Gavtmcc on historiography...

I wanted to respond to gavtmcc’s post here but it seems i am not elite enough to do so. I hope it is okay if i address some of it here instead.

Aside from the idea of a “post-modern cause” being a baffling one, this is not an accurate rendering of so-called postmodern critiques of historiography. Hayden White’s concerns, for example, were epistemological - not lingusitic. As Keith Jenkins told me recently, “postmodern” objections have been to the empiricism of historians, with linguistic arguments playing a lesser role. The anti-representationalism of the latter and other contemporary historiographers still emphasises the epistemological problems as most significant, as this nice overview demonstrates (including a look at how well Carr reads his opponents). (This link also includes some of Evans’ replies to his critics, which is strongly suggestive of gavtmcc not giving my criticisms careful consideration when he invites me to read these same responses - see below.) How you can hold a discussion of historiography without mentioning the huge influence of White remains beyond this humble commentator.

Instead, so-called postmodernists are aware of Eco’s objections and his arguing for the “limits of interpretation”, such that a text limits the scope of meaningful readings just as the traces of the past limit possible histories in spite of the under-determination of the wie es eigentlich gewesen. For the benefit of the uninitiated, i explained Eco’s thinking at the close of this introduction to postmodernism (which, incidentally, corrects the rather uncharitable reading we are discussing).

I’m afraid i do not yet understand why sweeping assertions like this are the province of a restricted forum. I encourage interested lurkers to review my previous link and see if there is any reason to accept this.

What is the “post-modern” agenda? Your use of the hyphen renders your claim empty, of course (see the link, again), but the more important point is that so-called postmodern historiographers do not have a problem with meaning at all: their complaint is that the epistemological limitations unavoidably placed on historians render their histories situated narratives, never more. Rather than address these difficulties (i.e. the theory-ladenness of traces of the past or the underdetermination of histories by said traces), some critics - like Evans, unfortunately - have adopted rhetorical strategies instead. Sadly this appears to be your contribution, too, compounded by a simplistic straw man of a “postmodernism” that is anything but a unified body of doctrine (see the link, once more).

This (“kill”) is just the kind of attempt to control the rhetorical space that i was referring to above. Aside from being an unsupported assertion, it is also false: historiographers like Jenkins derive meaning from texts but insist that their interpretations are situated and under-determined. History, they say, is like literature - not an empirical discipline.

It is hard to understand what benefit can accrue from constructing a mockery of contemporary historiography and then assaulting it. Concerns over the objectivity of historical accounts arise from the epistemological problems but interpretations are always limited by the traces of the past. This is much the same as the problem of strong (and weak) under-determination in the philosophy of science, with the important difference that historians do not have experiment to function as a brake on their readings. The traces they have are theory-laden, hence the claim that no kind of objectivity can result.

This attempted reductio should perhaps be answered by asking why anyone should take your objections seriously if you do not intend to fairly characterise the ideas you wish to critique. The question is: why is one history more valid than another? The historian may appeal to the traces of the past he or she has available but possible histories are under-determined by these. He or she may grant greater to weight to some than others, but they have to deal with the issue of said traces being theory-laden (“twice”, as it were - once by the historian in selecting them and previously by the author in recording wie es eigentlich gewesen). Perhaps these difficulties can be addressed, but i doubt such a resolution will come via straw men.

(I hope it is okay for me to suggest reading to those interested but not quite following me. I discussed some of the problems in historiography today at the introductory level here. If it is poor form to link to my own work elsewhere then i invite a moderator to edit them out.)

(Edited broken links…)

excellent post… I raised the objection myself of which history to record as presented in eco’s “name of the rose”…

unfortunately, the post was lost when the heavily moderated section was reshuffled…


Not objectionable objections. Looking forward to gav’s response. :slight_smile:

The first thing I would like to say, Hugo, is ‘thank you’ for giving my post such thorough scrutiny. Your comments are incisive and helpful.

There are aspects of my post which you have attacked which I intend to defend in what follows. Other aspects I’m happy to concede over. First off, though, I feel I should draw youor attention to a number of things.

i) The paper was written (intentionally) in the style of a Times Literary supplement review. More importantly, what I’ve written is actually the first part of a review of a book.

