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To explain the impacts of postmodernism, we have to understand the very composite nature of postmodernism, which is a relatively new all encompassing philosophy and one that reputedly lacks a historiography. The nature of the title question is very philosophical to which an equally philosophical answer could be given – why? However I am not so bold as to give that as the answer. I will therefore endeavour to simplify and qualify, what I consider are, related factors and, where applicable, their origins. Similarly, as the title requests, I will also tackle their relationship with the ‘what is history?’ debate (having first explained exactly what it is) to offer a conclusion as to the profundity of their impact.
The debate that continues through modern day historians on exactly ‘what is history?’ was instigated by the writings of Collingwood, Elton and Carr, during the 20th century. It appears a very multifaceted issue and seldom does a historian writing about the ongoing debate fully agree with any of his cohorts in any of the intellectual disciplines.
In the words of Oscar Wilde, ‘To write history we have to rewrite history’. Obviously, this always involves revision, which encompasses ‘our understanding of the past and our sense of the persistence of the past into the present.’ (1) Once again, it is a complex issue to address as each individual may offer a different perspective, on their view of past histories due to personal circumstance and ideology, which subsequently ‘emphasises the connections between different fields of human endeavour.’(2)
There is commonly a distinction between history and sociology in as much as history commonly refers to study of past events and human affairs, while sociology may be defined as ‘the study of human society, with an emphasis on generalisations about its structure and development.’(3) Rather than to get engaged in the parochial debate between how history and sociology differ, it is much easier to accept that they compliment each other. In fact there are a number of intellectual disciplines (including social anthropology, geography, politics and economics, to name but a few), which are all complimentary to the writing of history.
Clearly the more recent the event, the more likely we will have more evidence as contemporary sources whether they be oral accounts, manuscripts, diaries and so forth have had less time to withstand the destructive processes, experienced by many other similar sources, throughout the passage of time. However, this is not to dismiss findings from archaeological digs, as with the help from modern technology it is believed we can interpret quite accurately dates, scenes and lifestyles of societies from long past epochs.
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With regard to the impact of postmodernism on the history debate we need to understand the meanings of both modernism and postmodernism. The former is the philosophy that began with the enlightenment during the 17th and 18th centuries in which science and art flourished.
René Descartes (born in 1596) is perhaps the single most important philosopher of the European Enlightenment, the period in which philosophy emphasised reason and individualism rather than accepted tradition. Having studied under the Jesuits, who stressed the importance of the method of acquiring knowledge over everything else, Descartes developed a life-long obsession with how knowledge was acquired rather than the substance of knowledge itself. He deliberated over the basic principles of philosophy by asking the questions and reasoning with the answers to ‘How do we know things to be true and how do we distinguish the false from the true?’(4) Initially he stopped believing in everything but later realised that this was practically impossible and therefore set up a provision of rules to adhere to. Summarised by Hooker (1996), Descartes believed that ‘if you can't be sure that anything is true, then you should accept for the time being what the people around you believe, especially in the field of morals. Once you arrive at certainty, then you can reject what other people say is true, but until then, you need some system of knowledge and morality to live by.’(5)
In his bid to find a common truth he realised the most simple of notions; the fact that he possessed the ability to think proved that he existed. He is renowned for his quote, “Cogito, ergo sum” which translates as “I think, therefore I am.” Hooker (1996) suggests that ‘the importance of the cogito is that it privileges the individual over tradition (Descartes is explicitly rejecting tradition) and privileges the individual's perception of the truth over some objective truth or some commonly shared truth.’(6) This basically means that the individual’s subjective experience is the foundation of truth. However, the fact that only one viewpoint can generally be accepted poses many problems, as often there are no absolute truths.
The following traditional parable offers an example of the problems associated with the belief that an individual’s subjective experience may offer the foundation of truth:
An elephant was brought to a group of blind men who had never encountered such an animal before. One felt a leg and reported that an elephant is a great living pillar. Another felt the trunk and reported that an elephant is a great snake. Another felt a tusk and reported that an elephant is like a sharp ploughshare. And so on. And then they all quarrelled together, each claiming that his account was the truth and therefore all the others false.
(Cited from Kierkegaard, 1995)
Although the accounts offered by each of the blind men are viewpoints, they cannot be considered as absolute truths nor can they be dismissed as false. Kierkegaard (1995), suggests that an absolute truth, or one that is true for all, ‘cannot be achieved because of the constant motion of circumstances of who said it, to whom, when, where, why, and how it was said.’(7) However, it is generally recognised that if the blind men had accepted the different truths and every perception of the elephant had been taken into consideration, then quite obviously opinions may have changed and adapted.
The post-modernist belief accepts that there is no governing absolute truth when trying to define or interpret reality and morality. What Bentley (1999) described as, ‘the shortest known definition of postmodernist assumption,’(8) was offered by Lyotard as a ‘disbelief in meta narratives’ of western culture, in his book entitled, The Post Modern Condition, in 1984. Lyotard argues that one of the difficulties associated with meta narratives is that only one perspective is offered - even when it may make sense to view a situation from a number of different angles. This basically means that our traditional methods of knowledge and practice through means of religion (Christianity), science, democracy or communism and progress, no longer exist in an unquestioning realm.
