Laid Down by Ranke

Peter Ghosh

  • 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?

Evans is worried about ‘Post-Modernism’ in history, a term he never defines but which he implicitly construes as the questioning of the existence of objective facts, the denial of the possibility of truth and the ascendancy of literary theory. As a historian, he would do better to consider the concept of Post-Modernism historically, however. When Michel Foucault was asked about his relation to Post-Modernity in 1983, near the end of his life, he replied: ‘I’ve never clearly understood what was meant in France by the term “modernity” ... But neither do I grasp the kind of problems intended by this term ... While I see clearly that behind what was known as structuralism, there was a certain problem ... I do not understand what kind of problem is common to the people we call Post-Modern or Post-Structuralist’ This was, at least, a carefully stated uncertainty. One of the two original formulations of the term ‘Post-Modern’ was in a speech made by Jürgen Habermas in 1980, published in English under the heading ‘Modernity v. Post-Modernity’. Having displayed a distinctively German preoccupation with ‘modernisation’ in the Sixties and Seventies, he sought to impose the Post-Modern label on a wide range of writers who, in his view, had wrongly abandoned their faith in the Modernist project. A Post-Modernist was a reactionary, and was often French. The troublesome nature of the term was compounded by Jean-François Lyotard’s near-simultaneous usage (and definition) in 1979-82 from within the French intellectual tradition, and as a critic of Habermas. It briefly acquired an ascertainable meaning in architectural style; but very rapidly ‘Post-Modern’ became as malleable and as protean a term as ‘Modern’.

What has this got to do with the contemporary practice of history? Nothing whatever – hence its significance. Not only were the historical origins of Post-Modernism alien to historical practice or reflection, but there was no conscious tradition of Modernism within historical writing to react against, as there was in the arts and literature. That Post-Modernism in the historical sphere is a sphinx without a riddle is clear enough from the bizarre composite Evans serves up in its name – literary critics, old Marxists, Holocaust-deniers, ‘narrativist’ and ‘topological’ philosophers, as well as his own commercial rivals. Some greatest hits from recent historical writing are converted into Post-Modernists – Simon Schama, Robert Darnton, Natalie Zemon Davis and Orlando Figes. But Evans never cites an instance of these authors even borrowing the Post-Modernist label, let alone one showing that they conceive of themselves as working on behalf of an intellectual cause known as Post-Modernism (this despite his concern for empirical verification).

‘History’ in its modern form – an essentially critical or reflexive activity – was a product of the Enlightenment. Until then – all the way from Thucydides to Clarendon – it was the record of contemporary or near-contemporary events, commonly written by those who had taken part in or were vitally connected to them. By contrast, the Enlightenment made history a process of reflection on the entire past conducted by people whose minimum technical qualification lay in their ability to construe remote historical evidence. As Hegel noted, the two hitherto inseparable meanings of ‘history’ – as story or record, and as the significant events which were to be recorded – became separated for the first time.

The epistemological problems of handling remote historical records are not new. They became an issue at precisely the moment history turned to the handling of remote historical records. If by ‘Post-Modernist’ we mean someone who entertains a radical scepticism about the worth of such records, and thus about the worth of history itself, then the first Post-Modernists were the Pyrrhonists of the 1720s, who expressed precisely these doubts. The Enlightenment historians, for their part, mounted a defence of history which, it would seem, has hardly been advanced on today. Mostly, though, they simply wrote history – good practice has always been a powerful theoretical argument. In addition, they subjected disputed evidence to sophisticated source criticism (for which, of course, they had precedents all the way back to the Renaissance humanists). As clearly as any historian today, they understood that historical ‘truth’ – what Gibbon called ‘the first virtue of more serious history’ – is grounded not in the mere techniques of scholarship but in the moral commitment of the historian and the reader to finding out what happened. The historiographical lessons of Hitler and Stalin, or of a society’s desire to suppress a part of its past, are not primarily evidential, as Evans would have it, but moral and cultural.

Evans’s belief that the nature of the historian’s predicament is best described in narrowly epistemological terms is a product of the ‘anti-ideological’ empiricism generated in Britain and America by the double shock of Nazism and Soviet Communism. History is a critical, reflexive act performed out of curiosity on an infinite field: the curiosity that motivates it can’t be curtailed – except, of course, by the withdrawal of its necessary social and material foundations. (Theoretical literature tends not to concern itself with such mundanities, but here is the point at which history most needs defending: Tony Blair’s airy, but essentially Thatcherite dismissal of ‘Old Britain’, and the Government’s perpetuation of a higher education funding system whereby, in the most literal sense, British history will not be able to reproduce itself in the future, are far more threatening than the ‘infinite play of significations’.) Instead of thinking in terms of history as an activity, the positivist empiricist thinks primarily of the documents: can we reach some measure of truth inhering in the documents without reference to the inquirer? The answer is ‘no’.

