History In Focus logo and homepage link

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 (5)


In Defence of History

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

Professor Antony Easthope

Manchester Metropolitan University
Criticism 5: The book defends a conservative approach to history.

If Nolte misunderstands my notion of objectivity in one way, then Peter Ghosh misunderstands and misrepresents it in a whole variety of ways. In his review, he claims that the book is engaged in a 'polemic against history since 1960', that it defends an 'exaggerated empiricism' based on the 'fetishising of documents' and that I believe that facts and documents 'speak for themselves'. It is hard to believe that Ghosh has read the book properly, or that he is familiar with my other work. In Defence of History actually argues that history has undergone a welcome renaissance since the 1960s, and defends explicitly and at length in Chapter 6 the broadening of the discipline which has taken place in this period against conservative historians who would like to see it return to its old concentration on the politics of the nation-state. My own work on the social history of medicine and disease, the history of ritual, the history of feminism, the history of death, and other topics, would not have been possible without all the changes that have taken place in historical studies over the last forty years.

In a similar way, Peter Schöttler claims that the book avoids discussing, indeed basically dismisses, the new cultural history which has (in his view) been one of the principal and most welcome consequences of postmodernism.

Someone who says goodbye to optimism about progress and industry is not by a long way a rural romantic or an enemy of the Enlightenment; someone who does not derive people's statements and behaviour a priori from rational interests and intention but asks about gender and sexuality, desires and anxieties, fantasies of power, and mistakes, is no irrationalist, but takes account of the fact that subjects have a body and an unconscious.

I couldn't agree more; indeed I've tried to do all these things in my own work, particularly in Rituals of Retribution and Tales from the German Underworld. Schöttler's remarks here miss their target as much as do those of Rudrangshu Mukherjee, writing in the Calcutta Telegraph, when he declares that history should take from post-modernism 'those aspects of it which add value to the work of historians' and accuses the book of trying to close the window of opportunity which postmodernism offers. But on the contrary, the book welcomes the challenge which postmodernism issues to historians to reflect more carefully on their own work and their own position, and to take language more seriously. Both Schöttler and Mukherjee fail to note the distinctions it makes and so criticise it for things it doesn't say or try to do.

Ghosh's criticisms go beyond his claim that the book defends an old-fashioned concept of history. Ghosh takes the historicist point of view that 'theory comes from within history', and excoriates the historian's use of theories taken from other disciplines. This is sheer obscurantism. Most advances in historical scholarship since the 1960s and long before have taken place through the use of theories and methods borrowed from elsewhere, whether philology, economics, sociology, anthropology, or linguistics. In Defence of History argues that facts and documents do not speak for themselves, but only speak to when they are spoken to by the historian. Historians need to use, indeed cannot avoid using, theories and concepts developed in their own time. Ghosh also claims that if any aesthetic impulses go into the structuring of a work of history, that work of history must necessarily be conceptually vacuous. He refers to my book Death in Hamburg as an example (because I cite it in In Defence of History as an instance of how I used aesthetic criteria to organise historical material, much in the way described by Hayden White for historical work in general). If Ghosh had actually read Death in Hamburg, however, he would have discovered that it is structured by a set of Marxist concepts. The point is that conceptual and aesthetic aspects of writing a history book are not mutually exclusive; if they were, all history books would be completely unreadable.

The confusions and contradictions in Ghosh's review are compounded in his subsequent response to the points made above in a letter to the London Review of Books, where he goes on to declare that a 'Rankean' approach to history as described in my book is an invention of the last thirty years, and asserts roundly that I am a Rankean. 'Rankean' in this sense seems to involve the kind of documentary fetishism that Ghosh accuses me of in his review. But what could fetishize the documents more than Ghosh's own apparent belief that interpretations and theories in history can only be legitimate if they spring from history itself, or in other words, from the documents?

Moreover, since Ghosh also argues that it is illegitimate to describe anyone as postmodernist unless they describe themselves as such, he will presumably have to accept my insistence that I am not a Rankean even though he calls me one. Insofar as In Defence of History endorses 'Rankeanism', it is only in the sense of insisting that the methods of source-criticism introduced, not in the last few decades, but in the mid- nineteenth century by Leopold von Ranke himself, are still valid for historians today when they are analysing documents in the archive. This does not imply endorsement of Ranke's whole theory of history, however, still less of the way his name has been invoked by methodologically conservative historians wishing to reinstate political and constitutional history at the centre of the discipline, as the book makes abundantly clear in its critical discussion of both these topics.

