Amorphous nature of history as a discipline

The context is properly laid out for us to venture into post-modernism and its interface with history


Primacy of the ‘fact’ is the central constitutive of history’s epistemic structure. In modernist terms, ascertaining ‘objectivity’ had been the primeval aim of that branch of knowledge for which fact had to be gleaned and its veracity determined.

Importantly, fact by its very definition, is a nugget of information found in a document. Documents are preserved in archives, a state institution. Therefore, state has an oversight over the use of the documents that contain facts.

Thus, historical narrative, in the post-Rankean era, (Leopold Von Ranke, Prussian historian who in fact is regarded as the father of modernist history and the founder of Berlin school of history) was a state-driven project. Hegel conjoined history with philosophy and problematised it through dialectics and located objectivity in the continuous unraveling of the absolute idea.

Despite the overly complex packaging of the historical process, his loyalty to Prussian state remained unquestioned. Despite the universality ascribed to Absolute Idea by Hegel, history did not transcend the narrow confines of a nation state. However, under the influence of Charles Darwin it came to be conceived as a linear process which would keep undergoing evolution on permanent basis.

These assimilations from science notwithstanding, the usual pattern of doing history remained more or less the same until the discipline of sociology attained maturity in Comte’s work and Marxism gave a twist to the very art of writing history. One sees the interface of sociology, economics, and political theory by the onset of the 20th century.

One result of this was the emergence of social history on the epistemic landscape. The discipline of history now turned its gaze towards social strata, instead of riveting its entire attention in the pursuit of nationalist interests. Thus, by the closing years of the 19th century, a group of professional historians was demonstrating dissatisfaction with such history, woven around political events and hailing “great men” as the propelling force of history.

Karl Lamprecht, (1856-1915) a German historian at the University of Leipzig, was the most vocal critic of previous historiography. He used the socio-psychological approach while writing his multi-volume History of Germany (1891-1909). Despite that change of path, objectivity remained the final goal of history and the historical method was the modus operandi that historians did not think of venturing beyond. It also steered clear of discarding nationalist history.

The engagement of both Hegel and Karl Marx, of course, broke new ground for doing history in which theory instead of historical method was prioritized but mainstream historical scholarship remained uncomfortable with it. Thomas Babington Macaulay, Lord Acton, John Robert Seeley, and GM Trevelyan employed the well tested and tried technique and wrote nationalist histories. Obviously, that was all Anglo-centric. Being the power-centre of the world, enabled England to dictate terms in the sphere of historiography too.

Here it is important to analyse objectivity in contra-distinction to truth. In general terms objectivity is understood as the concept of truth independent from individual subjectivity. A proposition is considered to have objective truth when its truth conditions are met without bias caused by a sentient subject. The terms “objectivity” and “subjectivity,” in their modern usage, “generally relate to a perceiving subject (normally a person) and a perceived or unperceived object. The object is something that presumably exists independent of the subject’s perception of it.”

To put it differently, the object would exist, as it is, even if no subject perceived it. Thus, objectivity is typically associated with ideas, such as reality, truth, and reliability. Now all this has conflated truth and objectivity, thereby asserting that truth if verified scientifically, can qualify as objectivity. What is implied, therefore, is supremacy of rationality as a determinant of truth that the post-enlightenment Western literati called objectivity.

The descriptive enumeration of events, as was the wont in the medieval ages, or the narration of events in the form of daastan, predicated on myth, legend and epic the three major methods of articulation the past were not given any cognizance. The belief systems of the non-Western people also stood invalidated as objective truth because those could not be verified rationally through scientific tools.

The scientific thus mode became the solitary mode of ascertaining truth. One may aver that science thus superseded the truth couched in the traditional belief system. More so, the focus of that historical discourse was to validate rational, male, Caucasian, white and to a lesser degree, protestant Christian. The rest of the humanity was kept out of the pale of historical gaze.

In this history, no space was accorded to the labour, women and the people from non-western world. Another aspect worth keeping in consideration is the utter disregard for the public memory of the people who relied more on oral sources, like the rural folks of the Sub-Continent or Africans. Public memory, preserved in folk tales, the qissa tradition and vars in Punjabi literary tradition, was cast out of the ambit of history. Evidence, as defined by empiricist historical method, did not support the validity of such constituents of public memory.

The modernity made its way to the colonized lands as a byproduct of colonial/imperial spread. The epistemic tradition of the colonized was obliterated but consciousness predicated on rationality opened their eyes to the narrow remit of history from which they had been excluded. Thus, they laid their claim as the subject of history, wrote their own histories, and threw a gauntlet to the practitioners of traditional history in the Rankean sense that was disposed to serving the purpose of the hegemons. That happened virtually when the older paradigm was deconstructed.

Deconstruction generally opens space for those excluded from a narrative that is in circulation. Now the context is properly laid out for us to venture into post-modernism and its interface with history, which I will cover in the next column.

(This is the first part of the lecture delivered to the history students of Quaid-i-Azam University Islamabad.)

Amorphous nature of history as a discipline