Sunday, 7 September 2014

In Defence Of History

This is a book review/ summary of In Defence Of History by Richard J. Evans. Whilst the book is a summary of a summary, I would highly recommend it to all history students as it has a clear structure and introduces many important points for students to then pursue through further reading.

In Defence of History tries to defend a mainstream notion of history-writing against 'intellectual barbarians', namely postmodernists. Evans emphasises the importance of using primary sources, facts, going back to archives, and advocates 'a return of scholarly humility'. Whilst Evans is a hostile outsider, he provides a good introduction to postmodernism. It becomes clear through the book that postmodernism is not really a single thing, however the core idea is that all things are text, and that an external, objective world is less relevant. Despite his disagreement with it, Evans acknowledges that ideas from postmodernism have been useful in the study of history and historical study.

The book begins with a history of history. Evans beings with  pre-modern styles of history, such as Gibbon’s "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire". He cites Leopold von Ranke as the founder of the modern method of historical study; the inspection of contemporary documents and using them to identify causes for historical events and "facts". Evans distinguished between the primary sources and secondary source; the key to this method is to read original documentation with its original purpose in mind and within the context of other documents from that period. Ranke emphasised how important it is not to be caught out by changes in language and unspoken purposes. For Ranke the key subject of history was politics, a view that held sway for many years but since the 1960s has become less popular with a rise in economic, social, feminist etc. history. Since Ranke’s time history has diversified immensely with the increasing focus on non-political history and an appreciation of a wider range of themes.

Evans also identifies the crisis in history following the First World War, a stark reminder to historians that predicting the future is almost impossible, although Evans does not support the view that history is at all about predicting the future. Evans draws a parallel between Toynbee’s "A study of history" which tried explicitly to make laws of history for predicting the future and Asimov’s Foundation series of novels, which are based on precisely this idea. Evans also said that history is a scientific, imaginative and literary exercise, which I will blog on later as I found this particularly thought provoking. 

In contrast to scientific research, the political beliefs, defined broadly to include race, gender and sexuality, have a strong bearing on historical research with fields driven to support currently political agendas and the political leanings of the researcher. The same goes for nationality, with many European historians focused very much on their own nations with a distorted view of their importance. Evans suggests that research is driven by the political agendas of the researcher, and dedicates a chapter to the debate on whether or not history can be truly objective. 

Evans argued that all history is written, consciously or unconsciously, from the perspective of the present. Croce claimed "all history is contemporary history", and Collingwood went even further by arguing that "all history is the history of thought", because the documents left to the historian by the past were meaningless unless the historian reconstituted the thought the expressed. 

An interesting note on style is the forthright criticism of other historians through the book, and also in the afterword where he addresses his critics in detail and at length. I disliked how Evans labelled historians as a 'Jewish historian', 'Marxist historian', 'feminist historian', etc. before introducing them, as I found it added nothing to the book and was unhelpful; whether a historian is Jewish or not should have no bearing on their work. However I accept the fact that it is necessary to study a historian before you study their work; the fact that a historian is Jewish may indeed have an impact on their choice of what they write about and their opinions on their research topics. 

I found it particularly interesting when Evans argued that history had become a means of indoctrination in the early 1900s, for example, used by Soviet the state for the spread of Communism. Evans argued that both Soviet and Nazi historians had failed to use factual accuracy, neutrality and detachment when writing histories of their countries.