Where Ghosh is coming from is indicated by the aggressive 'get off my patch' tone of his letter to the London Review of Books, in which he states that only professional historians of ideas such as himself are qualified to write a bout historiography, and mere historians of politics, culture and society such as myself should steer well clear. He justifies this by claiming that my portrait of the history of ideas as the continual reinterpretation of a limited number of classic texts 'bears no relation to the modern discipline of the history of ideas'. He goes on to note, however, that the 'old version' which I equate with the discipline as a whole 'actually resembles Post-Modernism in the style of Hayden White or Ankersmit'. This is precisely the point made in my book. White is surely for good or ill the most influential historian of historical ideas and practices writing today. All his numerous disciples and followers argue that all texts are capable of infinite reinterpretation. White's approach is not old-fashioned; quite the contrary, it is all too fashionable.

What Ghosh seems to be advocating is the method pioneered by Quentin Skinner, of fixing the meaning of a past text by comparing the language it uses with the language used in other, contemporaneous texts: thus we will be able to determine once and for all the meaning of Hobbes's Leviathan, for example, by fixing the meaning of the language and concepts it uses through locating them in their contemporary linguistic context. This is a very fruitful and influential approach, but it is not synonymous with the entire 'modern discipline of the history of ideas', and indeed postmodernist writers on historiography regard it (without much justification, it has to be said) as an outdated form of historicism.

It seems to be this approach which leads Ghosh to argue that modern concepts should not be imported into the analysis of past texts. This may be an admirable precept when analysing the meaning of the writings, say, of John Locke, but it will not do when studying, for example, the social structure of a medieval village, or the origins of the First World War. Moreover, if Ghosh believes, as he says in his review, that the 'Great Texts' notion of the history of ideas is now 'defunct', then why is he 'working on a new translation of Max Weber's Protestant Ethic', as his biographical notes in the LRB reveal? Ghosh alleges that 'Evans supposes that the modern history of ideas, as practised by Quentin Skinner and Gareth Stedman Jones, for example, and "Post-Modernism" of the White and Ankersmit variety are essentially one and the same.' Nowhere in anything I have written is there the slightest warrant for such an absurd accusation.

Even more beside the point is the lengthy attack on my supposed defence of 'Rankean principles' by Keith Jenkins in his book Why History? (London, 1999), pp. 106-112. The arguments Jenkins puts forward are based on an almost comical misunderstanding of what I wrote. On page 19 of In Defence of History I argue that Ranke's principles of source-criticism are still useful in historical research today, though obviously they have been much added to in the meantime. Otherwise, a s the lengthy critique of other aspects of Ranke's thought in Chapter 1 of the book makes clear, I don't think Ranke has much to offer the modern historian. The book rejects for example the historicist notion that the past can be constructed in its own terms. And it makes a point of arguing against the empiricist idea that one can build up evidence independently of any guiding hypothesis, until an argument emerges. Jenkins's attacks on it for supposedly defending these 'Rankean' arguments are therefore misplaced. Jenkins makes a startling retreat, however, when it comes to dealing with the 'Rankean' point that the authenticity, the provenance and to a considerable extent the meaning of a document can be established by rigorous source-criticism. He sidesteps this point by claiming on page 108 that postmodernists have never argued that there was no 'cognitive element in history' at the level of the individual statement, only that certainty and objectivity were impossible at the level of interpretation (or , as he puts it, 'historical "truth" is not much in dispute at the lower level of the syntactical' (p. 109)).

The characteristic postmodernist distancing device of the inverted commas around the word 'truth' suggests that he thinks otherwise, else why would he have put them there? Moreover, what Jenkins says here goes completely against what he and others have written at such length about the impossibility of inferring past events, situations, beliefs and so on from documentary evidence. Enormous amounts of postmodernist ink have been spilled on trying to prove that documents are so unreliable you can never tell anything from them, that you can never recover the intentions of their authors, and so on. It is a fundamental premise of postmodernist critiques of history that a document is re-invented and re-interpreted every time someone looks at it, so that it can never have any fixed meaning. If this claim doesn't mean that we can never use documents to find out basic historical facts, then it doesn't mean anything at all. Jenkins tries to recover a little of the ground he has conceded here by insisting on the difficulty of recovering the past through historical documents; but simply because that recovery may be partial or provisional, may involve argument and interpretation, may be open to criticism from others, or may never be definitive, doesn't mean that it's impossible, as Jenkins previously claimed. Jenkins seems to be undermining his whole larger argument here, and goes much further in the direction of an empiricist defence of 'facts' than I would.