I did say this originally but it appears you overlooked this to some extent or at least weren’t duely sympathetic to it. Writing, as I was, for a popular audience, requires over-simplification to some extent (which you detect). This is as much a flaw of the mode of transmission as it is of my own. Thus, I should emphasise it strongly.

ii) I have only recently begun to familiarise myself with historiographical debates of the present, and have only (thus far) managed to read Tosh and Carr. Evans, Hopkins et al. were out of the scope of my task (given my lack of familiarity with them and the nature of the beast I had to confront: ie. TLS article). I am doing my best to remedy the situation but am busy with other projects too!

iii) You should also be sympathetic to the fact that the post is in fact the transcript of a speech as well as a review. It needed to read provocatively and I was deliberately distancing myself from some of the intricacies of scholarly debate in a bid to retain audience attention and promote post-mortem discussions.

These admissions made, there remain defences and concessions to be made on my part.

a) Your criticisms seem to focus on my misreading/naivety concerning Post-modernism/theory in general. With what I have already said in mind (too), I insist that there was a modus operandi behind this approach. My position rests in my postulation that without Wittgenstein, the debates you mention would most likely not have come about. Therefore, I take Wittgenstein and historiographical accordants with his position as my ‘straw man’ (figuratively speaking) and proceed accordingly. I recognise this is a relatively obscure (not to mention debatable) approach. But it was helpful given my (relative) familiarity with Wittgenstein and my lack of familiarity with historiographical successors.

More importantly, I think there is some merit in this approach. Historiographers I have encountered too often find themselves caught in a directionless mass of theory whose origins remain somewhat unclear. I think postulating succinctly the problems linked with employing Wittgensteinian philosophy of language in historiographical debate helps as an inductory precursor to the modulated and (sometimes) inaccessible positions which occur subsequently.

I can expand further on this point if you’re unhappy with it.

Now I’d like to tackel some concerns you raise directly:

I’ve tried to make this clear above.

I have a slight query with this section. You claim historians’ work is necessarily ‘theory-laden’? Isnt this exactly the opposite of the truth and what Jenkins laments in your interview? Historians may implicitly (and unknowingly) implant theoretical presumptions in their work but this makes it sound like a deliberate strategy. And who is to say all narrative is imbued with theoretical underpinnings? Have I missed the point here? I don’t think you’ve been sufficiently clear if I have.

I see your point. But Jenkins is but one among many voices. And I think I am correct in asserting that there are historiographers who argue that history is an empirical discipline?! Why mention the Jenkins position but not alternatives which make my position on this issue somewhat more defensible? Is this your rhetorical strategy?!

Herein lies a confusion on your part. This is not an issue I set out to address!

I for one have found your links very helpful: thank you.

Now I’d like to summarise what amounts to a few concessions. I think you’ve helped me see the importance of the epistemological debate here (which I admittedly- possibly reprehensibly neglected). There are theoretical waters I havent yet chartered on this account. Second, my ‘straw man’ was to some extent a fiction as you note- but I should insist on the oratorical as well as introductory usefulness of such a straw man. Nevertheless, he is to some degree inadequate. All in all, I should concede that you have made a very effective critique of what I wrote which has challenged me. Thank you again.

I look forward to hearing further comments on this matter.

Thanks for your response.

Sadly i suffer from the Galilean conceit that people are able to follow philosophical and other ideas if they are explained well enough, so i do not consider the risk of over-simplification a defence. In my own introduction to historiography, for example, i have been able to discuss the issues without (i hope) being condescending or impenetrable.

Okay, but how were you able to so effectively dismiss so-called postmodern historiographers on the basis of only two thinkers? Your review did not hedge its bets when saying that “claims to validity” were “undermined”.

Could the audience not be relied upon to remain interested without the need to resort to straw men? We can promote the discussion of historiography without needing to stoop to such tactics.

That is indeed a position that requires argument, but even if it holds it would still seem to be folly to hold such a definitive position on an aspect of historiography you admit to not having studied.

Well, i don’t intend to be harsh but how would you know? You admit that you “have only (thus far) managed to read Tosh and Carr”, and a sample size of two can hardly be expected to move the reader to confidence in your assertion.

It seems so. Do you know what theory-ladenness is? It does not come about “unknowingly” but rather unavoidably. Jenkins is aware of this (like other historiographers since the 1950s/60s when Hanson and Kuhn first brought up this problem within the philosophy of science), which is why he calls narratives “situated”.

