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

What is history?

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Book review: An Engagement with Postmodern Foes, Literary Theorists and Friends on the Borders with History


A series of books published by Routledge about postmodernism and history

(see text for examples)

Professor Patrick Karl O'Brien

Professor Emeritus of the University of London

Routledge continues to publish a series of text books and edited collections of readings, concerned with postmodernism. They are clearly written and well designed to help students, teachers, lecturers and professors of history to become cognisant with postmodernism and thereby more reflexive about the craft they practice as apprentices and professional historians (1). Our gild, which includes most of the potential readers for these books, will probably react in diverse ways. A tiny minority will assert that the implications of postmodern thought for the study and writing of history has been around for two to three decades now and the 'reduction' of a long bibliography of basically philosophical writings composed by a line of famous French and North American authors (including: Ankersmitt, Barthes, Baudrillard, de Certeau, Bennett, Berkhofer, Derrida, Elam, Ermath, Fish, Foucault, Kellner, Kristeva, Lacan, Laclau, Lyotard, Rorty, Hayden White, et al.) and their critics to textbook level surveys and readings is redundant because theoretically aware historians have absorbed (or at least conversed about) these works as and when they appeared in print.

A majority of historians and their students will, however, welcome the opportunity to acquaint themselves with the tenets of postmodernism in a clarified summary and predigested form. They will applaud the enterprise of Keith Jenkins and Joyce Appleby in selecting, abridging and rearranging a long running and wide ranging debate about historical knowledge and methods that most historians are certainly aware of but are often not seriously informed about (2). Both these Readers include replies by historians to the major and persistent postmodern representations and critiques of their craft. Joyce Appleby's collection sets the dialectic in an extended historical context. Some 70% of its pages are devoted to classical writing on historical knowledge taken from 'Enlightenment Thought', 'Nineteenth Century Social Theory' and 'The Emergence of the Culture Concept' before we are introduced to seminal essays from 'Postmodernist Thought' and to 'Responses to Postmodernism' (3).

Textbooks published by Jenkins and Southgate and Munslow also deploy longer and shorter perspectives to contextualise a venerable tradition of discussion concerned with the construction and nature of historical knowledge (4). Beverley Southgate's concise and excellent survey includes quotations from Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, Thucydides and Livy, selections from several medieval monks and passages from entirely relevant but largely forgotten English historians of the seventeenth century as well as eloquent excerpts from the remarkably percipient reflexions of Bolingbroke published as long ago as 1752 (5). Southgate exposes the longevity of current debates about the making and the 'deconstruction' of historical knowledge. In contrast the surveys of the views of postmodern protagonists and their critics by Alan Munslow and Keith Jenkins (whose outstanding talents for synthesis, clarity and brevity are displayed in three books) prefer to engage with the views of historians, philosophers, linguists and cultural theorists, literary critics, anthropologists, sociologists and others who have participated in this particular discourse over a period no longer than two or three decades. Their imposed chronology seems entirely appropriate for scholars who fashion their stance towards history as 'postmodern' and who may not wish to be reminded how ancient, cyclical and repetitive many current arguments seem to intellectual historians (6).

Alas, from a sense of 'deja vu', and for many less supportable reasons, a majority of professional historians will, I predict, obdurately refuse to incur the costs of engagement at a philosophical level with the postmodern challenge to the very foundations of their craft as practised in Britain, Europe and Japan. By now fatigue may have set in, even in the United States, where new labels and movements are usually treated more seriously than they are by those comfortably tenured within the higher education systems of the old world.

Sceptical detachment from the wider intellectual controversy over postmodernism will continue largely because most British historians are not much concerned with philosophical and epistemological discussions on the nature of knowledge about the past or for that matter the present (7). They rarely read philosophy but do pick up and utilise a certain amount of theory imported for the most part from sociology, economics, politics, geography and increasingly in recent decades from anthropology, which lends ballast and concepts to the current wave of popularity for cultural history (8). Latterly several tribes within the Confederation of Historians have also found the vocabularies, taxonomies and approaches of cultural and literary theory useful for the kinds of themes and problems that they opt to study (9). Intellectual trade across the borders of our disciplines continues as it has done for generations past. Although this commerce may well be expanding at a faster rate than ever before, few historians seem prepared to accept assertions that the advance of a logically irresistible wave of postmodern thought has enjoyed such an obvious success in colonising the social sciences and other humanistic disciplines on the borders of history that historians can no longer preserve an autonomous position outside an epistemology that has become hegemonic.

Furthermore, historians may find themselves affronted by suggestions that in this 'our' postmodern universe, traditional claims for the significance of history as professionally conceived and practised for most of the twentieth century are now outmoded and irrelevant. However well intentioned and cogently elaborated by serious historians like Alan Munslow, the established guild (even in its younger apprentices and practitioners) seem likely to ignore subversive attacks from across the boundaries of their own discipline. For example, they will respond with understandable condescension to misrepresentations of the claims that they supposedly make for the nature and significance of historical knowledge and to distorted depictions of their craft practices from 'outsiders' located in departments of philosophy, literature and art. While parvenu and opaque languages utilised by 'signifiers' from cultural studies, semiotics and linguistics will be dismissed as unreadable (10).

Sceptical detachment, cross departmental rivalry and disdain for pretentious concepts and unclear language are not, however, based (despite repeated assertions to the contrary) upon a conservative reaction from anything like a majority of historians to the political ideology that is implicit in postmodernism. 'They' too share an incredulity towards claims for fundamental and universal truths; continue to include and make space for hitherto excluded 'others' in their histories; resist Eurocentric and hierarchical interpretations of the past; enjoy contingency, pastiche and parody; try to restore poetry and persuasive rhetoric to the writing of history; and cultivate ideals of detachment and irony. Above all they agree with Leinbniz: 'the present is big with the future and laden with the past'. That is why historians remain puzzled by but applaud the significance that (otherwise destructive) postmodernists accord to history which might indeed, to quote Hayden White, 'enable man to make a new kind of world for himself corresponding to the presumptive needs of his own existence'.

