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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 (7)


In Defence of History

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

Professor Antony Easthope

Manchester Metropolitan University
Criticism 7: The book misunderstands key arguments of the postmodernists.

While some of the reviewers sympathetic to postmodernism, such as Joyce Appleby, or who are philosophically trained, like Anthony Grayling, accept that In Defence of History gives an accurate representation of the postmodernist theories it is attacking, others do not. The dispute begins with the definition of postmodernism itself. The book makes it clear that postmodernism is a convenient label covering a wide variety of positions, not a unitary body of theory, and recognizes that some of these positions are mutually contradictory or antagonistic (pp. 254-5, note 5). It also distinguishes between moderate and radical variants, following the distinction made in Rosenau's Post-Modernism and the Social Sciences. Broadly speaking, it recommends the former for attention but rejects the hyper-relativist theories of the latter. It is quite true to say that the book does not hazard a definition of this protean body of ideas. It does its best to avoid ascribing arguments to 'the postmodernists' in general. All it argues is that it is convenient to attach the label of 'postmodernist' to the 'linguistic turn', the denial of the possibility of objective knowledge about the past, the rejection of socioeconomic models of causation, the insistence that 'grand narratives' in history are no longer possible.

Lynn Hunt complains that in the book, 'postmodernism...is neither clearly defined nor seriously engaged'. She justifies this criticism by listing a variety of different positions described as postmodernist in the book and countering them with a single definition of her own: 'For historians', she writes, 'postmodernism generally means the view that the historian cannot penetrate the veil of language to historical reality, that is, the historian can only write rhetoric, not truth.' More widely, she says, it involves an attack on modernism and modernity. Even these two very broad definitions do not, however, encompass the variousness of the phenomenon, and the problem of definition remains.

Hunt complains that the arguments of postmodernism are not seriously engaged in the book. But the problem with Hunt's review is that all she offers in support of this accusation is mere assertion; nowhere does she herself seriously engage with the arguments of the book. Thus she convicts it of 'logical inconsistencies, weakness of philosophical analysis, and failure to grapple with the main tenets of postmodernism', while at the same time failing to identify a single instance of a logical inconsistency or philosophical weakness in the entire book. The single example she provides, namely the book's account of Carr's theory of causation, is based on misrepresentation and is again a tissue of assertions rather than arguments. Thus she describes for example its consideration of postmodernist positions on time as inconclusive, without saying precisely in what way they are inconclusive, and without mentioning the fact that the analysis of these positions ends by arguing that time does, contrary to some postmodernist positions, have a forward direction, but that historical time moves at different levels and at different speeds in different modes or fields of historical change.

In the end, therefore, Hunt's review is itself 'a mish-mash in which bald assertion substitutes for analysis', to quote her own dismissive verdict on the book. At least it manages to avoid open self-contradiction, however. That distinct ion belongs to the critique by Peter Ghosh in the London Review of Books. Ghosh's comprehensive misreading of In Defence of History culminates in the claim that it construes 'postmodernism' exclusively as the denial of the possibility of truth and objectivity. If he had read the book with any care, he would have discovered that - to repeat - it distinguishes at the very least between extreme postmodernist hyperrelativism, which it argues against, and moderate versions of postmodernism, which it defends.

Peter Ghosh declares that it is illegitimate to call anyone a postmodernist unless they describe themselves as such or work on behalf of 'an intellectual cause known as Post- Modernism'. He asserts that there was 'no conscious tradition of Modernism' in history against which people could react, so there can by implication be no such thing as 'Post-Modernism'. If we stuck to such a view, we would never be able to use concepts about people in the past which they did not use themselves. This would make the historian's job completely impossible.

While attempting to argue on the one hand that there is no such thing as postmodernism, Ghosh himself refers in one paragraph of his review to 'the various strains of historical thought grouped under the Post-Modernist label'. In another paragraph he declares: 'Post-Modernism in the historical sphere is a sphinx without a riddle'. While he criticises me for using the label without defining it, he does exactly the same thing himself. It is extremely difficult to see any kind of consistency or direction in Ghosh's criticisms in the light of these kinds of contradiction.

