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August 02, 2006

History, truth and changing perspectives - Michael Bentley argues that history is not a social science and that the conservative historian shares a certain common ground with the post-Modernist

Posted by Michael Bentley

Conservative historian Michael Bentley - Professor of Modern History at the University of St Andrews - explains why he believes that history is not a human or social science. Furthermore, argues Michael Bentley, the conservative historian should share a certain common ground with the post-Modernist - but for the conservative the basis of these beliefs is not Foucault or Derrida but Carlyle and Macaulay.

There has been a move, over the past two decades or so, to acquaint pupils in the schools and universities with the elements of a subject usually described as "historiography".

In a sense it has always been a presence as a silent partner in historical work as an awareness of what others have said. Before embarking on a project, historians normally think it right to consider the history of its presentation in order to show where their own contribution will have claims to originality. Open a learned journal and glance at the first page of any serious article and the chances are high that it will be thigh-deep in references to the previous literature, waist-deep if the journal originated in America.

This felt-need to quote foregoing chapter and verse before making an historical utterance of one's own began with the scientization and professionalization of what nowadays appears to outsiders as a rule-governed discipline. It seems, in the shade of this formidable edifice, somehow improper to ignore what "research" has "revealed" or "discovered" about the past – impertinent, as it were, to see a new plant as anything other than a minor graft on the tree of knowledge.

This world of "contribution to knowledge" and "addition to our understanding" seeks constantly to "revise" our sense of what happened and why. Its practitioners have achieved great things and deserve the praise lavished on them by fellow travellers. But it also produces some curious results.

The need to see historical enquiry as an arena of evolving truth strangely subverts the very material on which it comments. It does so because of the way it takes historiography - the systematic appreciation of how and why past views of historians seemed appropriate to the time and culture in which they were framed - to function. History's own history becomes, in this dispensation, an illusory aspect of the discipline: one that is studied only to be transcended by what a better modernity can substitute. It has no integrity of its own but supplies the "orthodoxies" and "conventional views" against which new work will direct itself and show, in the self-promoting blaze of "revisionism", to have been wrong in its facts, weak in its assumptions, confused in its arguments. These lunges lie at the heart of a critical review and historians would rightly declare themselves impoverished if they disappeared from professional life.

Yet the idea that history works as permanent revolution and constant transcendence in the cause of ever-closer approximations to "the truth" about the past has grievous implications for everything written before yesterday. If Carlyle was plain wrong about the course and significance of the French Revolution, depending as his view did of necessity on the limited primary sources available in the 1830s and 1840s, why would a modern historian bother to read him? It would make more sense to start with Simon Schama's Citizens that captures the mood without losing sight of the many "advances" made by professional scholars over the last hundred years.

Or if Bishop Stubbs's astounding narrative of English national development should appear from the bowels of one our bibliographical search-engines, it should surely be deleted when we realize that it appeared in the 1870s when so many of its pages must have suffered from Victorian misconception. (In fact by the 1920s Cambridge students were instructed not to read volume one of Stubbs which would mislead them.)

Presumably the wise modernists of the University of Oxford felt something similar more recently in removing the requirement to study texts such as Stubbs and Macaulay. Dead historians lack "relevance" for a generation high on it. They should be transferred to the shelf reserved for "classic" accounts (unread ones), along with Dante or Molière.

Must the matter be left there? I have argued in a new book [Michael Bentley, Modernizing England's Past: English historiography in the age of modernism 1870-1970 (Cambridge University Press, 2005)] that this approach to the issue should be seen as part of the baggage of what I call "historiographical modernism".

This way of thinking about the relationship between present and past and the right methods to "research" it wants to conceive history as a form of human or social science, employing modes of work broadly congruent with those of scientific method. It aims to gain access to an evolving truth about the past that may be multi-faceted but always "there" as a substantive thing to walk around and inspect. The near-physicality of all this must never be doubted because, once undermined, the entire project will fall to the ground and we are told that history will turn into some sort of licensed fiction.

The dangers are obvious. Take away "truth" as the object of history and several generations of patient "research" may go up in smoke. Take any other route and history will become prey to those manifestation of "bias" to which teenage schoolchildren are alerted by their teachers and which infest the documents that A-level is supposed to bring under critical scrutiny. Let go of "interpretation" as a subordinate (and optional) pendant to "the facts" and historical texts will become arbitrary constructions with no respect for "evidence".

All of this resistance is understandable and at one level admirable but it is also misconceived. Here are just half a dozen of the misconceptions:

1. History is not led by "the facts" or "the evidence" because neither category has any meaning or status until we - the historians - ask a question or make a case.

2. There are always facts but never "the facts"; and "the evidence" can only mean a subset of facts chosen for their bearing on a question posed or an argument offered.

3. View of the past are always constructed from a given present that is itself a view whose perceived nature both conditions what is said about a past and which itself changes in ways that are retrospectively traceable and suggestive.

4. Historians construct - they cannot "reconstruct" - a past that they postulate with the aid of whatever has survived into the present and been rendered urgent by their preoccupations.

5. What determines the "truth" of a constructed past is not its resemblance to "what happened" but its congruence with the (present) evidence produced in its support on the basis of professionally-licensed modes of selection.

6. History functions, therefore, as a system of internal codes that form the basis of criticism within the discipline. Its product at any moment is a cluster of competing representations of some part of the past.

This isn't the place to present a theoretical grounding for each of these propositions. It suffices here to remark that such grounding exists at a sophisticated level of analysis and that it presents a major challenge to the conventions governing how we teach young people.

That these forms of argument are often captured by "postmodernists" is irrelevant to their logical force. The ascription in any case confuses their deep structure and derivation. They did not leap into existence out of the overheated brain of a Foucault or Derrida; they were familiar to, though differently-expressed in, the generation of Carlyle and Macaulay who wrote powerfully against simple-minded notions of historical truth and their relation to constructed narratives.

Many of the problems requiring discussion, indeed, are as old as the history of history itself. Once understood, moreover, these propositions open the possibility of reading all historians from the past in their roundness and richness by reading them in their own terms rather as apprentices to modernity. We learn to value their thought-world precisely because it differs from our own and is irreducible to it. We have forgotten what our graduates, before about 1870, knew perfectly well: that to evoke a past is to write a story that represents multi-dimensional action and situation in the single, linear dimension of text.

Cultural environments in the second half of the nineteenth century swept that awareness away in an all-pervasive scientism; and modern historical practice is the heir to the practices fostered in that universal Aufklärung. That was a good thing, for no one doubts the achievements of historians who worked under the impress of this new science.

What one environment encourages, however, another suppresses and we now live in interesting times when the hegemony of this view of history stands under challenge or threat among the nervous. The very nature of the historical enterprise is back under scrutiny and new topics for the historian now thrive. A beneficiary of this transformation has been historiography itself as a subject for study - not merely as a system of enquiry but as a cumulative literature which once again is finding readers.

The universities increasingly teach it and students have become used to confronting some of these issues in courses on "historical theory" or "historical problems" or "the nature of history" and in ways that take them beyond the improving triteness of E. H. Carr's What is History? Here is one kind of past whose "death" has turned out to be very much exaggerated.

Michael Bentley is Professor of Modern History at the University of St Andrews and the author of Lord Salisbury's World: Conservative Environments in Late Victorian Britain (Cambridge University Press, 2001).

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