Nevertheless, many will react with undisguised irritation to Keith Jenkins and others who are intolerant of those who wish to 'study the past for its own sake' and purport to recognise that not uncommon and respectable justification as ideology propagated by historians who are complacent about the present (11). Confronted repeatedly with that kind of ad hominem accusation, from a self referential (and reverential) segment of the European and North American intelligentsia that they, and their craft, can be dismissed as anachronistic in the late twentieth century 'postmodern' universe, historians have 'deconstructed' the adjective 'postmodern' and exposed it as an imprecise, manifestly premature, spatially confined, unrepresentative and possibly self-serving label for the locations and times that they inhabit. After all history (more than any other discipline) has been long engaged with problems involved in the division of historical time into eras, ages, cycles, conjunctures, transitions and moments of revolution. Aware of an overwhelming body of evidence for continuity in most modern cultures, in nearly all realms of social and economic activity and in large areas of human consciousness and sensibility, they will treat as hyperbole Jean Baudrillard's supposition 'that the acceleration of modernity, of technology, events and media of all exchanges - economic, political and sexual - has propelled us to "escape velocity" with the result that we have flown free of the referential sphere and of history'. While Elizabeth Ermarth's proposal that 'the distinctions between what is invented and what is real is one that for many reasons we can no longer afford' is regarded as dangerous nonsense (12).

Most historians (indeed the majority of humanity) continue to reject any conception that they live in a postmodern condition of 'disillusionment' with science, material progress and rationality and ambiguity of language. Most of us simply do not inhabit a present that is enveloped in a postmodern fog of meanings, moral nihilism, surreal rootlessness, accidental contingent and surprising events, cultures of images and emotional life dominated by pastiche, play and vicarious emulation.

As students of Burke, Popper, Hexter and Oakeshott will know, Lyotard's often cited and pithy definition of postmodernism as an 'incredulity towards meta narratives', (i.e. narratives of capitalist progress, political emancipation, the victory of the proletariat, the triumph of the west and the end of history), finds its origins in incredulities that have long been commonplace among historians. By the same token historians will also find the favourite postmodern meta historical narrative of an 'Enlightenment Project' for the application of science and reason to human improvement that emerged sometime between the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution that then foundered and failed in the wars and social revolutions of the first half of the twentieth century to be an equally banal, simplification of the multiplicity of projects included as part of an evolving programme for human improvement. Historians will also observe the turmoils and abberations of some three decades of tragic history from 1914-45 provide no clear warrant for embracing a stance of postmodern relavitism toward science, language, economic progress, or indeed towards any of these other 'Western Shibboleths', such as democratic government, competitive capitalism, linear time, individual responsibility and above all towards any possibility of constructing plausible and acceptable conjectures about history (13).

In short, however, they perceive and whatever they feel about late capitalism, the decline of the West, the speed of contemporary change, the inclusion of the 'other', the indeterminacy of meanings, modern art, new information technology and the decentred, fragmented and complex nature of modern European and American cultures, most historians are unlikely to suffer from existential angst, epistemological cramp and any sense of 'rupture with modernism' that might persuade them to adopt the range of postmodern positions towards the way that they go about constructing reliable historical knowledge.

Although they will and do take advice from Hayden White and literary critics to be more reflexive about the construction of narratives, will historians be impressed even with the eloquent plea from Keith Jenkins that to read and write history in anything but a postmodern way in this our postmodern world is outmoded? 'Today', he writes, 'we live within the general condition of postmodernity. And this condition has arguably been caused by the general failure ...of that experiment in social living called modernity ...of the attempt, from around the eighteenth century in Europe, to bring about through the application of reason, science and technology, a level of social and personal well-being'. In Jenkins's view reappraisal of what has gone wrong 'has led to a ...critique of the foundations of modernity ...that had reached the general conclusion that there are, nor have there been, any real foundations of the kind alleged to underpin the experiment of the modern; that we now just have to understand that we live amid social formations which have no legitimising ontological or epistemological or ethical grounds for our beliefs and actions beyond the status of an ultimately self referencing (rhetorical) conversation'. In short, because there is no objective present claims by historians to provide access to any kind of real past are equally untenable. Apparently history has become just another 'foundationless expression in a postmodern world of foundationless expressions' (14).

Even though it is all meaningless and little better than fiction, postmodernists treat history with flattering attention because the accumulation of historical knowledge was 'part of the experiment of the modern', when historians (explicitly as philosophers or implicitly as craftsmen) wrote narratives with 'trajectories' which nobody 'believes' in any more. Furthermore, the collapse of meta history (which few modern historians ever wrote or even subscribed to anyway) has in all kinds of ways problematised their modestly expressed claims as craftsmen to produce: more or less tenable, provisional, conjectural, probabilistic, qualified, peer reviewed, discipline monitored, endlessly revised interpretations in the form of fragmented, disaggregated stories about the past.

Qualified historians (including our younger colleagues with more limited experience of professional life) will not recognise the caricatured postmodern 'representations' of them and their day-to-day working practices and above all the careful claims that they make for the flows of guides, handbooks, bibliographies, databases, chronicles, edited documents, tapes, videos, articles, essays, papers and books that makes up the ever expanding flow of historical knowledge, available in increasingly accessible forms to everyone who wishes to read something about history. Yes, there are publishers blurbs, dust jackets, advertising copy, unguarded moments in conversation and excitement in seminars where and when historians 'inflate' the status of the knowledge they lovingly and laboriously produce. Nevertheless, their postmodernist critics, who wish to engage in some kind of serious academic interchange, really must cite a series of exemplary quotations, articles and writings by modern historians that might persuade the profession that most of their colleagues are committed to beliefs that: their methods and procedures provide their readers with 'direct access to the past'; to 'the truth about history'; to a definitive (once and for all) interpretation about events, movements, personalities, artefacts and other things that are now historical; to a 'correspondence theory of reality' and to the notion that properly footnoted historical statements are analogous to proofs in the natural sciences (15).