In a somewhat different vein, Nils Minkmar, writing in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, suggests that the concept of postmodern hardly applies to such historians, for 'the theoretical discussion of postmodernity as it has been carried on in literary scholarship and philosophy has hardly inspired concrete works of historical scholarship'. This latter remark has some truth in it, for the only logical consequence of accepting the extreme relativist position taken up by some theorists is that we should stop writing history altogether, since there is no way of getting at historical truth. Minkmar can only say this, however, because he ignores the distinction made in the book between extreme and moderate versions or aspects of postmodernism.

Clearly, he and other critics are right to say that some of the historical works I describe as postmodern would probably not be accepted as such by their authors. And yet, something important has happened to history in the last twenty y ears or so. The great overarching narratives such as Marxism and modernization theory have collapsed. The idea of history as progress has been abandoned. Innovation has come above all from historians writing about the marginal, the bizarre, the individual , the small-scale. It seems reasonable to call these now-defunct metanarratives 'Modernist', as indeed many postmodernist writers on history do; and equally reasonable to call the new development 'postmodern', even if those who have pioneered it and participated in it would not regard themselves as postmodernists in any sense at all.

To put it another way, I know that Orlando Figes would never describe himself as a postmodernist because he has told me so himself. But I also know that his book A People's Tragedy, an almost self-consciously literary narrative of the Russian Revolution and Civil War, weaving in the stories of individuals, some of them very obscure, to the larger picture, and eschewing the kind of socioeconomic and statistical analysis commonplace in histories of the Russian Revolution twenty or thirty years ago, could not have been written without the theoretical and methodological impact of postmodernism and the decline and fall of the grand metanarratives, even if this has only had an indirect effect on the author rather than a direct or personal impact.

The question of the definition of postmodernism certainly isn't one which my book has solved, or indeed set out to try and solve. Perhaps in the end the charge that my book fails to deliver such a definition is of rather secondary importance. A far more serious criticism is provided, by contrast, in Anthony Easthope's review of the book in Textual Practice, which charges that the book misrepresents major thinkers such as Saussure. Unlike, say, Hunt, Easthope actually provides examples of this alleged misrepresentation. Thus for instance where the book says that Saussure's term 'the signified' meant the thing denoted by a word, what he actually meant by 'the signified' was the concept or meaning of a thing. Easthope says roundly : 'This is a howler', and I'm afraid he's quite right. I will try to see that it is changed in future editions. Easthope scores another hit when he complains that no reason is given for the book's claim on pages 159-60 that Derrida 'rejected the search for origins and causes as futile'. He is quite right here too; I should at least have given a reference, or supported this assertion with a brief analysis.

Other points made by Easthope, however, begin to slip from the identification of genuine errors or omissions to the partial or in the end complete misrepresentation of what the book actually says. This begins with its complaint that Lyotard is 'dismissed in a single sentence, and a bizarre one at that, to the effect that "master- narratives are the hegemonic stories told by those in power".' There are in fact nine sentences about Lyotard on the page in question (p. 150), not on e, and they refer to Lyotard's view that Soviet historiography was a master-narrative which had to be countered by local narratives (or in other words can't be countered by rival metanarratives). This is the context within which the sentence which Easthope thinks so bizarre has to be seen. His misrepresentation is compounded by his omission of the qualifying statement that Lyotard 'tended to' say that 'master-narratives are the hegemonic stories told by those in power'. Now perhaps the discussion at this point should have made it clear that Lyotard's definition of metanarrative goes way beyond this, including 'the emancipation of the rational or working subject, or the creation of wealth', and so on. Nevertheless, it does not say, as Easthope claims it does, that all Lyotard said was that master-narratives were hegemonic. As becomes clear later in his review, Easthope is unwilling to accept qualifiers and has a strong need to regard all statements as absolute, so his claim here is all of a piece with the other claims he makes in his review about the book.