Evidently one could argue that from the ‘what is history?’ question rises a very contentious debate, not only due to the complexity of history per se but also due to the perspective and interpretation of the individual who is addressing the question. For simplicity, an answer to what history is could be obtained from the Concise Oxford Dictionary, one that reads; ‘the total accumulation of past events especially relating to human affairs or to the accumulation of developments connected to a particular nation, person, thing etc.’(9) However, for the purpose of this essay I will now address the various ways in which history has been addressed and interpreted.
The apparent condemnation, by Lyotard, of ‘authorised versions’ of history potentially undermines (even) the works undertaken by the 19th century historian Leopold von Ranke, who was famous for his political "world history," as he endeavoured to show it "how it really was.” This claim to write down what actually happened ‘fell victim to what anthropologists have recently termed the ‘myth of realism,’ in our so-called post-modern era.’ (10) In essence, this refers to the determined boundaries between fact and fiction, established by historians to date, being eroded by postmodernists.
The scientific method of writing history, presented by Ranke, continued throughout the 19th century. The political adaptations of history favoured by other such historians of the period, were described by Butterworth as predominantly ‘Protestant, progressive and Whig,’ as he considered that they praised revolutions providing that they had been successful which invariably produced ‘a story of which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present.’(11) As a religious outsider, in as much, as he was a Methodist, he was also a Cambridge don of history. He wrote a book entitled ‘The Whig interpretation of history’ (in 1931) which also popularised the term. Once again, he strongly believed that ‘Whig history studied the past with reference to the present’ and argued that historians should ‘study the past for its own sake instead of using it to justify the present.’ (12)
It could be argued that even though we have distanced ourselves from such ‘traditional’ methods of learning and our subsequent understanding or accepting attitudes, associated with the 18th and early 19th centuries (discussed earlier on page 4), they were the basis from which we have progressed. As early as 1907, Lord Acton (professor of Modern history at Cambridge) accepted that ‘Ultimate history we cannot have in this generation; but we can dispose of conventional history, and show the point we have reached on the road from one to another, now that all information is within reach, and every problem has become capable of solution.’(13) Basically, it appears that historians like Acton believed that they had compiled the corpus of material required in a bid for future generations to discover the truth.
Having briefly mentioned in passing objectivity and subjectivity with regard to Descartes’ philosophy, it would be fair to offer a basic denotation of their individual meanings. Elton and Carr basically shared the belief that history amounts to the search for truth. However they established a division of two principle theories on ‘what is history?’ in their respective objective and subjective approaches.
It is commonly a shared belief among historians that reputable historians recognise ‘the need for a sense of objectivity and impartiality,’(14) and condemn those who fail to adhere to the critical standards and methods used (perhaps the lack of diversity of sources or the usage of completely biased accounts). Elton sought to achieve an approximation of truth and appreciated that just as future adjustments were to be expected it remained an objective fact. The assimilation between Von Ranke and Elton is evident in the traditional albeit scientific and objective approach to recording history. Both shared the belief that a truthful account of historical events could be recorded having collected all the facts.
Nevertheless, although the historian seeks impartiality when writing a narrative, Walsh (1967) considers that the ‘value judgement,’ commonly referred to as a ‘moral perspective upon some form of past or present action, custom or society,’ (15) cannot realistically be omitted. Carr explains this with simple eloquence… ‘We can only view the past, and achieve our understanding of the past, only through the eyes of the present. The historian is of his own age and is bound to it by the conditions of human existence.’(16) Therefore it is with some scepticism that Carr would view the validity of historical interpretations by historical writers.
Carr does not accept the logic behind an absolute truth and argues that ‘since the facts of history… are always refracted through the mind of the recorder, when we take up a work of history, our first concern should not be with the facts it contains, but with the historian who wrote it.’ (17) Suffice to say; in as much as Elton believed that the objective truth could be discovered from a perhaps infinite array of resources, Carr believed that there was no, nor could ever be, external or objective truth due to the subjectivity or prejudices of the author. His relativist theory therefore nullifies Elton’s empiricism as flawed and impossible as history written in such a manner is essentially based on observation. Conversely, he reasoned that a historian without facts is ‘rootless and futile’, while the facts without their historian are ‘dead and meaningless’. What appears to be contradictive to his belief and probably due to the fact that he was first and foremost a historian, he did accept that history is ‘a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past.’(18)
Collingwood involved himself in the philosophy of history, an interest which was described by Carr as ‘being concerned neither with the past by itself nor with the historians thought about it by itself, but with the two things in their mutual relations.’(19) This maxim refers to the two adjective meanings of the word history: the enquiries undertaken by historians and the respective series of past events being studied. He believed that ‘the act of thinking is not only subjective but objective as well.’(20) It could be considered definitive considering, his book entitled, ‘The idea of history,’ (a compilation of his work) was published in 1945 – 16 years before that of Carr and 22 years before that of Elton.