As working historians (and in contrast to philosophers and cultural theorists) Munslow and Jenkins have searched for modern historians who might approximate to the scholars of postmodern caricature. They have discovered some straw for the construction of straw men among the historiographical reflexions of the late Geoffrey Elton, who was not fond of qualifying clauses or given to pretentious modesty about his status as a master craftsman (16). Nobody and nothing much else seems to have emerged to fit the postmodern picture. With commendable (but undermining) honesty, Jenkins quoted Carr's familiar definition of history as a 'continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past'(17). He might have added Peter Geyl's definition of History 'as an argument without end'. Southgate trawled deeper and further back and came up with a selection of passages going back to Josephus and Lucian writing in the first and second centuries A.D. and who shared the optimism of Thucydides with the concerns and capacity of historians to tell the truth or in Lucian's phrase 'laying out the matter as it is'. Southgate surveys a long line of historians who recommended and believed they could construct definitive depictions and interpretations of the past. Significantly that venerable historiographical tradition appears to come to an end with the Great Victorians, including Ranke, Gardiner, Acton and Bury. Furthermore, and long before the Baconian assumptions that history could become something like an inductive science inspired Lord Acton's Fin de Siècle and optimistic expectation 'now that all information is within reach, every problem has become capable of solution', scepticism about any simple and conclusive recourse to the facts also persisted as an equally powerful tradition in historical writing. Southgate also retraces scepticism concerning the status of sensory perceptions and our grasp of external or past realities back to pre-Socratic philosophers. He again found eloquent expression in Bolingbroke's advice to approach historical evidence with 'impartiality, freedom of judgement and suspicion, for pieces of evidence whether oral or written deserve to be suspected'. At the same time (c.1752) Bolingbroke continued to rail against the folly of notions that 'all history is fabulous and that the very best is nothing better than a probable tale artfully contrived and plausibly told wherein truth and falsehood are indistinguishably blended together' (18).

Down the centuries a minority of historians (and a few in our own times) have continued to represent their discipline as a science but how many have been prepared to push that much discussed analogy further than to say that their procedures and working practices for the construction of reliable knowledge about the past could be understood within the context of a Baconian paradigm for scientific enquiry. Both paradigms are observed to be dominated by the discovery, collection, clarification and inductive interpretation of facts. Bolingbroke's contemporary, David Hume placed a cat among the pigeons when he demonstrated, however, that such inductive procedures could never guarantee the truth, safety, stability or permanency of any generalisation based upon observations however voluminous, extensive and carefully validated. Yet Hume's logical strictures against scientific laws, truths and generalisations that could be applied to explain the behaviour of natural phenomena across space and time has never really interested historians who deal with human behaviour in circumscribed contexts. Very few have ever claimed that they were engaged in discovering laws of history (19). On the whole historians who generally support inductive procedures and cling to notions of hard facts have been far more modest and tentative about their discoveries and interpretations of the human past than (at least until recently) scientists have been about their understanding of nature (20). That is why we are not phased but rather comforted by postmodern references to Hume and to Popper's demonstrations that inductive statements, explanations and predictions by natural scientists are logically provisional and only stand pending the discovery of a single counter example. Historians are also not surprised to read postmodern accounts of the process of scientific discovery based upon the writings of Kuhn, Lakatos, Popper, Feyerbend and others that (like history) scientific knowledge is in some (but essentially trivial) respects socially and culturally constructed (21).

Accounts of paradigms, programmes and above all the sociological exposés of the behaviour of real and very human people behind the production of scientific knowledge serve to diminish the authority of science, to move its depictions, explanations and predictions towards other realms of knowledge that are less certain, more contingent and just a bit closer to human history (22). By the late twentieth century nature looks somewhat less orderly and scientific propositions are being repositioned towards Newton's own original claim that they were simply 'very nearly true, notwithstanding any contrary hypotheses that may be imagined, till such time as other phenomena occur by which they may either be made more accurate or liable to exceptions'(23).

Postmodernists have singularly, even comically, failed in their attempts to deconstruct the epistemological foundations of the natural sciences (24). To their dismay, hard objective, positivistic knowledge about the natural world and applied technology continues to accumulate and to diffuse rapidly around the world. Everyone wants it and wants it now. Historians, sociologists and philosophers and popularisers of natural sciences have certainly made its procedures for discovery more intelligible and exposed the political, social and cultural elements behind its construction. Nevertheless, the claims of science to be 'very nearly true and definitive enough for the time being' lends sufficient support to an ongoing 'modernist project' in which historians by adapting the clearly successful procedures and methods of science, can continue to produce their own more probabilistic and provisional knowledge about the past. Scientific procedures rest upon several positivistic assumptions that historians share; for example, there are no a priori truths, no unassailable facts, no privileged sources and, above all, no final interpretations (25). For most of this century, few historians ever claimed to be doing much more than following (with the help of material at their disposal) such scientific procedures and assumptions. Few ever represented themselves as natural scientists in search of certainties, truths and historical laws.

As I read them, postmodern critics of history turn out to be recirculating little more than an ancient but extreme form of scepticism, coupled with an irrational refusal to distinguish more from less reliable forms of history. Meanwhile, they are welcome to deliver almost banal warnings to our undergraduates that their professors are human, incompetent, biased, fallible and subjective. They may as well repeat the obvious, that a 'Total Past' is not accessible because all that historical research could ever recover consists of traces, remains or fragments of times gone by. Historians do appreciate that for most periods themes and problems, however, well specified and micro, the record remains incomplete but the expectation that more evidence might turn up is a hope that springs eternal in their hearts. Who was it but another eminent Victorian, Bishop Stubbs, who opined, 'history knows it can wait for more evidence and review its older verdicts; it offers an endless series of courts of appeal and is ever ready to open closed doors'.

Meanwhile, the volume of recovered and accessible information about times past rises exponentially and threatens to engulf our capacities for synthesis. A very high proportion of the total value of the resources allocated by modern societies to history (considered here as an industry) is devoted to the preservation, cataloguing and diffusion of records, artefacts and other remains, of an increasingly diverse kind which are variously depicted as the pools of knowledge, bases of data or repositories of information from which more or less complete and reliable histories have and might be written. Archivists, librarians, editors, chroniclers, collectors and manifold others engaged in the accumulation, validation and diffusion of such stocks of hard knowledge about the past might well accept suggestions that selections of what to preserve are somehow culturally constructed. Yet they would also insist that the process is more haphazard than constructed and that their 'agenda' is to respond to public demand and to become as inclusive and catholic in their collection of information as governmental and private funding will allow. This key sector of the workforce engaged in the production of historical knowledge will certainly not accept the impertinent postmodern suggestion that their efforts to make accessible a diverse range of sources and remains from the past is driven by any kind of articulated theory or ideology. Understandably, they will not welcome suggestions that the skills and care that they put into the recovery, preservation and presentation of records and research have latterly been severely diminished in status by a widely accepted epistemological shift that has problematised 'facts' and transformed documents into 'texts' of almost unconstrained ambiguity. Furthermore, they and indeed all historians who stand accused in postmodern rhetoric of 'fetishizing sources', 'sanctifying archives' and clinging desperately to an untenable epistemology of empirical realms, have throughout their careers taken it as read: that the significance of facts is not given by or embodied within the facts; that sources need to be contextualised; that the languages and vocabularies of documents require careful translation and critical decoding; that correspondence between historical sources and a real or lived past is tenuous and established with difficulty. Historians will wonder when and if they read postmodern depictions of their craft practices, whether their critics have looked at any of the handbooks or attended any of these mandatory courses on 'sources and methods' advertised for graduate students in history. Are they acquainted with the traditions of philology and textual criticisim, with training offered in palaeography and diplomatic, with the care devoted to teaching research students how to cope with dead, foreign and with the evolution of living languages? Have they listened to the conversations of historians about changes in meanings of words through time and to their long (alas sometimes tedious) disquisitions in seminars about the difficulties of decoding sources. Modern, professional historians have been engaged in deconstructing texts, contesting each others readings and interpretations of sources for as long as most can remember. Reminders about the fragility of the base upon which reliable but provisional histories are written can be salutary. Historians can also learn how to become more efficient at establishing more secure foundations for their interpretations of documents and artefacts from literary criticism, cultural theory, philosophy and linguistics.