He goes on to assert that the book claims that Derrida wrote that nothing existed outside language, whereas what he in fact said was that there was nothing extra-textual. However, the previous sentence, not quoted by Easthope, makes it clear that Derrida argues that 'everything was "discourse" or "text".' So the book does after all say that Derrida argued there was nothing extra-textual. It seems a reasonable conclusion to draw from this that Derrida argues that nothing existed outside language. Similarly, Easthope alleges that the book misunderstands what Derrida meant by 'logocentrism'. But in fact it does not attempt a complete account of Derrida's concept, only to one implication or aspect of it, namely his criticism of historians as 'logocentric, that is, they imagined they were rational beings engaged in a process of discovery'. Easthope does not say whether this was part of what Derrida meant by logocentrism or not.

In all these critical points, I am perhaps paying the price of merely mentioning these thinkers tangentially without actually engaging in a full-scale confrontation with their work, something that other critics such as Sokal and Tallis have done far more effectively and knowledgeably than I could ever hope to do. So I concede that Easthope is at least partially justified in advancing these criticisms.

However, we have to go on to ask precisely how all this actually affects the central arguments of my book. Here the answer is clear: it doesn't affect them at all. Like a number of other critics, Easthope is in the end demanding a different book to the one that I wrote, namely a critical account of major postmodernist thinkers, dealing with all the central points of their philosophy. But - to repeat a point already made in an earlier section of this response - that is not what the book is intended for; it addresses the use, however much it may be based on oversimplification or misunderstanding, of some of the arguments of Saussure, Derrida, Foucault and others by writers on the theory of history: it is interested only in the major theorists insofar as it seeks to explain as briefly as possible where the arguments of postmodernist theorists of history are coming from. It could just as easily have been written without any reference to these theorists at all. Perhaps it should have been.

What Easthope does in his review is to employ a familiar tactic of hostile reviewers: he is seeking to discredit the book by distracting the reader's attention from its central arguments by pointing to inaccuracies of detail on peripheral points (its brief and marginal allusions to Saussure, Derrida and Lyotard). Rather than engage directly with the book's arguments, he consistently evades and misrepresents what it has to say. This quickly lands him in a hopeless quagmire of self-contradiction.

Easthope describes In Defence of History as a 'lampoon' of postmodernist positions, and condemns it for ignoring the basic precept that 'The first obligation of a critic is to give a fair, accurate and detailed account of the arguments he or she intends to attack.' If we read Easthope's review in the light of his own precept, however, what do we find? Take his very first couple of sentences:

In Defence of History aims to defend a mainstream notion of history writing against 'intellectual barbarians' (p. 8), namely 'the invading hordes of semioticians, post-structuralists, New Historicists, Foucauldians, Lacanians and the rest' (p.9). That statement is typical of the tone of the book. Easthope achieves this impression of blinkered and aggressive prejudice by the simple means of removing the first three and the last three words of the sentence in question. The full version reads as follows, with the following sentence added:

Historians should approach the invading hordes of semioticians, post-structuralists, New Historicists, Foucauldians, Lacanians and the rest with more discrimination. Some of them might prove more friendly, or more useful, than they seem at first sight.

A postmodernist might find nothing wrong in doctoring a sentence in a text to make it support the argument; I do. It also stands in crass contradiction to everything Easthope says about the way one should treat texts.

Moreover, the term 'intellectual barbarians' is clearly meant ironically and was certainly intended to be taken in this way. It is part of an extended military metaphor actually started by Patrick Joyce in a reference to the 'commanding heights' of the academy's walls having 'fallen' to 'skirmishing bands' of postmodernists in the United States. This has not prevented Keith Jenkins, however, from going even further in distorting my use of the term in his book Why History? (London , 1999), where he refers on page 8 to 'various types of historians and theorists, including postmodern ones ("barbarians" of varying degrees of ferocity, according to Richard Evans'). Is Derrida really a barbarian? asks Jenkins rhetorically, in the course of a polemic against my use of the term that extends over several pages. Of course not! After all, he reads 'several languages' (p. 97)! Jenkins keeps coming back to his point, as if he were proud to have discovered it. After all, he reasons, the fact that I use the term 'barbarians' must show how blinkered and prejudiced I really am.