Despite this startling abandonment of his basic theoretical position in favour of a very traditional form of empiricism, Jenkins still tries to portray In Defence of History as part of a conservative, blinkered, hidebound, 'bourgeois' attack on radical, progressive, emancipatory postmodernism. In the course of this, he attributes to me a number of views I do not hold. Often his points are simply speculative. Thus, for example, he writes:

If one were to ask Richard Evans (as I shall be asking) what "proper" history is, then he would and does unreflexively reply that, in effect, it's just what he does. It is the craft that he practises. To ask Evans what "proper" history is is to invite him to produce his job description. In this way Evans et al. re-enact to the letter that universalising trait of all ideology, in that a sectional defence is presented as being in the interests of everybody, and that it is not their history that is in danger at all but history per se.

Jenkins immediately contradicts himself, however, by going on in his very next sentence to assert 'that it really is history per se that radical postmodernism threatens with extinction' (p. 9). So he accepts that the book is a broadly-based defence of all approaches to the study of the past, not just a defence of one particular approach. What other kind of history is there anyway, apart from a history that starts from the premise that we can know about the past?

Jenkins indulges in his usual self- dramatization as a radical opponent of bourgeois orthodoxy by presenting the reader with a version of In Defence of History that gives the book some kind of would-be official status, laying down the law to everybody as to how history should be studied. He repeatedly alleges that In Defence of History was written in defence of 'proper' history and 'proper' historians. Nowhere in fact do I use this term, nowhere do I attempt to define what might be an 'improper' history; on the contrary, I argue repeatedly and at length that there is a huge variety of ways of approaching the past, and that this plurality and diversity are to be welcomed and defended. I would not for one minute wish to say t hat the kind of history I engage in myself is the only 'proper' kind, and I have never done so. On the contrary, it is Jenkins who is being prescriptive and dogmatic, declaring repeatedly that postmodernity is the only proper epistemological, moral and political position to adopt, that history is outmoded, irrelevant, pointless and impossible, and that the only option for historians is to join the postmodernists, though of course only if the postmodernists judge them fit to do so. No room f or plurality and diversity here, then.

Jenkins alleges that I claim to speak for all historians (p. 96). Nowhere does the book make such a claim; it would be wrong as well as presumptuous for me to do so, since I was perfectly well aware that many historians would disagree with many of the views expressed in my book - for example, its criticism of the idea, held by many historians, that the political history of the nation-state should be at the core of the discipline, or its rejection of the assumption that the history of the great mass of people throughout recorded time is of no interest or significance, or its attack on the view that the history of women, or gender, or sexuality, is trivial and not worth pursuing. The use of the word 'we' at the start of the book and in various other places does not refer to an anonymous group or an organized profession for which I am claiming to be the spokesman, as Jenkins seems to think; its use ('how we study history' etc.) is in no sense prescriptive, otherwise I would have said 'how we should study history' etc.. Saying that the book is about how we study the past in no way implies that there is a single legitimate view about how we should study the past, and indeed the book devotes a lot of space to demonstrating the enormous variety of views that exist amongst historians in this respect.

Jenkins suggests that what I am defending is simply my own individual practice as a historian ('Evans's history is just him: it's just his', p. 101), and that I present my own work as an ideal example of how history should be done. How can I be a spokesman for historians in general, how can my view be lumped together with those of 'Geoffrey Elton, Gertrude Himmelfarb, John Tosh, J. H. Hexter, C.B. McCullagh, Lawrence Stone' and others (p. 9), how can my arguments indeed be described as 'Evansist/bourgeois' (p. 101) if they are only justifying what I practice as an individual historian? Moreover, nowhere do I present my own work as the ne plus ultra of historical scholarship; on the contrary, I should have thought that the emphasis of the book on how history changes and (sometimes) advances as a discipline, how the past is continually being reinterpreted and so on, would have made it clear enough that I expect my own work to be superseded in the future.

This is not the only example of Jenkins distorting what I wrote for polemical effect. The book asserts for example that the epistemological issues it discusses are relevant to the problem of how society can obtain the kind of objective certainty about the great issues of our time that can serve as a reliable basis for taking vital decisions for the future. This, says Jenkins, means that I think the fate of history is integral to the fate of civilisation itself. But the book does not say that it is integral, only that it is relevant, a far more modest claim.

Jenkins inhabits an intellectual world of crude and hectoring authoritarianism, in which authors and texts are either unassailable and simply to be accepted, like Hayden White and his Metahistory, or not to be taken seriously because they dare to make some critical points about postmodernity and therefore are behind the times, like myself and In Defence of History. Jenkins's tone here, as in his other writings, could hardly be overdone for arrogance: here, he tells his readers, read and believe this because it's right, don't bother to read that because it's wrong. Once again we are faced with the absolutism of so much postmodernist thinking. While proclaiming the need for subtlety and nuance in everything, postmodernists such as Jenkins throw any kind of distinction or qualification out of the window when it comes to discussing historical and other kinds of knowledge. Thus Jenkins simply cannot accept that anyone can look at a thinker or a body of thought in a critical manner and accept some ideas and reject others; critical and discriminating thought of this kind is condemned on page after page of Why History? as 'rigid' and authoritarian 'assimilationism'.