More generally, this is where your Wittgensteinian approach will break down. To make sense of the epistemological criticisms faced by historians claiming the status of truth for their narratives, you will have to sooner or later address under-determination and theory-ladenness. There are some introductory comments on both here which i’ll expand on in the coming months, but otherwise i recommend a textbook or Hayden White to begin with.

No, and it seems a disingenuous tactic on your part to not read me charitably while suggesting earlier that i had not honoured you in like fashion. In my post i linked to several discussions between Evans and others in which the interested lurker can see the objections of the empiricists and judge for him/herself. “Your position” on this issue appears to be the result of reading two historiographers only, by your own admission, which hardly qualifies as a position at all. More importantly, and as i said, the objections of those you unfairly (and inaccurately) characterise as “postmodern” are epistemological and need to be addressed as such, regardless of which historiographers choose to do so. When i have interviewed Evans, if i do, i’ll link to that also.

Indeed, but that makes the confusion all yours.

I’ll wager that my attempts to explain these questions without straw men in my introductory essays is a somewhat more successful approach. Thanks for your comments, though.

To amplify the venerable Hugo Holbling’s criticisms:

The achilles’ heel of history is ‘epistemological frailty’:

  • since there is nothing besides discrete fragments, one cannot appeal to a mythical “past” to judge different accounts.
  • If everything is theory-laden all the way down, then facts are not independent of theory, and cannot serve as an independent framework to validate rival theories.
  • The only means of commenting on the accuracy of different accounts is to appeal to other accounts, and that entails coherence, not the correspondence theory of truth.
  • Therefore, historical realism is little more than the mythology of history, given that interpretation is the final arbitrator of method.


i think also, and please someone correct me if i’m wrong, that using wittengenstien as a straw man might be the reason for all this confusion. no post-modern scholar i’ve encountered have linked their ideas with his philosophy. more common are the works of marx, (nietzsche to some extent), heidgeer HUGE, lacan, foucault if you think he’s a philosopher. they are much more commonly used, i’ve never come across someone arguing wit., but it does make sense that you would use him b/c certainly his later works lend themselves to post-modernism. however, the field itself of post-modernism does not seem to acknowledge wit, to the best of my knoweldge. so i wonder, gatmvcc, if this might be a cause for what i agree seems to be a misreading of post-modernism?

Well, my suspicion is that post-modernism (or postmodernism a Hugo would prefer it) does owe a large unpaid debt to Wittgenstein’s later work. however, this is an undeveloped contention of my own and I recognise that it might cause confusion.

But there is a bottom line here concerning relativism in the development of postmodernism as Tosh discusses in Ch.7 of ‘The pursuit of history’. A point I should make to Hugo (and others) is that various exponents of (esp.earlier) the postmodern position did postulate relativism as a vital constituent of their theoretical outlook. The epistemological emphasis was developed as relativism in the context of language took a battering from skeptics (I understand on good authority that this was the case).

I leave you to work on alleviating my Tosh/Carr/Wittgenstein/Gadamer dependence. :astonished:

If you read the discussion of so-called postmodernism linked to above, you will perhaps understand that your assumption that there is such a thing as “the postmodern position” requires justification - much like your ideas about the influence of Wittgenstein.

Why should we do your homework for you? If you are interested enough in historiography to dismiss currents in it without a proper (or any) appreciation of them, i’m sure you will be motivated to continue your studies without needing to rely on others.

I just wanted to weigh in on the intellectual roots of postmodernism.
Contrary to Trix’s veiw, it in now way developed out of Marxist thought. In fact, Marx was one of the great systematizers that was the brunt of their polemic against modernism. Of course, many writers share his dismal outlook on capitalism, but would be very skeptical of his materialism and scientific historism.

It was Nietzsche who fundamentally shaped the intellectual roots of postmodern thought. That is, to the extent that there is such a thing. As Hugo noted, attributing coherence to ‘their position’ - or I should say ‘positions’ - is antithetical to the philosophy itself, which is rooted in subjectivity and fluidity.

Heidegger took Nietzshe’s thought to new and different levels, but many postmodernists look more to Nietzsche’s pronouncements on the nature of truth and the impossibility of the ‘doer’ (ie the subject and object distinction) than to Heidegger’s ontological project, which to some extent would be challenged.

