Laid Down by Ranke
- In Defence of History by Richard J. Evans
Granta, 320 pp, £8.99, October 1998, ISBN 1 86207 068 7
Richard Evans hopes that this book will take the place of E.H. Carr’s What is History? and G.R. Elton’s The Practice of History as the ‘basic introduction’ to history as taught in the universities. Evans is a self-declared ‘Rankean’ empiricist, committed to Ranke’s view that facts and documents ‘speak for themselves’. He believes that the proper method for historians today is the same as it has always been, at least since the 19th century, when the rules of historical practice were ‘laid down by Ranke’ and the discipline was established ‘on a professional or scientific basis’. These rules hinge on source criticism and the proposition that the assertions of historical writing are verifiable. ‘History is an empirical discipline,’ Evans argues; the history we write ‘certainly will not be objective, but is nevertheless true’; we ‘really can find out’ how the past happened, although our conclusions will always be ‘less than final’. Such ‘good rules’, according to Evans, ‘transcend scholarly communities and do not therefore depend on their acceptance by them’. But is it possible in the Nineties for a Rankean empiricist to supply an adequate account of history as a scholarly discipline?
Vol. 20 No. 21 · 29 October 1998
Writing in peevish opposition to what appears in his account to be the jejune empiricism of Richard Evans (LRB, 15 October), Peter Ghosh has some questionable claims to make about ‘the modern historian’s preoccupation with “discourses”’: specifically, the claim that this ‘is not a preoccupation with the nature of language per se’ – well, thank Heaven for that, since thus preoccupied, historians would be mighty slow in getting round to doing any history – but ‘with concepts, with organising sets of ideas at work in history which are distinguishable by their leading terms’. According to Ghosh, this preoccupation directs the attention of historians away from, among other things, ‘documentary fetishism’. I don’t see why this need be so, however. As Foucault surely showed, a preoccupation with ‘discourses’ can be – should be? – a preoccupation with historical documents, with the primary sources, and not immediately with the manner in which those sources have previously been interpreted. A fetishising of discourse can but sit very easily with a fetishising of documents, which is why Foucault once referred to himself as a ‘contented positivist’. The whole thrust of Foucauldianism is to make more apparent the discursive, i.e. the interpretable, nature of historical documents, instead of allowing them to masquerade as transcendental repositories of historical facts.
Readers who enjoyed Peter Ghosh’s elegant dismantling of Richard Evans’s case for Rankean empiricism (LRB, 15 October) may wish to go on to read Quentin Skinner’s essay on Geoffrey Elton’s defence of history (Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Sixth Series, Volume VII, 1997), which it complements admirably.
University of Sussex
Vol. 20 No. 23 · 26 November 1998
In his review of my book In Defence of History (LRB, 15 October) Peter Ghosh claims that I am engaged in a ‘polemic against history since 1960’, that my book defends an ‘exaggerated empiricism’ based on the ‘fetishising of documents’, that I believe that facts and documents ‘speak for themselves’. In Defence of History argues on the contrary that history has undergone a welcome renaissance since the Sixties. It defends at length the broadening of the discipline against conservative historians who would like to see it return to its old concentration on the politics of the nation-state.
The book argues that facts and documents do not speak for themselves but speak only when they are spoken to by the historian. Historians need to use, indeed cannot avoid using, theories and concepts developed in their own time. Ghosh himself denies this, takes the historicist view that ‘theory comes from within history’ and excoriates the historian’s use of theories derived from other disciplines. This is sheer obscurantism. Most advances in modern historical scholarship have taken place as a result of theories borrowed from elsewhere, whether philology, economics, sociology, anthropology or linguistics.
Ghosh claims that my portrait of the history of ideas as the continual reinterpretation of a limited number of classic texts ‘bears no relation to the modern discipline of the history of ideas’. He goes on to note, however, that the ‘old version’ which I describe ‘actually resembles Post-Modernism in the style of Hayden White or Ankersmit’. But this is precisely the point made in my book. White and all his numerous disciples and followers argue that all texts are capable of infinite reinterpretation, and it is this idea (among others) which my book is trying to argue against.
