In the 1980s history found its very existence under assault. The birth of post-modernist theory, most popularised by E.H Carr’s famous text ‘What is History?’, marked a turning point in historical thought which led many historians to question the base nature of their practice. The argument against history followed through three main points:
1) History is not empirical and cannot be practised through scientific method. Thus it is not reliable.
2) History is not objective and is always influenced by its author and its context. Thus it cannot be trusted.
3) History is too complex be wholly explained through written or spoken language. Thus any attempt to write history will produce a work too incomplete to be legitimate.
Most historians would accept that these criticisms, if not true, are at least understandable. Personally I consider myself to follow post-modernist thought in many ways and its impact is clear from the uproar it has caused in the historical community. Some have even been proclaiming the ‘end to history’, that this means there is no purpose or utility to the profession.
Frankly, this is an absurd notion, and one that is thankfully being put to rest. However, the way in which history is being defended from these attacks raises new issues. The response seems to have been very much an offensive one, seeking to discredit the accusations against the profession and legitimising the historical practice. The problem with this is that it also legitimises empiricism in history; it comes over as a defence of pre-post-modernism as supposed to a defence of history in a post-modernist light.
History does not need to return to 19th century practises to be viable. In fact, history does not need to do anything to be viable, except simply continue to be practiced. No amount of post-modernist critique or post-post-modernist rebuttals will spell an ‘end to history’. Why? I have three points of my own to make here:
1) Firstly, and rather obviously, let us remember that it is OK to do something without justification. If you are interested in history you need no excuse to research it. If somebody paints a landscape you dont ask them to explain why. As is pointed out by the post-modernists, history is not a science, and thus it enjoys the privilages of not being so, one of which being there no neccessity for immediate practical implication.
2) Secondly, it is crucial to note that although this debate may seem large in the historical sphere, it is barely heard of outside of university grounds. The attackers and defenders of history in this debate are (almost) all historians themselves and continue to practice as historians. Nobody who has predicted the ‘end of history’ has then promptly fired themselves. This is an internal debate which, if anything, has bolstered history. It is a sign of an active profession which is prepared to debate over its own existence in order to keep the school interesting and relevant.
3) Finally, history is history. Even post-modernists do not argue that there is no history, just that we can’t capture it in full. If history exists, people will seek to gain inspiration from it. Governments and organisations will wish to control it, people will want to record it, and humanity will seek to learn from it.
Author / Publisher: Louis Lorenzo
First Published: 14th of May 2017
Last Modified: 22nd of May 2018 (Grammar Corrections)