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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 2: What is History? •

What is History?

Book cover: In Defence of History

Author's response to his critics (3)


In Defence of History

Richard J. Evans
Granta, 1997 307 pp., £15.99 (hardback)

Professor Antony Easthope

Manchester Metropolitan University
Criticism 3: The book fails to engage directly with the major postmodernist philosophers.

In Defence of History is a book that emerged out of the experience of teaching. In the mid-1990s, I agreed to take on the history element in a series of lectures and classes on the epistemology of the social sciences in a joint BA degree in Politics, Philosophy and History at Birkbeck College, University of London (where I was Professor of History from 1989 to 1998). Birkbeck's undergraduates are all mature part-timers, and teaching takes place in the evening. Teaching and teaching materials have to be both accessible and exciting, and they also have to be capable of satisfying the demands of an unusually critical and sceptical student body.

Looking around for suitable textbooks on historical epistemology, I was dismayed to find that the most widely used works in this subject were more than thirty years old - E. H. Carr's What is History? and G. R. Elton's The Practice of History. Rereading these books for the first time in many years made me only too aware of their inadequacies. Worse still were the alternatives. On the one hand there were tedious history primers which talked down to the student in patronising and didactic tones. On the other there was a rash of new books, many of them explicitly designed for teaching, which disputed the legitimacy of history altogether and mobilised postmodernist theory in the service of the argument that it was no different from fiction or poetry. A glance at journals like History and Theory made it even clearer that this was now more or less the orthodoxy among those who specialized in the theory and philosophy of history, which indeed had become a separate branch of learning in its own right since the days of Carr and Elton (Steven Kassem, who finds it 'puzzling' that many of the writers discussed are not practising historians, has not been paying attention).

It seemed to me that there was a need for a new book that tackled these problems, as Carr and Elton had tackled the problems of their own day, from the point of view of the practising historian, and gave readers some examples of what historians were actually doing in the 1990s as well as putting forward some general arguments about it. The lectures I gave on the course duly became, after many revisions, In Defence of History. In the book, I tried to steer a middle course between the extremes of postmodernist hyper-relativism on the one hand, and traditional historicist empiricism on the other. But the weight of the argument was directed against the postmodernists. This was not because I thought, or think, that they are becoming dominant in the historical profession as a whole. On the contrary, their presence is felt amongst working historians in only a relatively few areas, such as European intellectual history, or some kinds of feminist history, for example. The reason why I felt history needed defending was principally because of the dominance of hyper-relativism and scepticism about history's validity as an intellectual enterprise amongst those who write about historiography and history as a discipline in a general, theoretical sense.

In the 1990s increasing numbers of history degree courses, both undergraduate and postgraduate, have included a substantial element of historiography in them. It seemed to me that it was at this level that the intellectual validity of history really needed defending in the light of the kind of literature that was, and is still being published on the subject. Beyond this, too, growing numbers of historians, particularly on the left, have been voicing a growing degree of scepticism about the possibility of doing history at all. More broadly still, historians of all persuasions have been talking in increasingly alarmist tones in recent years about the state of crisis they see as overwhelming their profession as a whole. Here too, I wanted to persuade people that it was possible to defend history as an intellectual undertaking by genuinely confronting and arguing with the extreme sceptics rather than by simply ignoring them or covering them with abuse.

These aims, I thought, were clear enough from the book. But a number of critics mistook them and thought the book was trying to do something else, or ought to have done something else. Rebekka Habermas found fault with the book because it failed to refute the central philosophical theses of Derrida and Barthes. Bernd Roeck complained similarly that the book did not tackle Dilthey or Gadamer, Lyotard or Foucault, but concentrated its fire instead on second-rank figures. Marie Theres Fögen attacked me for ignoring Kant. Another reviewer thought I should have dealt with Hume. Anthony Easthope pilloried with the book's failure to provide a full-length discussion of Foucault or devote a Chapter to Hayden White.

All of these omissions I gladly concede, apart from Hayden White. Although there is no separate chapter devoted to White's work, his arguments are discussed or referred to on 26 pages of the book, that is, over ten per cent of its pages of text, and they are not evaded, as Easthope alleges, but fully dealt with, and indeed to a considerable extent, at least in their most recent version, endorsed. As for the rest, yes, it is true that I have not tried at length to deal with the epistemology of Derrida, Foucault, Gadamer, Lyotard, Hume, Kant and the rest. This complaint about the book's failure to deal at length with the most important postmodernist thinkers (not to mention major epistemologists down the ages) is in effect demanding a different book from the one I wrote.