I must confess that when the book was going through the copy-editing stage, my editor at Granta wanted me to remove this metaphor, since he said some people might take offence at the reference to postmodernists as intellectual barbarians. I told him I didn't think anyone would be stupid enough to think I genuinely believed that postmodernists really were intellectual barbarians, least of all postmodernists themselves, who were used to reading texts in an ironic mode. He accepted my point and we left it in. How wrong I was.

A somewhat milder foretaste of this kind of response was provided by some of the letters which appeared on 19 and 26 September 1997 criticising the preview of the book printed in the Times Higher Education Supplement. John Arnold , for example, claimed that it was wrong of the book to argue that postmodernism holds that 'there is a multiplicity of equally valid truths'. Rather, he went on, 'it is that truth (as a claim to one dominant and essential position) is untenable...all truth (with a small "t") is situational, political and engaged. To claim that something is true is to attempt to place it beyond discussion.' This argument seems to me to be a tissue of contradictions. Is Arnold saying there is no such thing as truth at all? Or is he saying that there is truth with a big 't' and truth with a small 't'? If the latter, then he is surely saying that there is indeed a multiplicity of equally valid truths. If the former, then how can he believe that what he is saying himself is true?

Secondly, Arnold charges that 'Evans misunderstands the notions of "text" and "discourse"'. He seems to think that I argue that discourse is a false image of reality, whereas in fact in his view it is reality 'or at the very leas t, as close to reality as we are ever going to get'. Already here he has introduced a confusion in his argument. I suspect that what he is trying to say is that we can never know reality at all; everything is discourse because everything is mediated through language. I thought that this was the argument I was summarising in my brief discussion of the view that texts are not a window through which we can perceive the reality of the past, but that they in some sense are the reality of the past, because the past as such no longer exists. I do not think I gave the impression that discourse is merely an image of reality; if Arnold took this impression away from what I wrote, then he was under a misapprehension of what I meant to say.

Among a variety of arguments the book deploys against this view, is the admittedly rather bald statement that Auschwitz is not a discourse, and it trivialises mass murder to see it as a text. To counter this, Arnold points out that 'the gas chambers were a physical expression and outcome of a particular discourse that presented a 'reality" wherein Jews, homosexuals, communists and others were sub-human.' This brings yet more confusions into Arnold's argument. For here he is reintroducing a distinction between Auschwitz and discourse in which the former is the product of the latter; an entirely unexceptionable point made by almost every historian who has ever written about Nazi antisemitism in theory and practice, even if they have used words like 'ideology' rather than 'discourse'. But it is a point that totally undermines Arnold's earlier argument that discourse is reality in the sense that Auschwitz itself is discourse because we only know about it through language; a position that is far less easy to defend, in my view. We may agree that Jews were beaten, starved and sent to the gas chambers because of the Nazi discourse of antisemitism, but it is quite a different matter when someone tries to tell us that being beaten, starved to death or gassed is also a 'discourse'. A related argument to that put so confusingly by Arnold is made by David Andress, who suggests that In Defence of History fails to understand a significant point about the relationship between truth and power. Andress asserts that truth is a moral category rather than something defined by its relation to reality. Thus, he says, E. P Thompson's influence over later historians was greater than that of G. R. Elton not because Thompson had a better control of fact but because he had a more morally appealing vision of the British past than Elton did. He triumphed, as it were, because his truth was morally superior to Elton's.

Andress makes this point in response to the argument of In Defence of History that the influence of a particular historical work or view of history was not a function of the institutional power of its author, contrary to claims made by writers such as Keith Jenkins. Thus Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class had a huge influence despite the fact that its author was never a member of a university history department, while Elton's Tudor Revolution in Government was widely disputed and never fully accepted by historians despite the highly influential positions he occupied in academia. Andress argues that it is moral rather than institutional power which makes historical arguments influential and causes them to attain the status of 'truth', so that truth is in the end indeed a function of power, contrary to what In Defence of History tries to claim.

