Truths and facts in history

September 19, 1997

Richard Evans makes some effective points about postmodernist approaches to history. However, years of hand-to-hand fighting with postmodernists in seminar rooms suggest to me that he will need to be more hard-hitting still to repulse the postmodernist challenge.

First, there is a need to defend the validity of the empirical method and theoretical models used by historians. A telling point is to ask postmodernists how their rules and models of evidence differ from those used by other historiand often they do not.

Second, there is a need to admit, as Evans does somewhat, that some elements of postmodernist history may be useful, even if they are far from new. An emphasis on iconography, on signs, symbols and language may help to give us a fuller vision of history.

Third, there is a need to insist on the grand narrative in history. The postmodernists' claim that we cannot really understand history and, crucially, that there is no progress in history, is the most damaging attack of all on history. If history can tell us nothing and add nothing to our understanding there is little point in studying it. I suspect this is where the postmodernist historians are headed.

Keith Flett

Convenor London Socialist Historians Group.

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