In fact, of course, In Defence of History goes to some length to point out that postmodernist ideas and trends have not simply been 'assimilated' into the practice of historical writing and research insofar as they have been useful to it, they have actually materially altered the way many historians see the past. Indeed, the book argues that aspects of postmodernist thinking need to be taken on board by historians precisely because they will alter the discipline of history , perhaps even in some respects transform it. The book tries to show, inevitably briefly, how much of the most exciting and innovative work in history in recent years has taken its cue (though, it goes without saying, not always uncritically) from Foucault, the 'linguistic turn', and so on; some of it is mentioned above, but let me add that I found Hayden White's work on narrative and metaphor stimulating and important for my own recent book Tales from the German Underworld, as Jenkins would have noticed had he read it (not that there is any evidence in his book that he has read any history at all, and why should there be, since he thinks it so useless?).

Whatever Jenkins claims, In Defence of History does not describe the study of history just as a craft: it explicitly argues that it can just as legitimately be practised in other ways, too, as an art and, at least in a weak definition of the term, as a science. Jenkins suggests that 'getting one's hands dirty in the archive' is a 'rather precious "artisan" side' to professional history and that my book judges everything by this criterion, declaring history to be a craft that historians have to learn on the job (p. 99). What on earth is so 'precious' about this fundamental aspect of the creation of historical knowledge? As for the training of historians, I don't presume to prescribe how it should be done at all; it depends very much on what kind of history one is pursuing. Some of the more technical kinds of historical research, for example, such as family reconstitution or medieval legal history, cannot be learned on the job, they require extensive previous training. In Defence of History also goes out of its way to defend broader-based interpretations of the past, surveys and interpretations which are not directly based on archival study. Once more, Jenkins is reading into the book things that simply aren't there, and ignoring things that are.

Jenkins describes the book as 'mean-spirited, often rather arrogant and dismissive' (p. 95). But what could be more deserving of epithets such as these than Jenkins's own book? Here, Jenkins repeats several times his by now very familiar assertion that the study of history is about to come to an end if it has not already done so. We can, Jenkins says, now forget history (p. 9). Any defence of it is beside the point because 'the invaders have been and gone', the citadel of 'proper' history, as he calls it, has been destroyed, and the only choice left to 'proper' historians is to join the postmodernists (a term with which, incidentally, Jenkins appears to have no problems, repeatedly identifying himself as a postmodernist), or remain located in an outmoded and increasingly distant past, like, one supposes, the practitioners of a truly dead discipline like medieval scholasticism. For Jenkins, historians like myself inhabit a mental 'world of the flat-earth variety' (pp. 95-9), and this means that students should treat 'Richard Evans as "someone to forget"' (p. 201).

What evidence is there to support the view that history is a thing of the past? Jenkins does not cite any, nor, I suppose, given his epistemological premises, would he find it necessary to do so. In fact, of course, there is an overwhelming mass of evidence to the contrary. More history is being written and researched today than at any time in the past, more books and articles are being published, well written history books - admittedly a minority - find a wide readership, television documentaries on historical subjects abound. A greater variety of subjects is falling under the historian's gaze than ever before. History is in the course of a knowledge explosion, a development which brings its own problems but which in the end is a sign of vigour rather than decline. The sense of epistemological crisis and doubt engendered by postmodernism has not led to a general paralysis, rather to an increased awareness of the need for accuracy and sophistication in historical research and interpretation, in deference to the advice of many postmodernists to pay more attention to the language of documents and to be suspicious of the distortions that can be introduced by grand theory.

In what sense, then is all this activity by historians of all kinds, whether conservative or progressive, left-wing or right- wing, elitist or populist, politically neutral or politically engaged, 'bourgeois'? Jenkins repeats his vulgar - Marxist belief that 'Ideological positions...are obviously expressive of specific interests' (p. 99), but silently retreats from the crudity with which he put this view in his earlier work. Now, a 'bourgeois' historian (or in other words, a historian of any description in his view) is no longer someone concerned to justify the status quo in society, and to propagate a doctrine that prevents social and cultural change. In Why History? a bourgeois historian is someone who projects an idealized self-image onto the past - rational, objective, scrupulous and so on (p. 100):

What Evans is doing here...is giving the past the same characteristics as he gives himself/the bourgeoisie, on the (unwitting) assumption that if he treats the past in the same way as he (and the bourgeoisie) like to be treated (humbly, scrupulously, with care...rationally, objectively, etc.), then the past, he and the bourgeoisie will be cooperative.