Andress's point is an interesting and perceptive one, and prompts me to think I should have put my argument a little differently. For if one thinks about it, the central historical thesis in Thompson's book - that the English working class was 'made' by 1832 - was even less widely accepted than the central historical thesis in Elton's - that there was a revolution in government and administration under Henry VIII's minister Thomas Cromwell. An examination of subsequent research monographs, articles and textbooks will soon show that very few historians of any kind incorporated Thompson's central thesis into their work, while some at least gave credence to Elton's. The difference in influence lay far more in the method and approach to history of the two historians, where Thompson was immeasurably more effective. Thompson's book had many imitators, Elton's had few. Elton did not start a wave of studies of administration and government in early modern history. Thompson inspired a whole generation of social historians to study a whole range of topics in working-class history. When the question is seen from this point of view, Andress is right: Thompson was influential because his vision was more in tune with the spirit of the younger generation of social historians in the 1960s and 1970s.

Yet this has nothing much to do with the truth or otherwise of the interpretations each of the two historians advanced about the historical subjects and events they were investigating. Andress is wrong therefore to say that Thompson's influence was greater because he told a story that was morally appealing enough to be regarded as true. Thompson was influential because even if historians thought he was not giving a true picture of English plebeian and working-class society and politics in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, they none the less thought that the approach he adopted would enable them to give a true picture of the (usually much smaller) historical topics to which they chose to devote their own researches.

The argument which Andress puts forward thus in no way supports the hyperrelativist version of the truth-concept which he is advocating ('history...is an exercise in language because that is all it can be'). Andress takes the alarmingly anti-intellectual position that 'the marshalling of facts behind an argument is rendered irrelevant by the reply "I don't believe you, or "I don't care"'. The kind of antisemitism that led to Auschwitz, he says, is dead not because it has been shown to b e untrue, but because 'we live in a truth-regime where the values behind those "facts" have been rejected.' If he actually believes that rational argument is so irrelevant, what is he doing teaching in a university? If somebody tells him he or she doesn't accept an argument, why doesn't he challenge him to disprove it rationally? Does he really want to live in a society where the evidence for an argument counts for nothing and the moral (or immoral) force behind its advocacy for everything?

Surely the duty of an intellectual or an academic is to fight blind prejudice of the kind Andress so depressingly thinks unanswerable, not to give in to it. Contrary to what he argues, there is plenty of evidence to show that the truth prevails in the end because it is true; that antisemitism is no longer widely accepted because among other things it has been seen to be based on lies. Having reformulated the question of the relationship between power and knowledge in a stimulating way, Andress then delivers an answer that reduces the whole problem to the most basic level of 'might is right'.

While Arnold and Andress attack particular aspects of my arguments as allegedly based on misunderstandings of postmodernist concepts, William Keenan, also writing in the Times Higher Educational Supplement, finds my depiction of postmodernism to be a 'caricature'. In a rather polemical letter, Keenan criticises me for my 'apparent unawareness' of the fact that everything I am saying is an assertion or an opinion and not an objective truth. How can we arbitrate between arguments in such a situation? he asks, admitting that his own views are only opinions too. To this he gives no answer, taking refuge in the paranoid assertion that any criticism of postmodernist relativism is evidence of negative stereotyping and a determination on the part of people like me 'to cleanse academic life of views contrary to their own'. Unfortunately Keenan fails to provide any evidence demonstrating that my account of postmodernist theories is the kind of caricature he says it is. And while he urges 'open discussion' on the topic, he is unable to say how this can take place at all if there is no objective, over-arching principle of evidence or rationality to which we can appeal in order to assess the opposing points of view. In fact the language Keenan uses suggests he does believe it is possible to provide a full, objective and fair description of an argument (the opposite, presumably of caricature), on the basis of which a reasoned debate can actually take place. Otherwise, why is he complaining of an attempt to suppress postmodernism, if he believes it's all about power, and polemicises so violently himself in order to suppress the modernist views to which he is so vehemently opposed? This position deprives his complaint of any moral force whatsoever.

(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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