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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 (9)


In Defence of History

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

Professor Antony Easthope

Manchester Metropolitan University
Criticism 9: The book's arguments are contradictory.

In her second attack on the book, Diane Purkiss put forward the argument that its arguments are contradictory. On the way, she once more imputes to me views I do not hold, motives I do not have, and claims I have not made. She suggests that my book urged mutual tolerance between literary and historical studies in an effort to make my critics 'appear surly'. No such intention was there. My view that there is a lot to be gained from an interaction between the two disciplines is genuine. She claims that one of my chief complaints is that the book has not provoked the kind of debate for which I had hoped. I have never made any statement about the kind of debate I hoped for; it would have been pointless and foolish to have done so. She says I see her as 'menacing'. I have never used this word about her. She complains that in my book she is 'the person behind the unread text' of her own work. I assure her I have read her book on witchcraft, assuming this is what she is referring to.

Purkiss devotes a lot of attention to the issue of whether or not historians should write clearly, seeing contradictions and evasions in the way in which my book deals with this question. She says that I 'tactfully' refrain from naming historians 'who fail to be either plain or jargon-free'. I name some of them on pages 68-9 of my book, and more in the note on further reading. She goes on to confuse the language in which a book is written with the subject with which it deals, suggesting that arguing for clearly written work implies that historians should only choose subjects which are commercially attractive. In her view, 'it will matter little' whether a historian 'writes opaquely or not' if he or she is writing for Past and Present. I doubt whether the editors of Past and Present would agree with this. What my book actually says that in dealing with technical issues such as demographic trends, medieval land tenure and the like, it is often impossible to avoid technical language, but other things being equal, historians ought to try to write clearly whatever the readership they are addressing (p. 67). Where is the contradiction in that? And what has that got to do with the subjects historians choose to write about?

In pursuing this point, Purkiss accuses me of 'resolutely' refusing to address the question of what the point is of writing for specialized academic journals. As the editor of one such journal and former editor of another, I have to confess that far from deliberately refusing to address this question, it simply didn't occur to me that a fellow-academic would cast doubt on the usefulness or validity of publishing journal articles. It should be obvious from In Defence of History, and especially from the recommendation of a large number of journal articles in the note on further reading on pages 382-301, that writing specialized articles for a largely professional readership in learned journals can be just as important as writing books for a wider audience in the world of commercial publishing. Without the existence of the former, indeed, it would not be possible to write the latter.

The point of my remarks about style was to attack, on the one hand, Elton's view that any historical subject could be written about in terms accessible to non- specialists, which is plainly not true, and on the other hand, more importantly, to criticise the view of some postmodernists that because historians generally (though not invariably) use a non-technical language, their work is somehow 'unscientific'. Thus: 'clarity of presentation...is a necessary part of intellectual precision; there is nothing necessarily "unscientific" or sloppy about it, quite the reverse', In Defence of History, p. 67).

The book also takes up Russell Jacoby's comment that Hayden White and other critics of historical practice, far from using clear and jargon-free language in their own work, prefer to employ the language of 'aggressive science' and disdain 'less than technical prose'. It cites a review of a book on the Mexican Revolution which found its metaphor-laden style to be opaque and affected. I do not see 'science as the enemy', as Purkiss sweepingly claims; on the contrary, my book explicitly argues that it is quite legitimate to see history among other things as a science, at least in a weak sense of the word. The influence of the social sciences on history has been broadly beneficial, as the book repeatedly notes (e.g. at some length in Chapter 6); but one of the costs to set against the benefits, it seems to me, is a loss of readability, and insofar as literary theorists like White call attention to the usefulness of literary style to historians, they are doing us a service. As for White himself, yes, I do find his work pretty unreadable and the pseudo-scientific style in which it is written unnecessary and unconvincing as an attempt to present himself as more scientific and objective than the historians about whom he is writing. I find it very hard to believe that Purkiss or anybody else could actually find White easy to read.

While I do say that you can read Carlyle for literary pleasure (p. 70), I never said you could read him for clarity of exposition or argument, as Purkiss alleges. Purkiss claims that 'metaphor and narrative in general are anyway unavoidable and can't be "chosen" or done without, as Evans seems to think, though of course particular metaphors can be scrapped'. She is contradicting herself yet again here, for if you scrap a metaphor, then you are exercising choice. Purkiss under lines this by suggesting that my book 'avoids metaphors'. So metaphor is avoidable after all. Where all this confusion is meant to lead to, and what Purkiss is trying to say here, is anybody's guess.

Purkiss is just as confused when it comes to dealing with the time-honoured historical practice of reading sources 'against the grain'. My book's argument here is directed against postmodernists who claim that historians naively take sources at face value, as transparent windows onto the past, without treating them critically. Catriona Kelly, for example, urges historians to read sources 'against the grain' as if they had never done this before the arrival of postmodernism. Purkiss claims indeed that I actually say in the book that no historians have tried reading sources against the grain, a claim I find simply astonishing. What Purkiss seems to be referring to here is a passage on page 81 of the book which reports Nancy Partner's view that exhortations to read sources against the grain have not left history 'shattered beyond all recognition', because, as I go on to say, historians have already been doing this for centuries. There is no contradiction here - it is simply invented by Purkiss by attributing to me a statement I did not make.