Once again we come up against the problem that Jenkins seems not to have read any of my historical work, which is concerned mainly with the history of Germany since the seventeenth century; with topics such as violence, torture, cruelty and death, exploitation and inequality, and a substantial part of which involves a sharp critique of the (historical) bourgeoisie, in the shape in particular of the mercantile elite of Hamburg in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Much of my work involves trying to re-establish and to understand the different, alien nature of past societies, cultures and beliefs, as I explain in the Preface to Rituals of Retribution. I don't think, for example, that describing and interpreting the ritual of blood-drinking in public executions in early modern Germany, as I do in this book, is back-projecting my own self-image on to the past, let alone that of 'the bourgeoisie', whatever that is (and Jenkins never troubles t o define it). To advance such an argument in respect of anyone who works on Nazi Germany, as Jenkins must know I do, is offensive as well as absurd. Similarly, Jenkins seems not to know that my work as a historian has variously analysed the semiotics of t he body and space in public ritual, made extensive (though never uncritical) use of Foucault, or, most recently, engaged in an implicit dialogue with New Historicism. Finally on this point, while Jenkins complains at various points in his book (without giving any examples, needless to say) of my ad hominem attacks on others, what could be more ad hominem than this argument, unless it is the manner in which he patronisingly speculates on whether or not I am mentally flexible enough to become a postmodernist?

The vehemence of Jenkins's rhetoric cannot disguise the fact that he fails to engage with a single one of the criticisms In Defence of History makes of his own work. True, he makes a few attempts, but they are all assertions rather than arguments. Jenkins asks, for example, at what level we can situate the probable rather than absolute truth which I say is all historians can hope to establish - 'the single statement, medium range inferences, synoptic accounts, etc.?' - the answer is, at every level, but in any case, as Susan Haack has pointed out, this does no damage at all to the concept of truth as such. Similarly, declaring that my concept of objectivity doesn't meet the objections of Ankersmit is meaningless unless the arguments on both sides are fairly stated and my objections to Ankersmit dealt with, which they aren't in Jenkins's book. Again, Jenkins simply dismisses as 'documentary fetishism' my (I should have thought, fairly obvious) statement that historical knowledge c an be generated by the discovery of new documents (such as, for example, the Dead Sea Scrolls, or, to take another, more recent example, the Nazi 'General Plan East' with its vision of the deliberate murder of 30 million inhabitants of Eastern Europe). But giving such a statement a disparaging label ('documentarism' is another one, p. 104) doesn't show anything, apart from the fact that Jenkins doesn't like this particular argument.

In order to demonstrate his point, he would have to show that the discovery of new documents does not generate new historical knowledge, which he doesn't. In dealing with causation, Jenkins reasonably enough outlines the extreme difficulty of establishing causal hierarchies and relationships for the Industrial Revolution (as he still calls it), but in no sense does he show that such an undertaking is either logically or historically impossible (p. 105). Finally, Jenkins accuses me of 'misreadings' of White and Ankersmit without actually saying what these are (p. 105). Criticism of this kind which refuses to give details, and takes refuge instead in rhetorical overkill, cannot be taken seriously. Where he does, unusually, supply detail, it is often beside the point. Thus on page 216, note 1, he complains that I have quoted from Tony Bennett's Outside Literature a quote which 'is, in fact, taken from my On What is History?' But the words quoted were written by Bennett, not by Jenkins, so the criticisms is misplaced. True, Jenkins quotes them too. But is he saying he has a monopoly on quoting them? Or that he quoted them wrongly and I have repeated the mistake? Neither seems to be the case. So what is all the fuss about?

Leaving such trivial points aside: the fundamental fact that postmodernist hyper-relativism isn't necessarily radical or emancipatory at all, is not addressed in any way by Jenkins, who continues, like other postmodernists, to assume without any justification that it necessarily is. This assumption in turn leads to the assumption that everyone who dares to criticise any part of postmodernist theory must be conservative. In fact, as the book points out, extreme relativism opens the door to fascists and racists as well as radicals and progressives by allowing anybody to claim that their view of history, their reading of a document, is as valid as anybody else's, and by making it impossible to refute their arguments on anything but politic al grounds. Perhaps it is because it challenges this self-designated left-wing radicalism of postmodernists that In Defence of History has made so many of them so angry.

(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

Back to reviews index

Back to top