The impact of postmodernism on the What is History Essay

This essay has a total of 3230 words and 16 pages.

The impact of postmodernism on the What is History? debate


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.

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.

Rene 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
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