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History in Focus

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

What is history?

Book cover: 'The new nature of history'

Author's response


The New Nature of History: Knowledge, Evidence, Language

Arthur Marwick
Palgrave, 2001 pp. xvi, 334

Alun Munslow

University of Staffordshire

Philosophers, as literary critic John Carey recently remarked, spend their lives fretting over issues that most of us give up bothering about around the age of five onwards. On the very first page of the Preface to The New Nature of History I remark that 'philosophers, because of their a priori attitudes, their rigid conventions, and their specialist language, as well as their lack of practical experience, have the greatest difficulty in understanding what historians actually do.' Historians, as I explain several times; 'systematically analyse primary and secondary sources to produce contributions to knowledge about the past, based on the seeking out of, and careful reflection on all the available evidence, and on logical argument, and are involved in the communication of, and teaching about that knowledge.' By that definition, Alun Munslow, like Keith Jenkins, and Hayden White, is not a historian. However, I do regret being misled by the old British Library catalogue into attributing to Jenkins a pamphlet he did not write. This has already been corrected for the next printing which, it seems, will be very soon - readers wishing to acquire the original imprint should rush out and buy it now! And Professor Munslow should not be too smug: it is he who has confused the two Jenkins Readers - no chance of my having been invited to contribute to the postmodernist one! Anyway my main point about Jenkins, as about White and Munslow, still stands: since they have never themselves done any serious history they are utterly unqualified to write about what historians do, or should do. White, actually, was a failed historian (those interested could check out his earlier career at Cornell University) and ended his, in the end, certainly, very distinguished academic career as Professor of Comparative Literature at Stanford University.

On page 2 of the main text, I directly address each individual reader:

you are almost bound to have come across the postmodernist case. I shall be arguing against it, and my hope is that you will be persuaded by what I am saying. But I know that I have no chance of convincing anyone who is already a confirmed postmodernist. Our basic assumptions are different. In my view, writers and teachers should always state their fundamental assumptions and readers and students should always seek to find out what these are.

Professor Munslow's 7,000 odd (very odd!) words of indigestible prose pretty well make my case for me. The most striking thing about his review is the way in which he thinks in rigid, and irrelevant, nineteenth-century categories, and deploys a specialist language which has little or no meaning for historians. Thus he continually converts my clear, direct language into his own jargon, completely distorting my meaning, and making it easy for him to attack a target which doesn't actually exist. At times he flagrantly misquotes what I have said (for example he says that I declare The Historian's Craft 'an incomplete and misleading translation' when all I am referring to is the title).

I state categorically that historians do not 'reconstruct the past' - impossible and absurd task if you just think about it for a moment. Yet Professor Munslow insists that I am a 'reconstructionist', following this up by - this is his favoured form of discourse - putting into my mouth ridiculous phrases which I never have, and never would use: 'getting back to the past', or 'replicating' or 'mimicking' it; 'know the archive, know the past, write the story'; the 'invisible yet empirical hand that directs the historian'. The first of my three fundamental contentions, closely integrated with each other, and not 'isolated' as Munslow claims, is that history is 'bodies of knowledge about the past'. Then in a crucial part of my book, which Munslow totally ignores, I argue that in this respect history is analogous to the individual natural sciences which are 'bodies of knowledge about the natural world and the physical universe.' Historians no more replicate or reconstruct the past than natural scientists replicate or reconstruct aspects of the natural world and the physical universe. I am glad to say that the central part of this argument has recently received support from the Marxist Willie Thompson, in his excellent What Happened to History? (London, 2000). The sciences are fundamentally empirical disciplines; theories empirically disproved are abandoned. Thus I make no apology at all for insisting that history, too, is fundamentally an empirical discipline: of course, a great deal of profound reflection and thought is required as well (Munslow misses my important point that what is needed is thought, not sentiment), together with careful structuring and meticulous use of language. Nor do I apologise for insisting, against Munslow's unsubstantiated fantasies, that 'history' based on a priori theory is worthless.