Collingwood shared the same principles as Lord Acton, in as much that he believed the historian should pose his own questions and draw answers and format conclusions based on factual evidence from the available sources. However it could also be argued that he questioned the reliability and validity of historiographies as they stored their own hidden agendas. Callinicos suggests that ‘the historian, by placing ones own questions rather than taking them ready made from the sources, displaces the attempt to reduce historiography into narrative;’ (21) a conviction which he associates with Collingwood’s theory.
The ongoing argument about what is history appears to lead us nicely into the realms of postmodernism, which reveals that there is nothing, which can be explained in only one way.
Postmodernism does not purely exist within the realms of historical debate. In his palpable claim that it is not a theory that one can argue in favour of or against, Jenkins argues that we are living in a state of postmodernism, which may encompass anything from the décor of a room through to ‘communal and economical shifts’ of entire societies.
Initially it might appear that Carr would gain more credence from ‘new age’ philosophers (from the mid to late 20th Century and beyond) as he, like others involved in similar intellectual disciplines, is essentially breaking with the accepted traditional concepts of his respective field of practice. However on closer inspection this is not necessarily the case.
Throughout the last two hundred years there has been a movement from one kind of reflection on history to another; just as European society may have used the enlightenment to move away from the church, Western society has now distanced itself from the scientific history synonymous with the 19th century, through a culmination of education, modern technology and travel; all of which have led to progression. The post-modern era allows us to view situations and histories from different aspects, as resources alone are much more readily available; although this should not be seen as the only reason. Without going into detail about the contributions of social sciences to postmodernist debate, it is evident that they have played an intrinsic part.
Within the last forty or so years the efforts of postmodernists, like Hayden White, to deny the existence of a past, independent of their representations of it has given reason to believe that postmodernist historians choose to dismiss the theories of Collingwood, Carr and Elton entirely. According to Bentley (1999), it is the assumption of postmodernists that knowledge is ultimately unobtainable and consequently the ‘postmodernist’ debate detracts from the historical enquiry, as it seems more interested to make claims about ‘truth’.
Writers and novelists linked with the post-modern era have found an area (perhaps a money making niche in the marketplace) in which they can embellish their talents. The writers of non-fiction novels and films offer their interpretation of past events, which provide yet another ‘alternative’ past. A prime example of this could be the blockbuster film ‘Titanic’ which was, by and large, based on true ‘facts,’ about the ship at least.
The rhetoric of postmodernism basically allows different reasons and ideas to determine the truth. On the whole scheme of things, not only does it accept the conflicts but it also recognises the impossibility of seeing things from one perspective. Therefore in today’s post-modern world, it would be fair to conclude that ‘truth’ is an opinion, which is flexible to change. Yet the debate rages on…
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(1) Maynes (1982), Making Histories Studies in History Writing and Politics, p4 University of Minnesota Press
(2) Burke. P. (1992), History & Social Theory, pviii Polity Press
(3) Burke. P. (1992), History & Social Theory, p2 Polity Press
(4) Hooker. R. (1996), www.wsu.edu/~dee/ENLIGHT/DESCARTE.HTM
(5) Hooker. R. (1996), www.wsu.edu/~dee/ENLIGHT/DESCARTE.HTM
(6) Hooker. R. (1996), www.wsu.edu/~dee/ENLIGHT/DESCARTE.HTM
(7) Kierkegaard. S. (1995), An Introduction to Philosophy, p74 Harcourt Brace & Company
(8) Bentley. M. (1999) Modern Historiography: An Introduction, p142 Routledge
(9) The Concise Oxford Dictionary New Edition, p559 BCA 1990
(10) Burke. P. (1992), History & Social Theory, p127 Polity Press
(11) Vincent. J . (1995), An Intelligent Person’s Guide to History, p59 Gerald Duckworth & Co
(12) Vincent. J . (1995), An Intelligent Person’s Guide to History, p59 Gerald Duckworth & Co
(13) Cited from Carr. E.H. (1961), What is History? P7 Penguin Books
(14) Walsh. W.H. (1967), An Introduction to Philosophy of History, p21 Hutchinson of London
(15) Abbott. M. (1996), History skills, p116 Routledge
(16) Carr. E.H. (1990), What is history? 2nd edition p22 Harmondsworth
(17) Carr. E.H. (1990), What is history? 2nd edition, p22 Harmondsworth
(18) Carr. E.H. (1961), What is History? p30 Penguin Books
(19) Carr. E.H. (1961), What is History? p21 Penguin Books
(20) Collingwood. R.G. (1945) The Idea of History Oxford University Press
(21) Callinicos. A (1988), Theories & Narratives: Reflections on the Philosophy of History, p77 Polity Press