Let us continue to trade even with linguistics and philosophy. Although there does not seem to be much point prolonging the conversation with Barthes, Derrida, Lyotard and their followers who insist that there can be no knowledge or stable reality about the past because the past is constructed from documents (texts) written in words which possess no regular or determinate meanings or 'correspondence' to the things to which they purport to refer. In this version of the 'linguistic turn', words derive their meaning from their connexions to other words and to grammars, rules and conventions embodied in linguistic systems. Given the plurality of recognised national languages and local dialects, add to that a conception of society or culture as including a series of disconnected social formations operating in their own spaces and spheres of meaning, with languages peculiar to themselves, then the familiar postmodern anguish and apprehension of the present (and ergo about the past) as 'difference', diversity and incomprehensible 'complexity' transforms the linguistic turn into playful semiotics.

Historians might prefer to leave this conundrum in the philosophy of knowledge (that has after all been around since Plato) well alone and concentrate instead upon the more interesting and currently expanding concern with how and to what extent languages of particular historical discourses (such as Chartism) might have influenced political, economic, social and cultural activity. This programme of research and writing, which challenged and is in the process of redefining the separation between reality and its representations in prose, poetry, ballads, pamphlets, newspapers, letters, tapes and other sources, has already produced a bibliography of interesting reinterpretations which have effectively reinserted a role for language (i.e. words, meanings, metaphors, discourses) into the making of history. Obviously that role has varied with the episodes, themes and problems that historians select for analysis. As usual, with any recent importation of a 'fashionable' concern into history, a 'jostle' of general positions has emerged which range all the way from historians who insist on the 'hegemony' of language (in extremis that historical actions are both linguistically constructed and predetermined) through to scholars who recognise a non-neutral but still subservient role for language, to others (in some cases with intellectual capital to defend) who deplore any 'descent' into discourse (26). Most historians continue to resist the notion that language 'structures' both thought and action as linguistic imperialism (27). Most will now agree that languages can become more than a neutral rendition of realities and experiences into words. Nevertheless, they will wish to research in order to ascertain how, when and where language mattered. Their minds are open as to which 'bits' and kinds of history (or present experience?) might be plausibly represented as linguistically constructed, conceptually constrained or actively promoted by shifts in discourse but they will not be inclined to present such shifts as 'hegemonic' or even as autonomous. Micro history and biography has made us sensitive to the words, perceptions and meanings that people alive in their own times brought to movements and changes that interest historians and their readers. 'Actors' viewpoints are scarce and entirely relevant but as small samples, they often turn out to be vague, contradictory and possibly untypical. Although the linguistic turn has not run full circle, most historians remain resolutely 'realistic' in believing that 'things' (power, weapons, food, soils, minerals climates, technologies, artefacts, markets, money, etc.) matter, correlate with words and underpin perceptions and cultural constructs rather than the other way round. Of course, everything owes something to its cultural construction and linguistic constitution but as recent debates over the holocaust have made clear, there may not be too many events or movements regarded as 'major' that historians can convincingly represent or adequately explain in these intangible, non-referential and ultimately metaphysical terms? Let us wait and see how the advance of a programme of research (based upon fashionable assumptions about the cultural construction and linguistic constitution of 'meanings') might establish a case for supplanting hegemonic, contextualised styles of writing about the histories of political, social, economic and technological change. Meanwhile, their 'place' in newer (and possibly epiphenomenal) styles or genres (say, the histories of art, fashion, style, leisure, taste, symbols and emotion) look more secure and illuminating.

Whatever it is that is now developing in neighbouring 'discourse formations' (such as philosophy, linguistics, cultural studies, literature, anthropology, art, architecture, journalism and advertising) only a handful of historians display symptoms of postmodern anguish and only a few mavericks recommend full linguistic turns or semiotic spins. Sympathies and intellects seem, however, to be far more engaged with a wide ranging critique concerned with the ways and forms that historians deploy to express, read and to represent the past in their books, essays, articles and reviews and lectures. Histories are written and as literary artefacts require deeper reflexion than they have traditionally been accorded in historiographical manuals and in the day-to-day practice of history.

This particular 'turn' towards 'mediums and modes of representation' in history owes a lot to Hayden White (whose seminal writings are lucidly and critically summarised in textbooks already cited by Keith Jenkins and Alan Munslow). Recent meditations on the construction and writing of histories owe even more to the importation of vocabularies, distinctions and reflexive practices from modern literary theory and criticism which are normally grouped under the heading of textual analysis and are well surveyed in chapters in the Routledge textbooks by Martin Bunzl as 'The Construction of History' and by Bethan McCullagh as 'The Meaning of Texts'.

Before I turn to literary theory and to its recommendations that include entirely sensible if hardly original suggestions for the modification of dominant historical practice, it seems necessary to confront and clear away some rather predictable but recognisable postmodern depictions of history as literature.