Nor do I define 'sceptical reading entirely in terms of authorship', a charge which in any case Purkiss withdraws a few lines later on by admitting that I do 'seem to know that reading against the grain involves reading texts in ways no t intended by their authors'. Purkiss seems unable to recognise that this undermines her earlier points. There is no contradiction between saying that historians critically examine both authors and the texts they produce. They customarily interrogate the motives and purposes of the authors of documents precisely in order to uncover meanings that might not immediately be apparent in the text; and they also reread documents and texts in the light of their own, contemporary knowledge and the theories they bring to bear on them, to reveal things in texts of which their authors may have been unaware. All of these points are made in the book. Where's the contradiction here?

Then we have once more the accusation that I see 'grubbing about in the archives as the sweaty locus of real historical virtue, as opposed to the merely opportunistic reinterpretation of the discoveries of others'. The quote about 'grubbing' comes (acknowledged, and in quotation marks) from the late Raphael Samuel, on page 82 of my book; but it is not accompanied by any statement of any kind about the locus of 'real historical virtue'; that, once more, is Purkiss's invention. What I do object to is the assertion that advances in historical understanding don't come from using original sources at all, the implication that archival work is somehow secondary, technical, narrow, unimportant. On page 86 the book explicitly argues - using the example of Charles Beard's economic interpretation of the American Constitution - that 'historical understanding and knowledge can surely be generated both by the discovery of new documents and by the imaginative re- interpretation of new ones.' But Purkiss seems not to have noticed this passage.

I don't want to respond at length to Purkiss's bizarre and irrelevant aside about the Research Assessment Exercises representing 'powers of darkness', just to note that for anyone who worked in a university before they were introduced, as I did, there was much to welcome in the requirement, widely ignored at the time, that colleagues should actually do what they were being paid to do and publish some research from time to time. As a peer-review exercise judging pure research by academic criteria, it also seems to me to be preferable to the alternative, namely a government-run scheme of ranking and funding research according to its usefulness to the economy.

The PhD, denigrated by Purkiss as conferring merely membership of a 'club', is another requirement that seems to me on the whole a good thing: in my experience, the examining process is usually carried out rigorously, often by scholars who are familiar with at least some of the sources being used. What a PhD confers, or ought to confer, is recognition of professional competence, not membership of a club. What is wrong with assuming that because someone has successfully undergone a rigorous examination, they are competent professionals? Or would Purkiss claim that surgeons are a 'club' because fellow-surgeons assume they are professionally competent if they have passed the relevant examinations? Purkiss herself has a PhD. Does this not mean anything to her apart from membership of a 'club'? What standards does she herself imply as a PhD examiner, one wonders? In the case of the controversy between David Abraham and Gerald D. Feldman, both circulated unabridged copies of many of the original documents at issue in the row, and it was possible to reach a judgment on at least some of the accusations and counter-accusations as a result. In any case, it is not true that no-one makes a habit of looking for the evidence cited by others. On the contrary, footnotes are designed precisely to enable historians to do this, and they frequently do. The knowledge that one's use of sources is liable to critical scrutiny is a powerful incentive to accuracy. The book points to the example of the early work of the late Lawrence Stone as a cautionary tale here. On the whole, even if it takes a while, inaccuracy, manipulation and distortion, falsification, invention, and other illegitimate ways of dealing with the historical sources generally get found out.

You can call this scientific testing if you like; it was certainly thought of as such in the nineteenth century. Where is the passage in my book that rejects this model of scientific testing? I can't find it, and Purkiss doesn't cite it . Her charge that I contradict myself by both recommending and rejecting the idea of scientific testing is misplaced. So too is her patronising suggestion that I might not know that looking for vulnerabilities in a hypothesis and finding means of testing them is scientific method. Though as patronising suggestions go, it's not nearly as offensive as her concluding exhortation for me as a political historian to extent 'mutual toleration to historians of culture': I am a historian of culture, as Purkiss would know if she had read any of my recent work.

And where's the confusion in my book about primary and secondary sources? Of course historians' writings are a primary source for people writing about historians; where did I ever say they were not? Nowhere in the book is it claimed that what historians write is immune from scrutiny and reading, with or against the grain, by other historians in the same way as the documents on which they base their writings. What I am arguing against is the view, put forward by Keith Jenkins among other s, that it is only possible to study what historians write, because the documents on which they claim to base their research have no meaning apart from what they put there themselves. Once more, the confusions here are all Purkiss's, not mine.

