a certain problem I I do not understand what kind of problem is common to the people we call postmodern or poststructuralist." (Telos 55, 1983) Not only does the final criticism hold good today, but Foucault was by no means the uncomplicated epistemological relativist he is sometimes made out to be. While he accepted that there were "discourses about the truth", which were indeed manipulative, they were offset by true discourse, by which he meant such things as primary historical sources and journalism - both areas where he was an enthusiastic amateur.

He may indeed have been too naive in his enthusiasm, but no one can doubt the robust common sense underlying such pronouncements as that: "All those who can say that, for me, truth doesn't exist are being simplistic." ("The concern for truth", May 1984).

Lastly, Foucault was in his own language never a prophet, that is, he loathed codified doctrines on method, and would, it is safe to say, have found today's theoretical literature on postmodernism for student historians in need of a text book just as objectionable as Professor Evans does.

Peter Ghosh

St Anne's College Oxford.

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