There is nothing mechanistic or automatic about the production of scientific knowledge. We can, if we like, say that the sciences, and history, involve 'a creative process' - though I would prefer to say a 'thinking' or 'reflexive' process. As with so many of his phrases, Munslow uses this one utterly unreflexively and thus fails to see that while the work of historians is analogous to that of scientists, it is totally different from that of novelists and poets - the latter are fully entitled to use all the resonances and ambiguities of language and the richness of metaphor, while historians should work overtime to achieve absolute explicitness and precision. History, like the sciences, is a collaborative enterprise, a critical part of my explication of history which Munslow scarcely comprehends. And he completely misrepresents what I call the auteur theory of history. This is only tangentially related to postmodernism, but refers explicitly to such historians as (I name names) Trevelyan, Trevor-Roper, Cannadine, Norman Davies, Niall Ferguson, and Leroy Ladurie. While I fully recognise that all of these have made substantial contributions to historical knowledge I am critical of the way in which they try to present themselves as individual literary giants, akin to best-selling novelists, and are rather contemptuous of the hard work done by the hundreds of dedicated professional historians: my view of the historical profession is a profoundly democratic one.

My problem with the auteurs is that their self-evaluation as subjective geniuses gives a misleading impression of the historical profession, and is seized upon by philosophers and postmodernists. Personally, I think it is better to describe historians as 'fallible' rather than 'subjective'. I freely admit that historians (like scientists) can often get things wrong, attributing this to the intractability of the sources, the fact that the study of the past involves value judgements, and also to bees in the bonnet, synchophancy towards a patron, the desire to be in fashion, the seeking after fame or promotion, and, frankly, humble error. To drive this point home in a memorable but light-hearted way, I suggest that readers should always be ready to discount about twenty per cent of any otherwise reliable book. In his ponderous way Munslow makes a great meal of this. The serious point I am making is that since one single book on, say, the French Revolution, may contain unreliable elements, the sensible thing to do is to read four or five books. Incidentally I am driving home here the importance of secondary sources, the books written by historians. If you want to quickly learn about a particular historical topic, it is to them you should turn. Single primary sources, apart, perhaps, from giving some insight into the language and mentalities of a past society, are of very little use. Munslow is puzzled by my attitude to the phrase 'the facts'. 'Forget Facts, Foreground sources' is a chapter title in which I permit myself a touch of rhetoric. My point is that 'fact', 'facts', and 'the facts' can be rather imprecise terms: I suggest that for the historian, rather than asking, 'is it a fact?', it is better to ask 'is it based on evidence?'

'Whether Professor Marwick likes it or not, it is historians who write history....' What an astonishing and ignorant statement on Munslow's part! - my entire book is about historians and their purposes and methods. At all times I drive home the critical distinction between 'history' and 'the past'. But if history is what historians produce, why does Munslow's idol, Hayden White, need the pompous word 'historiography'? That word, I argue, instead of being used as a high-falutin' substitute for 'history' should be reserved for 'writings about historians and their methods and purposes' (my own book, perhaps). Munslow attributes to me the belief that the application of the fundamental, but ever-expanding historical methods, which (this is one of the book's great strengths) I explicate in great detail, enables historians to grasp 'the meaning' or ' the true nature' of the past. Frankly these are philosophical concepts which I simply regard as irrelevant. What historians address are specific limited (though never that limited!) problems and topics relating to the past. The notion that any historian could create, or would want to create, a complete representation of the past is daft: Munslow, like most philosophers, simply misunderstands the aims of working historians. He declares my taxonomy of thirteen different types of primary sources to be no substitute for 'some serious thinking'. On the contrary, all serious students of history will find this taxonomy extremely useful, particularly since I lay detailed emphasis on the weaknesses, as well as the strengths, presented by different types of sources. I also go into great detail over the manner in which the 'unwitting testimony' of sources is often much more valuable to the historian than the 'witting testimony'. I lay great stress on:

the fallible and intractable nature of the [primary] sources, numbingly copious in some areas, scarce and fragmentary in others. Much has to be garnered indirectly and by inference: attitudes to spouses from wills, responses to crime, not from the letter of the law, but from the extent and manner of its enforcement; the nature of social hierarchy from everything from wage rates to novels. No one but the historian knows the exciting promise of the most unpromising source; no one but the historian knows the frustrating opacity and sheer uninformativeness of the most seductive ones.

I also stress that while historians may well be looking in the primary sources 'for events, great and small, their dates and chronology', they will also 'be looking for interconnections between them, and between them and "facts"'.

More generally, historians are looking for material conditions, and changes in them; states of mind; the working of institutions; motivations, mentalities, values; the balances between intention and accomplishment...Historians will go into the archives conscious of a great number of 'facts' derived from the secondary sources: they will then be involved in processes of corroboration, qualification, correction; working in the primary sources, they are continually accumulating details, refining nuances.

