Postmodernism and The Nature of History

by Peter Brickley

Postmodernism and historians

The first of these starting points relates to the manner through which postmodern ideas might beaccepted by historians. It suggests that there is a danger in taking the debate at face value; that is, thatthe understanding which can be made of the debate, and the constituent arguments, is not exhausted bythe participants’ own descriptions of them. It is possible to arrive at a quite different account of howthey interact, other than the one that Evans and Jenkins make – or which is made for them by their supporters.What is being focused upon here, to explain this by way of example, is the response which Evans andJenkins respectively make to the process through which postmodern ideas could begin to beassimilated into disciplinary norms. The result is the opposite of what might be expected.

For all his polemical objection to postmodernism, Evans sees the need for the discipline to evolve with thechanging times and he deplores attempts of historians such as Geoffrey Elton to raise a ‘disciplinarydrawbridge’ against ideas from non-historians (pp. 8-11). What he sees happening is that postmodernism is being gradually assimilated into the discipline and, as it is slowly being accepted byhistorians, it is being modified – quite naturally in Evans’ view. He places postmodernism in a context which includes what he suggests have been earlier claims, by for example, Rankeans, cliometricians, psychohistorians and early social historians. These, he says, have argued in their turn that all previousways of doing history were ‘redundant, biased, useless or false’ but, they have nevertheless, one after another, settled down to become proponents of sub-specialisms ‘coexisting happily with all other sub-specialisms’ (1997, pp. 201/3).
Jenkins, on the other hand, clearly laments, even as he accepts, thatthis is what is taking place; that Evansreplays the old strategies of divide and rule, “us against them”and “some of them against others of them” the really barbaric are kept out, while the more moderate and usable are let in to bolster theranks. It is the typical assimilationist gesture so beloved of conservatives, and it permeates thewhole of Evans’ text. (1999, p. 97)What is interesting here and important for this article is that it is Evans – a supposed ‘certaintist’ and‘lower case’ historian, to use Jenkins’ own terms - as an acknowledged representative of traditionalempiricist historians who is here readily accepting that the exposure to challenge, implied in theassimilation of new ideas into an existing discipline, is likely to change not only the challenging ideas but also those of existing practices. Thus, whether Evans notices it or not – and the evidence issomewhat ambivalent – both he and historians like him appear to be working more with constructivistassumptions about the nature of knowledge than with the realist, objectivist, epistemological stanceattributed to him (and them) by postmodernists in general and by Jenkins in particular (Jenkins, p.1991, p.28, 1995, pp. 8-10 & 1999, p.100). At the same time, Jenkins himself shows a quite differentset of assumptions than the one that he is noted for supporting. Evans has already pointed out a curiousinconsistency in Jenkins’ actual, rather than advocated, approach to knowledgeGiven the stress laid upon the shifting nature of concepts by Postmodernists, and the emphasisgiven to the indirect, contingent or even arbitrary or non-existent correspondence of words toreality, the dogmatic and apodictic tone of Jenkins’ declaration that postmodernity is anindisputable fact of life seems strangely out of place, coming as it does from a self-confessed proponent of such ideas.(Evans, 1997, p.13)That this definition of postmodernity by Jenkins was perhaps no one-off slip by him seems evidentfrom his negative reaction here to the suggestion by Evans that postmodernism could possibly evolvethrough being accepted by historians. Postmodernism, for Jenkins, seems to be a fixed category whichcan be understood, accepted or employed only as Jenkins would have it understood. Clearly all mightnot be as it seems in a characterisation of postmodernists (represented by Jenkins in relation tohimself) as ‘generous, quasi-transcendental, cross-discursive, playful and radical and who can becompared with traditional empirical historians (represented by Jenkins in relation to Evans) as‘practical, technical, “serious men” of the flat-earth variety’ who are ‘suffering very badly from the“effects of gravity” ‘ and who preside over a ‘mean-spirited, often arrogant and dismissive discourse’(Jenkins, 1999, p.95).In attempting to show that there is at least one other way of considering the interpretative dimension tohistory than the one which is advocated by postmodernists and tacitly accepted by many empiricalhistorians (that postmodernists are relativistic and that empiricists are truth-seeking objectivists), this paper focuses on the apparent assumptions of both sets of participants in the debate. It considers the possibility that what is at stake here is not, as is so often thought, a question of whether history – or indeed any form of knowledge – can or cannot provide objective, ‘certaintistic’ as Jenkins terms it(1991, p.28), knowledge. The issue is, rather, a struggle over how a broadly accepted sense of scepticism in knowledge should be understood and expressed. There is evidence in the manifest open-endedness of mainstream empirical historians that there appears to have long been an assumption inthe western intellectual tradition, that knowledge is – in principle at least - open to ongoinginterpretation. Thus it is reasonable to think that this assumption has been articulated and handled indifferent ways. What is at stake now in this postmodern debate, and in the postmodern history debate,is that within a cultural context in which interpretation of all forms of knowledge has becomeincreasingly important, empiricism and postmodernism are competing for a dominance of expression.
It is in such an intellectual context that Jenkins’ stance here can be understood as being somethingmore than simple irascibility on his part.Jenkins’ insistence that postmodernism be understood as postmodernists would have it understoodnow, rather than accept that its meaning be watered down through a process of assimilation, doesmakes sense in terms of his own project. There are considerably differing consequences resting uponwhich interpretative model – empiricism or Jenkins’ version of postmodernism – the historicalcommunity chooses. This is not because empiricism assumes the existence of an impossible groundingobjectivity and postmodernism, a radical subjectivity, but rather the opposite. Empiricism is anapproach to knowledge which is comfortable with the idea of knowledge as being simply a humanstrategy for making communicative meaning where it is obvious that no absolute objectivity is possible or indeed desirable. On the other hand postmodernism demonstrates an anxiety about truth tosuch an extent that the absence of certainty in knowledge – an absence which is absurdly easy to show – is taken to herald the beginning of a new historical epoch and to be the justification for anastonishingly radical programme of methodological and disciplinary change leading, in the case of Jenkins, to an abandonment of history altogether.