Ghosh seems to believe that any kind of aesthetic impulse which goes into the structuring of a work of history is evidence of that work’s conceptual vacuity. He refers to my book Death in Hamburg as an example. If he had actually read the book, he would have discovered that it is structured by a set of Marxist concepts. The conceptual and aesthetic aspects of writing a history book are not mutually exclusive; if they were, all history books would be unreadable.
Ghosh’s grotesque misreading of In Defence of History culminates in the claim that it construes Post-Modernism exclusively as the denial of the possibility of truth and objectivity. If he had read my book with any care, he would have discovered that it distinguishes between extreme Post-Modernist versions of hyper-relativism, which it argues against, and moderate versions of Post-Modernism, which it defends. He asserts that there was ‘no conscious tradition of Modernism’ in history against which to react, so there can by implication be no such thing as Post-Modernism. If we stuck to such a view, we would never be able to use concepts about people in the past which they did not use themselves. This would make the historian’s job impossible.
Something important has happened to history in the last twenty years: the great overarching narratives have collapsed, the story of history as progress has been abandoned, innovation has come above all from historians writing about the marginal, the bizarre, the individual, the small-scale. It seems quite reasonable to call these now-defunct narratives Modernist, as indeed many Post-Modernist writers on history do; and equally reasonable to call the new development Post-Modernist.
Gonville and Caius College Cambridge
Vol. 21 No. 1 · 7 January 1999
Among the many uncertainties of life, Richard Evans’s intellectual energy and inexhaustible appetite for pugilism stand out like friendly beacons, but I shall not undertake to unpick all of the confusion and backsliding in his complaints about my review of In Defence of History (Letters, 26 November 1998). I make one general point. My review hinged on two propositions: first, that to understand the nature and conditions of historical study we have to proceed historically, rather than by the invocation of various forms of ahistorical quackery, such as the ahistorical ‘Rankeanism’ purveyed by Evans, or the equally ahistorical procedures of writers such as Hayden White and Frank Ankersmit. Second, that these two apparently opposite forms of thought in fact grew up together in the Sixties and depend on each other today: they have a history of their own, independent of and precedent to the vacuous ‘Post-Modern’ label. If we accept the first proposition, it follows that a proper understanding of how and why we write history is primarily a historiographical endeavour, and as such a subset of the history of ideas.
Anyone interested in establishing whether Evans is competent to pursue an inquiry in this area would do well to consider again the following pronouncement from his book, which I drew attention to in my review. Intellectual historians, Evans writes,
use sources in a different way from most historians: as interpretative vehicles for ideas, not as clues to an exterior reality. Moreover, they work with a very limited number of classic texts, written by a handful of authors, or in other words, in a field where new documentary discoveries have inevitably become extremely rare. Reinterpretation is therefore almost the only option available to them.
The extraordinary incomprehension displayed in this statement makes plain why Evans supposes that the modern history of ideas, as practised by Quentin Skinner and Gareth Stedman Jones, for example, and ‘Post-Modernism’ of the White and Ankersmit variety are essentially one and the same.
Too much significance need not be read into such folly. Perhaps it is just another instance of ‘the marginal, the bizarre, the individual, [and] the small-scale’ of which Evans is lately so enthusiastic a proponent.
St Anne’s College, Oxford
Vol. 21 No. 2 · 21 January 1999
It is beginning to seem unprofitable to correct Peter Ghosh’s persistent misunder standing and misrepresentation of my book In Defence of History (Letters, 7 January). Let me just say that nowhere have I claimed that the version of the history of ideas practised by my colleague Quentin Skinner bears any resemblance to that practised by Hayden White. The ‘modern history of ideas’ does not consist of a single approach or method, as Ghosh so dogmatically asserts. Some Post-Modernists have insisted that it is no part of a historian’s job to recover the meaning of a text intended by an author. They have dismissed the idea that it is possible to do this by reconstructing the contemporary linguistic context of such texts; this too, they say, is an act of interpretation on the part of the historian. Ghosh obviously has no more understanding of this point than he has of my book.
I have never claimed to be a ‘Rankean’, though I would certainly defend Ranke’s method, as far as it goes, against the absurd accusation levelled at it by Ghosh that it is a form of ‘ahistorical quackery’ invented in the Sixties.
Finally, if Ghosh thinks my view that historians of ideas spend most of their time studying a small number of classic texts is outdated, then why is he currently engaged on a new edition and translation of Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic?
Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge