Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Review: In Defence of History by Richard Evans

 Although originally written fifteen years ago, Richard Evans' In Defence of History is still a book I would recommend to both students of history, and those simply curious about the possibility of historical knowledge. Evans, contrary to various postmodern thinkers hoping to cast doubt on the possibility of objectivity in history, argues that:

"...when Patrick Joyce tells us that social history is dead, and Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth declares that time is a fictional construct, and Roland Barthes announces that all the world's a test, and Hans Kellner wants historians to stop behaving as if we were researching into things that actually happened, and Diane Purkiss says that we should just tell stories without bothering whether or not they are true, and Frank Ankersmit swears that we can never know anything at all about the past so we might as well confine ourselves to studying other historians, and Keith Jenkins proclaims that all history is just naked ideology designed to get historians power and money in big university institutions run by the bourgeoisie, I will look humbly at the past and say despite them all: it really happened, and we really can, if we are very scrupulous and careful and self critical, found out how it happened and reach some tenable though always less than final conclusions about what it all meant." (pp.253) 

 Far from being an angry attack on postmodernists by some orthodox conservative elitist, the book grants many concessions to their criticisms. Rather than denying their validity outright, Evans shows that historians have long since been aware of many of their criticisms, however on most occasions the postmodernists have completely overstated their case. Although I think this book should be read by postmodernists, I suspect that (as acknowledged in the afterword section in the 2000 print) some will see it as an attack on only the more vulgar manifestations of postmodernism, rather than a theoretical treatise or an in depth debate with one specific and more sophisticated viewpoint. One criticism Evans makes can be summed up as "if nothing is objectively true, why should we accept the postmodernist argument as true?". I myself had to roll my eyes at this, which in my view is akin to asking a libertarian "who will build the roads?", or a communist "who will do all the difficult jobs?"

 In my view the real strength of the book lies in its evenhandedness. Despite coming from a (qualified) Marxist tradition himself, Evans has no remorse in taking E.H. Carr to task on the issue of the predictive capabilities of the "science" of history. Furthermore, Evans also brings up the poor scholarship of the now disgraced David Abraham, who in his The Collapse of the Weimar Republic, tried to argue that the Nazis rose to power at the hands of big business. Abraham was eventually accused of falsifying the facts to suit his thesis, and a damning example was his misquote of a German industrialist, in which he left out the crucial "not" in the original document thus completely misconstruing the actual meaning of the statement. (pp.116-124)
 This is not to say that Evans writes without any venom whatsoever. In the chapter Historians and their Facts, Evans mentions a critic of "documentary fetishism" H. Stuart Hughes, who has "of course a strong vested interest" in insisting that progress in the field of history comes not necessarily from the discovery of new material, but also from the re-reading of readily existing material. Evans remarks that Hughes would obviously argue this way given that "he has never discovered any new material himself in any of his publications, but has devoted his entire career to going over old grounds." (pp.84-85) It is unclear if Evans is deliberately trying to be insulting here or simply making an observation. If it is the former then it is ironic because as I have argued elsewhere: in his entire 3 volume history of the Third Reich, probably 99 percent of the sources referenced were secondary, in other words ground already covered by other historians.

 Evans often uses simple common sense to dispel the accusations railed by postmodernists and various "radicals". For instance, when the case is made that history is propaganda and that academia acts as the gatekeeper of the "dominant ideology", Evans simply points out that academia really doesn't have all that much of a sway over public opinion. This can be deduced from the fact that despite overwhelming acceptance among scientists, 46 percent of American's do not believe in the theory of evolution by natural selection, and less than 31 percent of the British public believe in climate change. Evans also mentions the classic The Making of the English Working Class by E.P. Thompson, a non academic historian, with a view against the grain in 1963 who was able to have an immense impact on the field, thus refuting the idea that academia is rigid in its convictions.

 All in all, the book is a fascinating read and provides basic defences against the more vulgarized postmodernist arguments, gives us an insight into the methods and strategies used by the author himself, and provides us with an entertaining history of, well... history!

Rating: 3.5 stars

1 comment:

  1. Sounds pretty interesting. Was this on of the books you already had on him?

    Love the 'immense impact on the field', can imagine you speaking those words.