Literary theory is relevant because historians produce literary artefacts (books, monographs, essays, articles, reviews and lectures, as well as tapes, videos and films). Literary critics refer to all these products as texts. As expressions or representations of history, they become eligible for textual analysis, which is primarily concerned with the forms, modes and grammars, linguistic devices and words used by authors of fiction to convey meanings and to express largely imagined realities to their readers and audiences. Applied to history, the relevance of literary theory becomes a question of how (and with what implications and effects) for the status of their craft do historians 'represent' the past (or rather selections from the past) to their readers, listeners and viewers? The short and immediate answer is predominantly through narratives and secondarily in the shape of models or taxonomies that depend upon modern conceptual categories drawn from the social sciences. Although the present generation of historians tolerate texts produced by 'tribes' (within the profession) who use models, taxonomies and concepts derived explicitly from the social sciences to reconstruct some aspects of the past, postmodernists reject the 'imposition' of all methods, currently prescribed by historians, to 'make sense' of the past. They prefer to agree with Schiller that the past is a 'spectacle of confusion, uncertainty and moral anarchy' and with Schopenhauer that 'every attempt to give form to the world ...was tragically doomed'. Postmodernists depict historians as engaged in a disciplined endeavour to 'appropriate' a past that is meaningless and shapeless. They proclaim that in reality there are no narratives (or models) back there that are not in all their essentials invented, constructed and/or borrowed by historians. The history profession, acting in the name of truth, order and for the preservation of the status quo, uses the authority of an academic discipline to effectively crowd or shift out more personal, multiple and diverse stories that might be told about the past and which could well lead to a more emancipated future for mankind (28).

That is why 'History', according to Hayden White, 'is the refuge of the same men who excel in finding the simple in the complex, the familiar in the strange'. His structure may be read as a compliment because most of us wish to persist with the 'noble dream' of trying to 'make sense' of the past. We are not on the linguistic roundabout. We do not conceive of disciplined discourse as practised since mid century as conservative or oppressive. That is why we are open to an engagement with literary theory in order to explore how far the materials, practices and forms selected by historians to write histories may over determine their interpretations of the past.

For academics not wedded to narratives, this ongoing engagement with literary critics over 'the content of the form and the form of the content' is redolent of discussions about the use of vocabularies, conceptual frameworks, theories and models drawn from the social sciences that have persisted without resolution for decades among historians.(29). Nevertheless, even self-fashioned 'humanists' who eschew theory, have agreed that the issue comes down to more or less, in other words to ratios of determinacy to indeterminacy embedded with the forms available to represent the past - again not as truth but always as provisional but plausible and contestable conjectures. Literary theory sets out to instruct on how texts are made, how they are received and how they become persuasive, popular, even hegemonic, as depictions and interpretations of periods, themes, problems and personalities written about by historians.

Any cursory reading of the review sections of historical journals should immediately persuade literary critics that historians are aware of style, alive to metaphors and other rhetorical devices and usually applaud books that are elegantly written. They are (or could be persuaded) to see connexions between histories considered as 'texts' and works of fiction. They know that histories are vehicles for conveying the past that contain more than chronicles, facts, references to archives and mediation within a bibliography of relevant secondary sources. Most will concede to definitions of their texts as 'configured', 'constructed', 'shaped' by traditional literary forms, such as narratives, as well, of course, by models or taxonomies imported from the social sciences. Many historians might also agree that as a matter of craft practice, the gild continues to pay too much attention to the evidential base used to construct texts and that insufficient reflexion goes into the ways they are made and to the forms within which facts and other materials are expressed and represented as histories. Granted that historical narratives and elaborated models of the past are cautiously offered to their readers as provisional proposals that are nevertheless formed in a recognisable way and include rhetorical, poetical and metaphorical elements, there seems to be no reason not to read literary theory. It seems nothing less than myopic not to pay attention to the vocabularies and practices of literary critics, who have thought long and hard about the process of producing books and articles (30).

For example, in conducting a textual analysis into how works of history use techniques to represent a meaningful past, literary critics would be centrally concerned with presentation and language; and, in contrast to historians, only secondarily concerned with the validation of sources and evidence. For example, literary theory makes familiar but useful distinctions between: 'story', 'discourse' and 'rhetoric' (31).

Stories are separable from their arrangement or modes of expression as discourse. Every text (book, article or essay) in history tells a story, which could be relabelled as the 'core message', the 'substance of an argument' or the 'bottom line'. Each story, however circumscribed, micro or trivial, tends to be read by literary critics (but often more reluctantly by historians) as congruent with, supportive of, or contradictory towards some meta narrative about the past. Our colleagues in departments of literature do not allow historians to disconnect the circumscribed stories they relate from some 'larger view' about histories of triumph, progress, decline, degradation, loss, exclusion, domination, liberation, aggression, secularism, capitalism, socialism, feminism, etc. etc. Historians may or may not consider the question of location within such meta narratives helpful when it comes to framing questions, conducting research and writing up their own specified contributions to historical knowledge. Provided they do not find themselves 'labelled' as 'constructing' parts of stories that are 'implicitly designed' to promote or undermine particular meta narratives, then the pressure to contextualise on a grander scale can only be heuristic for them and benign for the diffusion and prestige of history as a subject.

Discourse refers to the arrangement of the expression of historical events or facts in the form of a narrative (or a model), bearing in mind that sooner or later many stories produced within the framework of models are usually retold or incorporated into larger narratives anyway. Let us concentrate upon narratives which involve historians in: emplotment; the representation of time; the selection of facts, quotations, actors, events and episodes, as the content and substance of a history; and writing up in a rhetorically persuasive style for a perceived readership or readerships.

Emplotment is defined as a process of configuration whereby a multiplicity of facts, events, characters and conditions recovered from the past are transformed by a historian into a meaningful narrative. Paul Ricoeur claims that 'all understanding of meaning in time is narrative understanding and understanding is controlled by narrative' (32). Among historians that process is more often tacitly accomplished that openly discussed but literary theory's depiction of an author emplotting, arranging, ordering and patterning material into a narrative and moving it forward from an ordained beginning through stages or sequences to an end (or outcome) will be recognised as the basic way many histories have been constructed since the Enlightenment (33). Furthermore, the teleological representation and emplotment of time has reappeared in literary theory as a key device that provides historians with more authorial autonomy over their constructions of the past than they care to admit. In theory established chronologies, precludes any control by historians over the sequence of events. Nevertheless, historical time remains directional and historians (blessed with hindsight) know the conclusion that a narrative is designed to explain. They select its beginning and occupy intervening sequences with chapters and paragraphs of evidence of their own choice that 'serve' to carry the narrative forward to a prescribed outcome, often located, for example, at such symbolic conjunctural dates in European political history, as 1648, 1776, 1789, 1815, 1914, 1939 etc. (34).

