Post-modernist challenge to ‘history’ — II

September 6, 2020

The Making of the English Working Class inspired several histories of a number of disregarded and marginalised groups

Post-modern thinking lays claim to reinterpret all the human sciences (‘science’ used here in the broadest terms). Its greatest impact has been in the areas of fictive representation, textual or visual. Since historiography has some relationship to these it has also been affected, although to a lesser extent.

Historians deal with texts, generally written sources, and the products of their labour are written texts. What is the status of texts in relation to the realities about which they purport to convey information? The issues of truth and representation that post modernists have given currency to, have antiquated history and require an examination.

In the third century BC, the Greek sceptics also known as pyrrhonists, a title given to them after the name of their founder, Pyrro of Elea, argued for a position of radical epistemological doubt. According to them, no reliable knowledge was possible. Most sources agree that the primary goal of Pyrrho’s philosophy was the achievement of a state of ataraxia, or freedom from mental perturbation, and that he observed that ataraxia could be brought about by eschewing beliefs (dogma) about thoughts and perceptions.

Many diehard pyrrhonists were said to doubt even that they doubted. Most interpretations of the information on Pyrrho’s philosophy suggest that he claimed that reality is inherently indeterminate. Therefore, in such transient nature of that philosophy, history was virtually not possible and understandably his followers did not take history into account as a branch of knowledge.

However, after the lapse of several centuries the followers of Pyrrho in seventeenth and eighteenth-century Europe turned to history, and in 1769, Voltaire, no stranger to scepticism himself, critiqued their extreme position in severe terms. Their doctrine was blatantly ignored by the historians of the time. David Hume, the philosophical arch sceptic disregarded their prescription while writing history.

Empiricist certainty, the fulcrum around which the Rankean conception of history revolved, met a formidable challenge from Germany in the 1880s, when Wilhelm Dilthey argued that no proper historical understanding was possible without the exercise of what he meant as empathy.

Historians were required to get inside the consciousness of the historical subjects under study in order to better understand the individuals being discussed, on the one hand, and the cultural framework of their existence, on the other.

Further cracks started appearing in the fortified existence of empiricist tradition in history when horrific events like World War I took place. Thus, the formulations like the march of civilisation and linear progression of the phenomenon of history came under severe doubt.

Besides, American historians Charles Beard and Carl Becker argued in 1920s and 1930s that although documentary research might establish conclusively the factual foundations for historical development, the real business of historical science, the interpretation and meaning of such developments, was indefinitely flexible, and indeed that every age and every community would evolve understandings which suited its own times and agendas.

Choice among such conflicting interpretations might not be arbitrary, but neither could it be established through the records alone. That view acquired extraordinary traction among the academic circles even in Europe. The slogan of total history by the Annales school of Historians in France broadened the scope of history by giving the discipline a far more inclusive touch.

Similarly, the Frankfurt School in Germany comprised of theorists with neo-Marxist inflection impacted not only humanities and social sciences in general but also provided depth to the study of history. Influences from these intellectual streams helped history to carve out space for those, who found it hard to be its subject(s).

The book that established the novel way to read history was RG Collingwood’s Idea of History with an idealist approach couched in philosophy. To Collingwood, every action and artifact embodied the thought of past individuals, “such thought was the fabric of the historical universe and therefore the proper and indeed only legitimate concern of the historians”.

Despite the importance of Idea of History it was not received with enthusiasm and failed to cast an immediate impact. Quite the opposite was the case with EH Carr’s slim volume, What is History? that came out of his Trevelyan lectures in Cambridge. Effectively argued and engagingly written, this book is wide-ranging and includes discussions on moral judgment and the idea of progress.

But its main importance is the “effective demonstration it gives of the uncertain and ‘constructedness’ of the ‘historical facts’ which are treated unproblematically in historical texts.” Willie Thompson in his book, Postmodernism and History highlights the overall impact of What is History? He writes, “The unavoidable gaps and deficiencies in the record, the inevitability of being selective, the inescapability of interpretation and ‘situatedness’ - was transformed by this text for a new generation of historians.”

Carr’s reflection encapsulated in that book appeared to have anticipated some of the themes most identified with the post-modern turn. In drawing attention to the constructedness of the historical fact it supplied a possible starting point for arguments premised on the denial that historical texts could have a fixed relationship to the events which they purported to represent.

It is important to mention while here drawing on Thompson’s assertion that the ‘historical fact’ can be conceived with the analogy of the atom in physics. The mental image which the lay person holds of the latter, a mini-solar system, bears only the most marginal relation to the actual existent.

Fragmentary nature of historical sources and variant interpretation that they can be subjected to, firmly established the authority of the historian to construct historical narrative. The historical sources could also be read with the lines and at times they did reveal information which their creators were unaware of. The sources, although they do exist, could not be accounted for because the documentation embodying them had been regarded as of little interest. But they could reveal unsuspected depths of information.

British Marxist historian, EP Thompson, applied this approach to reconstruct the emergence of the English working class in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The Making of the English Working Class inspired several histories of a number of disregarded and marginalised groups which were brought into the historical gaze by similar methods once the political ambience became favourable.

(To be concluded)

Post-modernist challenge to ‘history’ — II