Whether or not this is 'serious thinking', I believe it will be enormously helpful to students in illuminating the actual activities of historians. One of the insistent messages of my book is that we should be extremely careful in the language that we use and beware of the freight of assumptions that many conceptual terms carry with them. I simply don't accept the way Munslow uses such words as: 'meaning', 'truth', 'theory', 'short stories', 'narratives'. I disagree that we are inevitably forced into using metaphors, and I very strongly counsel against the use of such metaphors as 'defining moment', 'cultural script', 'collective memory', or 'discursive domains'. These are matters well worth discussing but, of course, Munslow ignores them. He also fails to see how vitally important it is that we should inform the public that films are always fiction, and never permissible 'constructions of the past'. I take it that he is quite impervious to the controversy over U-571?

Munslow's claim that postmodernism provides 'an additional level of armour' against holocaust deniers, is a despicable inversion of the truth. If there is no historical objectivity there can be no way of disproving the fantasies of the holocaust deniers. It is because of the sound methodology of historians that we can expose the mythologies that there was no Holocaust, no expropriation of Zulu territory by the Boer settlers, no Armenian genocide in Turkey during the First World War.

According to Munslow, The New Nature of History contains many 'descents into wanton professional abuse.' Munslow refers to my 'crude tub-thumping', 'much spleen', 'blustering and abusive book', 'strident' tone, 'under-theorised and weak arguments', 'prejudice rather than serious thought', 'political narrow-mindedness and simple intellectual confusion', 'personal prejudice', and 'regrettable/ludicrous/bizarre/funny/plainly wrong statements'. No doubt he sees these phrases as ascents into philosophical rigour. It is perfectly true that I detest the kind of gentlemanly Oxbridge fudge which for so long left unchallenged confusing and inaccurate statements about the historian's activities (by Collingwood, etc), and I pride myself in expressing my views trenchantly and unambiguously. When Munslow writes that the past is 'unknowable' and that history is an 'improbable discipline', when he says that historians like me believe that 'all historical knowledge must start and end with the sources' and that 'the meaning of the past...lies dormant in the sources' he could be doing dreadful damage to the history of the historians, save that our discipline is far too strong, far too well-established, and far too popular to be destabilised by his ranting. Nonetheless, my heart bleeds for the poor students at Staffordshire University getting this nonsense rather than a genuine induction into that wonderful subject, history. Personally, I find it unforgivable when academics, instead of concentrating on the difficult task of 'trying to find out what actually happened', switch to the allegedly more 'important and morally useful' discussion of history 'as a cultural discourse or practice'.

Colleagues and students will judge the utility of The New Nature of History. My concluding paragraph is:

At its very core history must be a scholarly discipline, based on thorough analysis of the evidence, and in the writing up of which language is deployed with the utmost precision. There must be constant awareness of the methods and principles of that discipline, constant attention to how it is taught, and how, at different levels, it is communicated to wider audiences. I believe The New Nature of History: Knowledge, Evidence, Language to be a necessary book, but I now eagerly return to serious research and, I hope, the production of history, rather than mere historiography and historical epistemology.

At least, unlike Munslow, I have written a fair amount of archive-based history on topics of, I would say, some significance. And, despite Munslow's snide remarks, it simply is the fact that I have 'thought longer and harder...than most other members of the profession about the nature of history': the original version of my 'Introduction to History' for first-year Open University students appeared in 1971 and revised versions have been appearing ever since. I am perhaps less conceited than Munslow would seem to be suggesting, openly confessing to the many imperfections of the three editions of the old The Nature of History: 'Even in the 1989 edition many sentences and phrases were sloppy and lacking in that precision all historians should aim at. I believe I have done a little better this time'. I remark that: 'Particularly in the old Chapters 1, 4 and 7, there was much that now seems of little importance, or even interest, and that has been cut ('junk cuts', you might say, if in a light-hearted mood)'.

According to Munslow my book is a sour diatribe against my fellow historians. On the contrary, it is a joyous celebration of the immense achievements of professional history. I list the reasons for studying history, and identify the learning Outcomes arising from that study. Above all we need history because the past dominates the present, and will dominate the future. We need all of the sub-histories: political, diplomatic, economic, and national, as well as social and cultural and comparative. We need an understanding of the distant past as well as the recent. Do we need Munslow? The current number of the Social History Society Bulletin contains another pasting of him (by Harold Perkin). One has to admire Munslow's resilience. But does he really have to go on boring the pants off us?

September 2001

Original review

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