Thirdly, all historical texts, narrative and non- narrative alike, embody rhetorical devices deployed by historians to persuade their perceived readerships to applaud and buy their interpretations of the past (35). Historians need no convincing that a literary style, a penchant for memorable metaphors and stances of ironic detachments or even iconoclasm will help to further the acceptance of their narratives and the stories they contain.

With reputation, promotion, status and money at stake, 'rhetorics of compliance, persuasion and flattery towards an institutionally organised hierarchy of 'peers' can also be detected in texts produced by historians. Furthermore established historical genres are strongly characterised by their 'displays' of particular languages, metaphors and modes or representation, familiar, congenial (and even mandatory) for tribes of experts who have colonised particular areas of history (36). (Take a look at the writings of my own tribe of economic historians!) Scholars who seek to escape from the constrictions of specialisation and an albeit often benign power structure of an academic discipline by writing more popular histories, will find that they too must shape their texts and manipulate their rhetorics to appeal to an 'establishment' of publishers, editors and reviewers, who are the gatekeepers for access to a wider public (37).

Few historians would wish to resist an engagement with literary criticism that helps them to become more reflexive about the construction of their texts. Even the most Rankean and scientifically inclined have hardly forsaken the aesthetic, moral and allegorical dimensions of their subject. Literary theory should open up the subject to a more cogent analysis of 'story', 'discourse' and 'rhetoric' embodied in texts. Indeed a reading of reviews in historical journals and the 'reflexive disposition' adopted by authors of recently published histories, exposes something of a turn away from substance towards a deeper consideration of form (38).

All this is interesting to contemplate and very welcome as a reunification of history with literature. Unwelcome, contestable and over the top for historians are assertions that literary and cultural theory has exposed: their writing to be little (nothing!) more than their authors' representations of the past; that form predetermines content; that their substance of facts and sources are simply another layer of texts - coded, selected and prioritised to underpin a narrative and support an author's preselected story.

Historians will not accept suggestions that 'Truth' (not a word they use much anyway) comes as much from the mode of textuality and representation as referentiality. They continue to treat Hayden White's now famous definition of history 'as a narrative discourse, the content of which is as much imagined as found' with disdain. As they insist, whatever the analogies across the two processes of construction, the historian's final product (history) does not approximate at all closely to fiction because historians never enjoy anything like the same autonomy over their texts as poets do over the poems, as novelists do over their novels, or artists over their paintings. Historical explanation is simply not, as Tony Bennett would have it, 'a way of telling stories without any particularly convincing way of deciding between them'. For historians such decisions will ultimately depend upon evidence. Within their narratives, historians include facts (usually lots of facts) data and references to sources and archaeological remains of diverse kinds that are the 'substance' of historical knowledge. A bedrock of empirical foundations are symbiotically related to the design of histories and seriously restrain the influence of form over content, which is the one big point that literary theory brings forcibly to our attention. Appeals to facts 'test' historical models. Elaborations upon the facts occupy most of the chapters, paragraphs and sentences in historical narratives. E.H. Carr pondered years ago on his 'archetypal working historian' interacting with, reflecting upon and mediating among facts. Facts both move and shape the vehicle of representation not the other way round. To pursue that analogy: cars may be represented by the design of their bodywork but they are powered by their engines. Again long ago G.M. Trevelyan agreed with his colleagues from literature that 'the appeal of history is in the last analysis poetic. But he went on 'the poetry of history does not consist of the imagination roaming at large but pursuing the fact and fastening upon it'.

As these opposed quotations cited above and as a wider reading of selections from the works of numerous authors (who have participated in the debate republished by Jenkins, Southgate and Appleby, et al.) reveal, the issue has now been clearly positioned as one of degree. It cannot be meaningly resolved at the reified and acrimonious level of yet another binary opposition between new literary theory and a 'stylised' practice as enunciated by some elderly historians who have been exposed (even lampooned) for defining themselves as being in the business of recovering 'Truths' about the 'Past' (39). Please wheel them on (or rather dig them up) to stiffen the resolve of the rest of us who now realistically assume that through a collective and disciplined endeavour we might construct a narrative or model about some aspect of the past in order to generate a plausible story that will always remain conjectural, provisional, tentative; open to future disagreement and refinement and eventual obsolescence. Meanwhile, the degree to which historians intervene in and thereby contaminate the 'authority' of their models or their narratives by claiming to 'represent' or to 'correlate' it with some event, theme of person from the past, can only be ascertained book by book, article by article.

Furthermore, several layers and diverse types of historical knowledge are implicated more or less seriously and heuristically in textual analysis. Literary theorists join with postmodern philosophers in offering rather general advice to historians to treat their documents as texts, to deconstruct and encode them and to consider carefully the problems involved in transforming a diverse range of sources into evidence in preparation for its positioning into publishable narratives or models. Again historians will only agree with sound but familiar advice about protocols for investigation; observe that they have been training postgraduates to cope with intractable sources for generations; and promise to improve in future. Historians will, however, go on to observe that for rather large areas of published historical knowledge, there appears to be such a plethora of uncontested and unproblematical information about the circumscribed episodes, events, problems or characters that they have investigated, that to agonise over 'real access to the past' or the ambiguities of source material can soon become tediously pedantic.

Textual analysis seems to offer a challenge and potential illumination to representations and depictions beyond the level of archival sources and chronicles but below the aspirations of meta narratives of universal historical change. Thus textual analysis must be primarily useful for monitoring and auditing stories where 'interventions' by an author in a historical narrative can be 'deconstructed' to expose an unwarranted degree of 'intrusion' which might seriously compromise the historians familiar and orthodox claim to be just a 'mediator' between a limited range of available sources and their representation in print. Useful deconstruction of 'unreliable texts' could well expose all those familiar defects of contested histories; including the deployment of unrepresentative samples of documents, selective quotations, careless paraphrasing, unwarranted extrapolations, biased depictions, dubious inferences and the emergence of potentially opposed or at least competing interpretations. In other words, the practice of 'deconstruction' which simply asks: where and in what ways does the mind, hand and voice of the historian appear in her text, turns out to be the familiar set of established rules for rigorous and disciplined criticism of competing depictions and interpretations of the same historical episodes. Have we not been 'deconstructing' each other's books and articles and been implicitly engaged in textual analysis for a long time now?