Part of the argument of my book is a plea for the use of historical imagination, that is, an imagination bounded by the evidence left to us by the past. This is not the same as fiction or invention, neither of which is bounded in this way. Purkiss, however, manages to confuse the two. The issue - which the book does not balk, but discusses at some length - is not about how much fiction the historian can allow, but about where the bounds of historical imagination should be drawn, and how much latitude the sources allow. My discussion of Natalie Zemon Davis's wonderful study of The Return of Martin Guerre did not 'lay into Natalie Zemon Davis for fictionalising the archives', as Purkiss asserts, but merely summarised in an entirely neutral way the views both of the book's critic Robert Finlay, who argued that its interpretation went too far beyond what the documents allowed, and Davis's reply, which justified her arguments not as fiction but as legitimated by the context. I explicitly defended Davis's book by noting (p. 247) that it used inferential and contextual methods of arguing that were commonplace in very traditional kinds of history where evidence was hard to come by. And where is the passage in my book which justifies Purkiss's strange claim that I say 'we shouldn't tell anyone' that we are using such methods? This claim is pure fiction on Purkiss's part.

Purkiss continues the untrammelled exercise of her inventive capacities in the final paragraph of her critique, where she claims that I confuse going beyond evidence with ignoring it. I cannot see any justification for this in my book. She has more of a point when she is discussing the metaphor in which I compare historical research to doing a jigsaw where the pieces are scattered all around the house and some of them, perhaps a lot of them, are missing altogether. Purkiss notes that each individual piece is subject to interpretation and so the whole picture is unstable, and of course this is an entirely arguable point. Perhaps one should not push such metaphors too far or they too will disintegrate. Nevertheless, what I had at the back of my mind was the idea of each piece as a document or source which, like all historical sources, could not be interpreted in an infinity of ways. As far as it goes, the metaphor of the jigsaw, while not particularly sophisticated or profound, seemed to me to do the job of encapsulating this argument.

Purkiss details a variety of speculations she might make about what is in the missing part of a witchcraft trial document. Here she is confusing fiction in a source, a common enough occurrence, with fictions created by the historian, an occurrence which ought not to be so common. Once more I think she is mislabelling imagination as fiction in the historian's case. As far as fiction in historical documents is concerned, she rightly suggests that the way to deal with this is through the (entirely conventional, even 'Rankean') method of comparing the documents with other documents, contextualising, and in the end admitting, as historians sometimes have to do, that we can never really know the truth in some cases. Purkiss is quite right to say that we have to adopt different procedures in approaching, say, cultural history and political history. Different theories and different concepts have to be employed, and the sources themselves differ radically in nature. That is part of the challenge of doing history, and part of the fun, as I discovered when trying to unravel the fictions of the professional con- man Franz Ernst in my book Tales from the German Underworld. As a cultural historian I would reject the view, however, that it is somehow legitimate for cultural history to produce fiction just because it is not political history or intellectual history. Both in their different ways are seeking after the truth about the past.


All of these multiple and varied misreadings, misinterpretations and misrepresentations of my book, from Burleigh to Purkiss and beyond, might indeed suggest, as Purkiss notes in her 'Response', that 'all of us have less control over meaning than we might like'. But in accusing me of being unable to read her own work accurately, Purkiss is conceding the point that we can in fact exercise some control over the meaning of the texts we generate, by putting something there that is capable of being read accurately. If this statement does not mean that we mean what we say when we write a sentence, and that readers can discover this if they read accurately what we have written, then it does not mean anything at all.

Purkiss says that 'meanings are generated quite independently of intentions', but this is putting it in too bald and extreme a way; meanings are not generated entirely independently of intentions, otherwise Purkiss would have no reason to criticise my reading of the meaning of her work; they do bear some relation to them, though it is not necessarily either exclusive or direct (all points made in In Defence of History). The truth of these observations is to some extent borne out by this debate. In some cases, I've obviously laid myself open to what I think is misinterpretation, perhaps by failing to make myself entirely clear (e.g. in the definition of objectivity) or by expressing myself poorly (for example, in some instances which I tried to correct in the U.S. edition of the book, and others noted above). In other cases, I think I have been the victim of a careless reading of my text in which conservative or postmodernist critics have seen what they wanted to see and ignored all the nuances and qualifications I advanced in respect of the argument they have been attacking. In still further cases I have suffered from deliberate distortion or manipulation of what I have said. And in a few instances critics have read into my book things that simply weren't there. Because the debate involves large theoretical and methodological issues, it is important to have the space this website allows to reply in detail and at length. At over 30,000 words, indeed, this Reply is now about half as long as the text of the book itself. I confess I have been taken aback by the sheer variety and by the utterly contradictory nature of the responses which the book has elicited. I would not have thought it possible for a single book to be read, or misread, in so many different ways. But stimulating debate was one of the book's principal aims; it was never intended to close down discussion (nor would that have been a feasible aim in any case). As those who have attacked the book for failing to confront the major postmodernist thinkers have rightly if somewhat superfluously pointed out, the issues at stake cannot be settled in a couple of hundred pages. It is important that the debate continues, therefore. So, as Bernd Roeck remarks in his review of the German edition of the book, es muß also weitergedacht werden - we must carry on thinking.

(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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