What the fetishising of documents ignores is precisely the activity of the historian, which aims to deliver an intelligent message to his contemporaries as the fruit of his curiosity. Evans tells us that the structure of his Death in Hamburg (1987) was governed by aesthetic rather than conceptual imperatives. In other words, his own work is itself evidence of the intellectual vacuum created by the exaggerated empiricism that reached its height in England and America in the Fifties and early Sixties – a vacuum which sucked in a number of alien imports. In a world where there was no story to tell, other than the risible one of letting the documents or artifacts ‘speak for themselves’, any alternative was preferable, if it offered a means of structuring historical material intelligently. Hence the emergence, however surprising, of an English Marxist history; of the Anglo-American rage for the Annales School; and finally of US-centred literary theory. ‘Tropologists’ such as Hayden White and, latterly, Frank Ankersmit made their own attempt to fill the vacuum by suggesting that, since there was apparently no other structural principle to hand, the kernel of historical writing must be found in its exemplification of deep, ahistorical literary forms – which is a kind of annihilation for the historian.

Post-Structuralist dissolution of the text and the author has also been viewed as a form of escape from the poverty of historical empiricism, but it was too obviously extraneous to historical practice to represent a plausible challenge. Its applications to the study of history have been essentially local and detailed – a way of reading texts, a rogue arrow in the hermeneutic quiver. The reactions against history which really confront us are the fruits of our own, indigenous Rankeanism – the various strains of historical thought grouped under the Post-Modernist label are primarily Anglo-American, despite the Franco-German provenance of the term. Anglo-American historians often berate the French (in particular) for the persistence of their essentially ideological politics long after World War Two and the Cold War ought (in our estimation) to have settled its hash, but it is as well to be aware that our own colourless tradition came with a price tag of its own.

Serious historical thought is conceptual. It is about the intelligent structuring of material – this is what historians actively do, or aspire to do. The assembling and technical criticism of sources is a necessary prerequisite, but intellectually it remains a secondary consideration. Although Evans seems not to be aware of it, a series of discrete but related intellectual developments have all contributed to dissolving the empiricist vacuum of the Fifties and Sixties. These include the formulation of a consciously historicist version of the history of ideas, particularly at Cambridge, where Evans is now a professor; the rise of the serious study of historiography; and the set of changes which Martin Jay has called ‘the linguistic turn’ in historical method – the shift not simply towards a greater preoccupation with language, but also towards ‘literature’ (in its broadest sense), and so towards culture.

The ‘linguistic turn’ was not simply an intellectual or theoretical phenomenon. It has to be seen in its social context – the broadening and fragmentation, in the thirty-odd years since the mid-Sixties, of history as a discipline. History is no longer a study primarily focused on national politics (such as was created in the late 19th century, as a presentably scientific subject of study for burgeoning national university systems). Now it has largely shifted back to the Enlightenment programme – that is, to the investigation of the entire past, in all areas and by all imaginable means. This shift involves a growing concern with, and return to, the role of concepts, as used by historians, and as a subject for historians to study. This is evident in the increased interest in the history of ideas, of historiography and of literature. The ‘linguistic turn’ has been appropriated by theorists, but it has also had a fertilising effect on real historical practice. The modern historian’s preoccupation with ‘discourses’ is not a preoccupation with the nature of language per se (regardless of what individual theorists of language may originally have intended), but, again, with concepts – with organising sets of ideas at work in history which are distinguishable by their leading terms. Discourses direct the attention of historians to what ‘history’ (reuniting both senses of the term) is immediately about, and away from both documentary fetishism and the ahistorical theory or ‘philosophy of history’.

The rise of historiography as a sub-branch of the history of ideas has been equally important. Empiricists and philosophers of history lack adequate knowledge of the history of history as a collective body of enquiry or as an institutional discipline – and therefore of attitudes to the history of societies as a whole. We should not be confused by the fact that writers such as Ankersmit and White claim to practise ‘historiography’: for them, as for Evans, a few canonical references to Ranke and Meinecke, to Popper and Collingwood, are all that is considered necessary before discussion moves on to the polemic against history since 1960.

In his eagerness to dismiss Post-Modernism, Evans has passed over these changes. Intellectual historians, he 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.

Evans’s portrait bears no relation to the modern discipline of the history of ideas. The old version he describes actually resembles Post-Modernism in the style of Hayden White or Ankersmit: the ‘Great Texts’ theory of the history of ideas where, as with the now defunct canons of literature or political theory, an extremely limited number of historical texts reside in a vacuum.

Historians should put an end to the tendency, still prevalent today, to hold historical reflection and practice apart – there should be no talk about ‘history and theory’. Theory comes from within history and from within the historian. It is commonly said that practising historians are a bovine lot, immune to theory, but the reverse is true. Practising historians only get into trouble once they embrace ‘theory’ in its ahistorical forms. As for intellectual immunity, nothing could exceed, in Comte’s phrase, the ‘cerebral hygiene’ of theorists who have simply closed their minds to the relevant materials for reflection.