Historians might avoid caricature and the prolongation of an unproductive conversation with literary theory by admitting that they are indeed in search of 'unity in diversity' and that they do 'in some sense' 'impose order' by representing the past through the implicit or explicit use of models and above all in the form of narratives. Unless they remain specialised in the production of chronicles, editing sources and cataloguing archives, the majority of historians do indeed attempt to organise, combine and shape their evidence into coherent, readable and persuasive books and articles. Yet, the meaning and validity of their work continues to rest upon two a priori assumptions (that are an anathema to postmodernists), namely that there was a meaningful past 'back there' and that it can be plausibly reconstructed in the shape of narratives or models.

We must also admit that coherent, integrated narratives with a clear story are, however, very difficult to construct without recourse to a perspective which enters subtly into their emplotments and more clearly into their rhetorics. Viewpoints are disparaged by postmodernists as personal biases and ideologies that contaminate the publications of historians and transform their texts into fictions with no authorial or referential authority whatsoever. Historians are shy and most continue to evade a comprehensive autobiographical disclosure of the unavoidably positioned viewpoints embodied in the narratives they construct and stories they tell. Although the best strive for detachment, few display any reluctance to expose degrees of bias, political commitments and present centred perspectives embodied in historical interpretations of others, especially if they rival their own explanations for the same episodes. That all historians are inescapably situated (a good word for their unavoidable predicament) in their: times, genders, cultures, ethnicities, generations, religions and ethical suppositions, now goes almost without elaboration.

Of course 'situated' viewpoints enter into narratives but so (as colleagues from social sciences have repeatedly insisted) do a historian's implicit or explicit espousals of theory. Textual analysis should be as concerned with the theories historians hold about the nature of past societies as it is with literary forms and language. Do historians conceive of the societies they study as integrated, homogeneous, cohesive, conflictual; composed of definable groups or as heterogeneous, disconnected, fluid and depictable as contingent and shifting discursive formations? How is human agency or the significance of individuals included in their educated assumptions? Where is power? Is it, as Foucault and his followers insist, everywhere and symbolically and culturally constructed? Or is there a hegemonic and autonomous and seriously coercive role for states to play in their histories?

In liberal societies where many voices can be heard and multiple viewpoints expressed, there seems to be no need to make such a big deal about the biases of individual historians. In particular because for most of the twentieth century (if not before), historians as a profession and history as a discipline has steadily broadened its mandate to take into account (and manifestly into the libraries of historical knowledge) the viewpoints of previously 'excluded others' - the working classes, the colonised, women, children, the old, the poor, the sexually repressed, religious and ethnic minorities, the insane, criminals, even animals and microbes. By the close of this century, so much and so many have been reclaimed from the 'margins of history' that it becomes more and more difficult to find the monolithic, white, male, conservative viewpoint that is so central to postmodern demonology.

Indeed the recovery of previously silenced viewpoints and the related proliferation of sub branches of history (now already splintering into 'sects') has raised legitimate anxieties about synthesis, synoptic overviews and the very possibilities for reaching multi-vocal and inclusive generalisations about major questions and themes that have been the staples of history for generations past.

One way out of our current embarrassment of histories has been to ignore, even to denigrate, the 'staples' of traditional history, eschew the subjects ambition, to explain big things and (with proper humility towards the complexity of the past and the inexplicable 'other') to embrace micro history. Micro histories are now fashionable and effectively support and circumvent several postmodern objections to traditional, larger scale historical analysis and explanation. They are often biographies based upon a cache of sources, marshalled to reveal their 'own' story and thereby minimise 'intrusions' by historians. Close to literature, micro histories attract readerships beyond the reaches of a hierarchically organised discipline; deliberately refuse to 'patronise' subjects by aggregating people's lives along with others for inclusion into a model or even to contextualise or position the 'dead other' as 'mere examples' within a narrative. Finally and as an agenda, (or programme), micro histories are postmodern in the sense that they promise to 'display' the past as difference, diversity and disconnected individual experience (40). Let flowers bloom!

To conclude: my rhetorical engagement with the postmodernists and literary theorists (published and reprinted by Routledge) has been emplotted here in the form of a review article but also as a presumptive 'representation' of how modern historians (that I happen to know) may react to depictions of their craft and to recommendations to mend their ways. Conversations and engagements across the borders of enclosed academic disciplines are never without intellectual value. Both viewpoints (one antagonistic and the other critical but helpful) for the endeavours of historians, have and will continue to prompt reflexion. Any unexamined discipline will decline and its practitioners will deserve to be relocated in departments of cultural studies.

Meanwhile, I propose bluntly to list the points that I have already elaborated upon in this encounter, before concluding that I anticipate the established epistemological foundations and practices of modern history will survive best firstly by rejecting the philosophical and historical premises of postmodernism (particularly the linguistic turn) by modifications to rhetoric of the 'truth claims' that some 'elders of the tribe' have rashly made for history; and secondly by adapting two or three major insights derivable from literary theory.

Encounters between intellectuals committed to producing historical knowledge and scepticism about its status (relabelled as postmodenism) go back centuries but in recent decades they have generated an unmanageable bibliography of statements, responses and rejoinders, which have now been neatly summarised and positioned in the form of several well designed textbooks and readers published by Routledge.

Historians will be pleased that their subject has been treated seriously and at length by postmodernists. Many share common political and cultural concerns with their eloquent antagonists and can only protest at being labelled as ideologically conservative or complacent. On three substantive issues, historians are likely, however, to maintain obdurate resistance to intellectual fashions that already look dated. First the entire and mildly patronising suggestion that the practices and claims as currently formulated for history are anachronistic in a postmodern world will be resented by a profession who are perhaps overly attached to exposing anachronisms of all kinds. Very few of us will be at all impressed with the rhetorical deployment of a meta narrative mislabelled as the 'Enlightenment Project' or the 'Episteme of Modernism' that mysteriously came to end in the twentieth century. Secondly, and for decades now, few historians have represented themselves as being in the business of producing 'Truth' about the 'Past' (or even the past). Conjectures, hypotheses, correlations, qualified suggestions, plausible interpretations or at best probalistic conclusions are the vocabularies they use, except at moments of elation and hyperbole. Thirdly, as working craftsmen and craftswomen, we simply cannot find time to engage seriously with the linguistic turns and spins that have entertained philosophers of language since Plato. That position might indeed be disparaged as 'self referential' because if nothing real or objective exists outside language, history should indeed collapse into fiction and playful semiotics (41).

Literary theory has and will continue to encourage historians to become more reflexive about the forms and rhetorics deployed to construct histories as texts. The dangers and temptations of using models derived from the social sciences have, if anything, been over-rehearsed by generations of historians now entering retirement, who have long considered narratives to be a more humane, subtle and more objective form for the representation of the past. Reminders that the discursive practices of the discipline, the predicted responses of readers, authorial voices and viewpoints, emplotment and the temptations to build something coherent and rhetorically persuasive and saleble into a book also enter surruptiously into the manufacture of narratives, are nothing but salutary. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, historians will insist that the evidential base supporting and shaping a narrative ensures its acceptance and survival as a provisional story about the past. They recognise (indeed embrace a greater concern with) the 'poetics of history' but believe that any triumphs of form over substance are brief and few and far between. Historical narratives do compete for hegemony. Acclaim for metaphor, rhetoric and fashionable styles of history is transitory because disciplines exist to sort out the wheat from chaff.

Of course, all of the above may be nothing more than the self-referential voice and viewpoint of an elderly, white, male historian, who has been lucky enough to occupy a comfortable niche in the hierarchy of an academic discipline. I hope not!

February 1999


1. Routledge now also publish a new journal edited by Alun Munslow and Robert Rosenstone, Rethinking History. The Journal of Theory and Practice, vol. 1, no. 1, (Spring 1997) which is 'postmodern' in its approach to History.

2. Keith Jenkins (ed.), The Postmodern History Reader (Routledge, London, 1997).

3. Joyce Appleby et al. (eds.), Knowledge and Postmodernism in Historical Perspective (Routledge, London, 1996).

4. Keith Jenkins, On What is History. From Carr and Elton to Rorty and White (Routledge, London, 1995) and Rethinking History (Routledge, London, 1991); Alan Munslow, Deconstructing History (Routledge, London, 1997).

5. Beverley Southgate, History: What and Why? (Routledge, London, 1996).

6. A point recognised by Alun Munslow (whose honesty in debate is rare and disarming) in his editorial statement for Rethinking History (a new journal published by Routledge).

7. If they do engage at this level, they will find Martin Bunzl, Real History: Reflections on Historical Practice (Routledge, London, 1997) really helpful.

8. Lynn Hunt (ed.), The New Cultural History (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1989).

9. Dominic LaCapra, History and Criticism (Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1985).

10. Sande Cohen, Academia and the Lustre of Capital (University of Minnesota Press, St Louis, 1993).

11. Jenkins, On What is History.

12. Both quotations cited in Jenkins, The Postmodern History Reader.

13. Ernest Gellner, Anthropology and Politics. Revolutions in the Sacred Groves (Blackwells, Oxford, 1995).

14. Jenkins, On What is History.

15. Bethan McCullagh, The Truth of History (Routledge, London, 1998) is particularly good on surveying, repositioning and redefining the 'truth' claims of modern historians in ways that will hopefully undercut postmodern misrepresentations.

16. Jenkins, On What is History and Munslow, Deconstructing History.

17. Jenkins, On What is History.

18. Southgate, History: What and Why?

19. Graeme Snooks has just written a cogent argument to rehabilitate the search for historical laws. Graeme Snooks, The Laws of History (Routledge, London, 1998).

20. Martin Bunzl's Real History, ch. 2, includes a thorough analysis of 'Historical Facts'.

21. A recent book by Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt and Margaret Jacob, Telling the Truth about History (Norton, New York, 1994) is particularly good on the connexions between the development of science and the writing of history.

22. Harry Collins, Changing Order: Replication and Induction in Scientific Practice (Sage, London, 1985).

23. Southgate, History: What and Why?

24. A. Sokal and Jean Bricmont, Intellectual Impostures (Profile Books, London, 1998).

25. Ernest Gellner, Postmodernism. Reason and Religion (Routledge, London, 1992).

26. Brian Palmer, Descent into Discourse (Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1990). The indispensable survey is Penelope Corfield (ed.), Language, History and Class (Blackwell, Oxford, 1991).

27. The basic idea has after all been discussed for a very long time. See Stuart Hampshire, Thought and Action (Chatto and Windus, London, 1959).

28. These ideas concerned with the power of knowledge organised in hierarchical disciplines is, of course, derived from Foucault, whose central ideas are extremely well analysed by Alun Munslow, Deconstructing History and by Martin Bunzl, Real History.

29. See Robert Fogel, 'Circumstantial Evidence in Scientific and Traditional History, in D. Carr et al. (eds.), Philosophy of History and Contemporary Historiography (University of Ottawa Press, Ottawa, 1982).

30. Although the term theory has become highly contested, see W. Righter, The Myth of Theory (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1994).

31. Clearly the bibliography in new literary theory is vast. But for the best exposition and mediation between literary theory and its application to history is Robert F. Berkhofer, Beyond the Great Story. History as Text and Discourse (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1995).

32. Donald Wood, On Paul Ricoeur. Narrative and Interpretation (Routledge, London, 1991).

33. Karen O'Brien, Narratives of Enlightenment from Voltaire to Gibbon (Cambridge University Press, 1997).

34. Philippe Carrard. The Poetics of the New History: French Historical Discourse from Braudel to Chartier (Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1992).

35. John S. Nelson et al. (eds.), The Rhetoric of the Human Sciences (University of Wisconsin Press, Maddison, 1987).

36. 'Exposed for economic history' by Donald McCloskey in The Rhetoric of Economics (University of Wisconsin Press, Maddison, 1985).

37. Patrick O'Brien, 'Reviews and Reviewing: A Manifesto for a New Electronic Journal, Reviews in History', (Institute of Historical Research, 1996).

38. Ann Righey, The Rhetoric of Historical Representation: Three Narrative Theories of the French Revolution (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1990).

39. For a convincing performance in the 'ring', see Richard Evans, In Defence of History (Granta Books, London, 1997).

40. Giovanni Levi, 'On Micro History', in Peter Burke (ed.), New Perspectives on Historical Writing (Polity Press, London, 1991).

41. If Hilary Putnam, Reality and Representation (Bradford Books, Cambridge, 1988) is correct, such an engagement would not resolve the problem one way or the other. We may as well proceed as if language was referential at least for the purposes of the range and quality of conversations that historians wish to pursue with their readers and one another.

March 2001

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