But then of course the main developments come with poststructualism. Derrida, Lyotard, Baudrillard, Foucault, Lacan. All these writers emerge out of this context.

To be honest I’m not familiar with Wittgenstein, but like trix I have never seen his name mentioned explicitly. However, I think perhaps a case could be made that he is relevant, and I’m sure some writers must work with his ideas to a certain extent.

Let us agree that postmodernism begins with the questioning of the subject/subjectivity of modernity (perhaps that’s where it still stands).

As Bill Aschcroft wrote in “Post Colonial Studies: Key Concepts”:

“Although debate about subject-object relations continued in European philosophy thorughout the 19th cent, with the critique of subject-centered reason culminating in Nietzche’s philosophy, the most influential contemporary shift in this Enlightenment position began in the thinking of Freud and Marx…the combined effect of these two thinkers upon 20th cent thought was radically to distub the notion of the integritry and autonomy of the human indiivdual, the theory of subjectivity becoming more formally elaborated by their followers.” (220)

the disturbance arouse from each thinker proposing equally vaiable alternatives to the construction of the self. marx said it was made by society, freud siad it was by the uncounscious, largely. neitzsche crtiique was important b/c it provided hardcore criticisms, but his proposition of an alternative was weak. it’s like berkelye’s alternative to the amterial world, or like kerry’s campaign to run for prez b/c he’s not bush. at last, history remembers not those that simply took down the other guy, but took him down by erecting something equally plausible.

A good point, Trix.

Obviously I can agree that Marx and Freud began questioning the makeup of the self and had much influence on the direction of social thought. But given Marx’s and Freud’s anwsers, they are not postmodern. On this I think we both agree, and it was Nietzsche who best embodied ‘the postmodern position.’

You may like Freud or Marx better given their more concrete answers, but concrete answers are opposed to the postmodern worldview. It is worth noting that the quote you gave came out of postcolonial studies, which draws on but does not take the radical postmodern views, as they undermine the whole postcolonial project to a certain extent. If you look to the main writers I (and you) referred to, I think they were obviously influenced by Marx and Freud but Nietzsche was the more infludential. I would also make the argument that Freud’s ideas came out of Nietzsche (Ressentement, internalization, etc.). Moreover, as Camus suggests, Nietzsche can be seen as the philosopher of contradiction, full of many ideas and ripe for many diverse perspectives to draw on.

You also suggest that history will remember the more concrete. However, it depends on what history one is referring to. Is it is intellectual history, the history of philosophy, or metahistory? The first presents a much larger case for Marx, the second for Nietzsche, and obviously the third is Marx’s domain (unfortunately in my view, b/c the soviet union and communism embodied a defacing of his philosophy).

Again, Marx exters more influence on social theorists until now, but postmodernism in philosophy and social theory has only really developed since the 70s - and I am not qualified to make a conjecture as to where it is going. I might agree that postmodernism is a dead end in terms of things like political and social transformation, but my views have not crystallized and I feel the need to study it further. But the main point is that not all postcolonials are postmodern, not all feminists are postmodern, not all queer theorits are postmodern. There are fundamental distinctions to be made here.

your post raises an arguement that i have been occupied in much of my studies. that is, the tension between philosophy and theory.

first, if we are to assume that criticising the enlightenment amounts to embodying the postmodern position, than surely we must include other philosophers prior to neitzsche. rousseau, herder, diderot, sophener all come to mind. they wrote passionately about the evils of modernity, and neitzsche is really indebted to them. as for neitzsche’s influence, it’s there. but i think rousseau has been more influencial, actually. to make sure that i’m absolutely clear on this, what i’m saying that if postmodernism is to equal enlightenment/modernity criticisms, then that tradition does not begin with neitzsche. what marks neitzsche different from the other thinkers (rousseau, herder, etc) is that he didn’t critize and advocate a classical position. he just critized. in this manner, he might have, it can be argued, allowed others to establish postmodernism. this idea i am more agreeable towards.

theoria, you’re correct to point out that the definition i got was from a postcolonial text. yet, it is a text on postcolonial theory (as opposed to a time period or political period). postcolonial theory has 3 pillars, sources that it is composed of: postmodernism, marxism and developing world writers (ex. fanon, homi bhabia, cessaire).

