History, Truth and Postmodernism

By Keith Windschuttle

The writing of history is one of the most enduring cultural activities of Western civilisation. It originated in ancient Greece some 2400 years ago and has continued in roughly the same form down to this day. Its first great practitioner, Thucydides, decided that to learn about the course of human affairs, he would not consult oracles, prophets, sacred texts or the sanctioned scribes of the era. Rather, he would go out, witness events himself, compile other evidence only from those, he said, "of whom I made the most careful enquiry", and then draw conclusions that his evidence would support. This might seem a simple procedure to us but Western culture, so far, has been the only one to bring it off, that is, to give an account of what happens in society that remains independent of the prevailing religion and the dominant political system.

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Postmodernism and History

By Richard J. Evans

Postmodernism comes in many guises and many varieties, and it has had many kinds of positive influences on historical scholarship. It has encouraged historians to take the irrational in the past more seriously, to pay more attention to ideas, beliefs and culture as influences in their own right, to devote more effort to framing our work in literary terms, to put individuals, often humble individuals, back into history, to emancipate ourselves from what became in the end a constricting straitjacket of social-science approaches, quantification and socio-economic determinism.

But this is postmodernism in its more moderate guise. The literature on postmodernism usefully distinguishes between the moderate and the radical. What I call radical postmodernism takes its cue from another post, post-structuralism, roughly speaking the idea that language is arbitrarily constructed, and represents nothing but itself, so that whenever we read something, the meaning we put into it is necessarily our own and nobody else's, except of course insofar as our own way of reading is part of a wider discourse or set of beliefs.

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Postmodern History

By David Noebel


Michel Foucault gives us a great perspective of Postmodern history: "I am well aware that I have never written anything but fictions. I do not mean to say, however, that truth is therefore absent. It seems to me that the possibility exists for fiction to function in truth. One 'fictions' history on the basis of a political reality that makes it true, one 'fictions' a politics not yet in existence on the basis of a historical truth."1 The Postmodern approach to history differs dramatically from that of all other worldviews.2 For example, a Christian worldview sees history as the grand unfolding of God's divine plan to redeem a fallen humanity (see Paul's speech in Acts 17). In contrast, the more radical Postmodernists see no ultimate purpose in history, advocating instead a nihilist perspective. Less radical Postmodernists advocate the view that history is what we make of it. They believe that historical facts are inaccessible, leaving the historian to his or her imagination and ideological bent to reconstruct what happened in the past. Postmodernists use the term historicism to describe the view that all questions must be settled within the cultural and social context in which they are raised. Both Lacan and Foucault argue that each historical period has its own knowledge system and individuals are unavoidably entangled within these systems. Answers to life's questions cannot be found by appealing to some external truth, but only to the norms and forms within each culture that phrase the question.

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