But this does not prevent reviewers from asking for such a book. Steve Smith demands 'more philosophical spadework' to clear up some of the issues at hand, and Appleby also charges that 'what is lacking in A Defence of History' (it is symptomatic of her scholarly standards that she even manages to misquote the book's title) 'is a serious discussion of the way that postmodernists have examined the tools and strategies involved in the production of knowledge.' In similar vein, Stefan Collini is critical of the fact that the book tackles what he calls 'a blend of vulgarised post-structuralist theories of language with self-consciously radical notions about contesting hierarchy, hegemony, and so forth' instead of grappling with the French epistemology which is behind all this 'at the appropriate level of abstraction'. The result, he says, is a series of 'vulgarised rebuttals of vulgarised ideas'.

If by 'vulgarised' he means 'popularised', then I gladly plead guilty. The book is essentially not about Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Ferdinand de Saussure, or Roland Barthes, though they do get a mention, but much more about Hayden White, Frank Ankersmit, Keith Jenkins, Patrick Joyce, Dominick LaCapra, Beverley Southgate and their likes; it's precisely not an attempt to tackle the complex epistemologies of modern French philosophy head-on.

What it precisely is, is an attempt to deal with the application of some of these epistemologies, often in a simplified and, yes, vulgarised form to the theory and practice of history by people whose intellectual home is half-way between the two disciplines of history and philosophy. Collini's dismissive argument that historians aren't qualified to write about French epistemology, coupled with his view that a vulgarised rebuttal of vulgarised versions of them isn't really worth writing , is to my mind excessively Mandarin. If the only kind of book that's worth writing about postmodernism is a philosophical dissection of the central theories of Foucault, Derrida and other French thinkers at a high ('appropriate') level of abstraction, then the field really will be left open to the Jenkinses and the Ankersmits and the Southgates. Somebody's got to take them on at their level; that's what the book tries to do, and from the point of view of the health of the discipline of history, I remain convinced that this is certainly something worth doing.

Moreover, it is misguided of Collini in my view to tell historians, as he does, just to get on with writing history and leave the theorizing to the experts. We all have to make some fundamental decisions about what we're doing nowadays before we do it. History is becoming a more theoretically and epistemologically self-conscious discipline, and that's all to the good. To follow Collini's advice would not only be foolish, it would not really be possible either any more. One feels, somehow, that there's an element of 'get off my patch' in this review too. To reiterate: In Defence of History is not supposed to be a work of philosophy. It's about the influence of post-structuralist and other postmodernist epistemologies on historical theory and practice, not about those epistemologies themselves. It's a book that emerged from, and is intended to be used in, history teaching. It's not a monographic study in philosophy or the history of ideas.

That is why, finally, the book does not discuss 'important thinkers' such as Michael Oakeshott, whose omission is deplored by Niall Ferguson. I read Oakeshott and thought seriously about including a discussion of his writings on the philosophy of history, which are both extensive and important. But the fact is that he plays no part whatsoever in the current debate about history, which has entirely different theoretical and philosophical origins, and it would have been both confusing and unnecessary to have included him.

Sir Herbert Butterfield, whose omission Ferguson also deplores, is another matter. If he is remembered nowadays for anything, it is for The Whig Interpretation of History, an attack on teleological history written in the 1930s, t he main argument of which is that what happens is often an unintended consequence of something else. This is such a truism that it hardly seemed worth mentioning, and in any case it was put much earlier, and much better, by Frederick Engels, with his notion of history operating through a 'parallelogram of forces' in which pressure at one point would result in movement, unintended by the author of the pressure, at some other point far away. Like Oakeshott, Butterfield doesn't really feature in the current debate; unlike Oakeshott, he made to my mind no really serious contribution to the theory and philosophy of history, so the case for including him is even weaker.

(Richard J. Evans, November 1999)

Author's response to his critics (introduction)

  1. The book is unnecessary because history doesn't need defending.
  2. The book is unfairly critical of conservative historians.
  3. The book fails to engage directly with the major postmodernist philosophers.
  4. The book defends an outmoded empiricist concept of objectivity.
  5. The book defends a conservative approach to history.
  6. The book's concept of a fact is untenable.
  7. The book misunderstands key arguments of the postmodernists.
  8. The book is unfair to those postmodernists whom it criticises.
  9. The book's arguments are contradictory.

Original review (by Prof. Antony Easthope)

A response by Dr. Diane Purkiss

A further response by Dr. Diane Purkiss

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