the funny things happens when a philosophy is used in a theory; it gets fucked up.

it’s the oddest occurence that i have ever seen. it’s like in an attempt to bring to life an idea one pays more attention to life and less on the idea. its like people attempt to dress a person for an event in the wrong clothes – clothes that are of a different gender, style, size and class than the person. a man is forced to wear a baby-doll dress for a 2 year old rather than a tux. disciplines are rought with this tension, but they pretend to ignore it, largely.

can postcolonial theoriest not be postmoderns? well, don’t tell them that. although you and i will both know that the man should be wearing a tux if he hasn’t at least shave his legs.

anyway, that was just a little rant about something that i’ve been observing while stuck in academia.


Well, I am quite open to critisizing the enlightenment, but I wouldn’t say that this qualifies as the defining aspect of postmodernism. I think that the problem here is mainly semantic, and I am putting only those who do not believe in truth, reification of identity, etc. ect in the postmodern pigeonhole. So they wouldn’t, on my conception, provide a coherent alternative as this would be antithetical to their project in the first place. It was funny, b/c a prof of mine was ranting away that Lyotard’s “postmodern condition” was antitheitcal to his notion of postmodernity, just b/c he actually defined it! This might be too narrow or frusterating, but people will define the word as they will. So I really don’t think this is worth further discussion given the arbitrariness of the semantics involved.

Personallly, I find the issue of theory vs philosophy to be more interesting. It has come up a number of times, and my own ideas are underdeveloped. But I would like to hear your views if you would like to explore the topic further.

Wittgenstein has been read as an historicist philosopher who went beyond the systematic foundationalist thinkers - the very targets the so-called postmods have criticized and abused to great length.

Rorty understood Witty as someone who promoted change and freedom from archaic vocabularies instead of justification of the custom of the day.

In this sense, instead of epistemology as the queen of philosophy, Wittgenstein’s thoughts lead to the adjustment of beliefs or attitude about thinking itself, and that required a total break with the previous traditions of justifications, search of essences, practice instead of theory, and other types of the rational approach in methodology.

Ergo, while not crucial to the inchoate philosophy of superstructuralism (see harland) Wittgenstein could be an important ingredient for the postfoundational thinker in the analytic tradition.

A quick note to the impetuous if effulgent Hugo:

The reason the likes of Jenkins and White are laughed off by many historians is demonstrated by the David Irving controversy a few years ago.

The impetuosity of historians to undermine the ‘reality’ or ‘truth’ of the mass-suffering and death of Jews and others in death camps was like a knife to the chest of the accpetability of these theorists’ arguments.

The problem was that their claims provided an ideological basis for the claims of Irving. I should hope you have read what Richard Evans has to say on these issues.

Keith Jenkins’ theory is a source of amusement, rather than serious concern to most practising historians, I have been assured. Perhaps the fact that the man is a practising academic at ‘Uiversity college Chichester’ should act as a clue in this respect.

by the reasoning of that last remark, the fact that nietzsche was slightly insane should act as a clue in the matter of the value of his work ?

and it is my oppinion that preciosity such as you show in your opening line, while it has the undoubted effect of impressing the auditorium and further your claims of precedence in the entirely imaginary space of intellectual superiority, also has the regrettable drawback of enclosing you in the pen of a sort of english provincialism, and render your work that more difficult to translate.

and while i can not claim to be in a possition to pass judgment on matters of the historiography debate, it seems to me that building an argument about the intellectual value of a work based on the social acceptance of that work is a useless and confused approach.

Of course it should. ‘Slightly’? The man was a raving lunatic for the last 5 years of his life.

Succinctness, not preciosity. Why say in 10 words what you can say in 3? Use the full range of the English language, not only an isolated popular corner of discourse.

I write English, not Chinese. If you have to ‘translate’ your own language, that’s hardly my problem.

Fine. But how can you expect to understand the thrust of a post if you have no conception of the debates in which it rests? For example, I wouldn’t involve myself in a thread on Leibniz.

Social acceptance? What has this to do with my post?

Of course the reception of a work is important: especially if you’re a historian. Think about it.

If you are unable to address the arguments i offered here, you need only say so.

Quite the wit, aren’t you? At least, the florescent colours of one-upmanship are now visibly nailed to your mast: they become especially bright when you address the man, not the matter.

In your own time…