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Saturday, 25 June 2011

The Unbearable Weight… More Clarifications and Explanations

Thanks for the comments posted so far, and made in conversation, which have been most useful.  They have, not least, made me realise that I launched you, dear reader, somewhat into the middle of the quagmire that is my thinking on this and then finished the post a bit prematurely.  So, a few words of clarification in advance, I hope, of something more considered.

1: I’m not making a specific claim for history, against all other disciplines.  I imagine that what I am saying would apply equally to all the humanities at least, and I wouldn’t like to say that it didn’t apply to sciences too.  If I followed the argument through, though, I would argue that history has a value for society that is different (not better or – necessarily – worse) from that of the other humanities.  The line of thought I am milling about amidst here is in some ways a separate matter but it does lead into it.  So, first, let me clarify that I’m most certainly not claiming that history is somehow a more humane and ethical discipline than any other.  What – at least in its inchoate form – my thinking leads on to is simply that there is a way in which the subject matter and the ways in which one approaches it have a direct link to that ethical demand which is – perhaps – more visible and direct (not more real) in the humanities than in some other areas of intellectual endeavour.  So really the argument is pursued through a consideration of historical methodology.  I am a staunch defender of methodology, unfashionable though that, as ever, makes me!
2: By way of background.  I came to this via reading Richard Evans’ In Defence of History and its (to my mind) somewhat muddled defence of truth.  Let me say first that I don’t think Evans’ argument was wrong as much as I think it was the wrong argument.  Indeed I think that the so-called Truth Wars of the ‘90s generally involved people wilfully speaking past each other.  In Evans’ work the argument descended into a defence of history being about simple factual accuracy.  Fine; if you are fundamentally concerned with the fight against Holocaust deniers then that is important.  There were two problems, one lesser and one greater.  The lesser is that the targets of his work, the post-structuralist philosophers like Derrida and co., whom the footnotes to In Defence of History suggest that Evans has only read at second hand (therein would lie something of an aporia within the work, but let’s leave that to one side) do not actually allow any statement about the past to stand as being as valid as anyone else’s.  Now, there are some writers about History (Keith Jenkins and his gang) who have traduced the post-structuralists as saying that, but they are wrong. The fact that Jenkins and his followers are not very good historians, or indeed historians of any sort, is, as Evans rightly says, not really a problem.  The problem (as I see it) is that they aren’t very good philosophers.  I’m not a very good philosopher either, but then unlike them I don’t pretend to be a philosopher.  Anyway, the end result of the way they have misrepresented continental philosophy as saying that anyone’s reading is as good as anyone else’s is that it has come to form the mainstream historian’s (mistaken) idea of what ‘post-modernism’ is.  That’s the lesser of the two problems.
The greater problem is that history isn’t just about truth and falsehood, what really happened and what really didn’t.  What professional historian would nowadays really claim that the discipline solely concerned the compilation of accurate descriptions of past events?  That is simply chronicling – shelf upon shelf of ‘history’ books in the high-street bookshops show that you don’t need professional historians to produce that, and indeed that non-professional historians often do it better.  But while it may be the inescapable first step of history (‘accuracy is a duty, not a virtue’, as I believe David Knowles said) history is surely about explaining and understanding – and on that front the high-street bookshops’ history sections have very little of any quality that isn’t by a proper, trained professional historian.  And that is where the issue of ‘truth’ becomes much more intractable, and where it is decidable with much more difficulty.  In that sphere, the challenges of the post-structuralists to truth-claims are more real.  It might be that these philosophers would take a position that traditional positions don’t allow you to decide whose is the correct interpretation of what – say – the Holocaust actually meant – wie es eigentlich gewesen (in Evans’ own understanding of that phrase).  They never said there were no means of deciding whether one reading wasn’t better than another. Certainly, as far as I am aware, Derrida never said as much.
And therein lies the problem that set me off on these lines of thinking.  What if you have a historian who writes not that the holocaust didn’t happen, but that it was ‘A Good Thing’?  How does the profession deal with that - assuming that the historian in question was careful not to write in a way that fell foul of ‘incitement to hate’ legislation?  Let’s assume that the historian said something like the persecution of the Jews was a rational and logical (if regrettable) response to a particular situation by a strong government that (and let’s just for the sake of argument say that this is correct) produced valuable social cohesion after the turmoil of Weimar.  What then?  Short of stifling his career through the simple employment of influence and professional standing (in which case the Jenkins argument that historical ‘truth’ was just a matter of crude power would be right), what could you do?  The task I set myself – and which I am trying out – is to suggest that, within the historical project, there is an ethical demand that any such conclusion – consigning the Jews to the gas-chambers in the name of a ‘greater good’, strong government, stability, whatever* – would flatly contradict.  And because of that contradiction we could say that this had fundamental flaws within its own argument and was therefore ‘Bad History’.
What I want to do is to keep the humanity in the Humanities. (In contrast to A.C. Grayling and the rest of N-Chumz, ‘the people who took the humanity out of The Humanities’).  Today seems a good day to write this, as the Paris Pride march goes down the Boulevard Saint-Michel, where I'm writing this...
3. Finally, there was a bit of a jump – I appreciate – between the discussion of Camus and Critchley and that of the ‘aesthetic moment’ in history.  I should clarify – because this was lazy thinking by me, or lazy expression at any rate – that the feeling of interest in history – the calling to history – is not necessarily a call to political action in just the same way as the moments of ethical demand discussed by Camus and Critchley.  Not just the same anyway.  But I would want to argue that it is in important regards analogous and can lead perfectly correctly to a desire to act and to ethical commitment in the present.  It certainly ought to lead one to support such commitment and action.

I hope this makes things a tad clearer.
* Or, and let me make this clear, happily slaughtering Kulaks or whoever in the name of Communism.  I have taken the Third Reich and the Holocaust because it does always seem to be the limit case that everyone discusses, but the same applies to any historical discussion of massacre and inhumanity.  That would be another component of my argument.  It’s not only opposed to right-wing political violence.  This is why I can only really take Critchley’s side rather than Žižek and Badiou’s, which is consciously inhuman.  This latter worries me about the trend towards the ‘post-human’.


  1. If I understand you rightly – and I'm sure you'll correct me if I'm not doing so - you're arguing that good history can only be written on the underlying ethical basis that all humans are of equal value and worthy of study. But in that case, you're effectively claiming that almost all history written more than 20 years ago is ethically bad history. Large quantities of history have traditionally been written by people who did not feel that women, or black people, or gays or Jews or the lower classes were of equivalent interest or value to the historian.

    To take one specific flagrant example, because I happened to come across it a while ago, this is a statement from John Harvey, The Plantagents (revised edition from 1959) (p. 120):

    'Whatever the merits of the case [the supposed ritual murder of Little St Hugh of Lincoln by Jews] it is difficult to doubt the statesmanship of Edward's decision to remove the whole Jewish community'.

    While I had not otherwise heard of Harvey, a bit of digging around shows him to be a distinguished architectual historian. Should we try and argue that such an attitude makes all of his works historical failures? Or argue that he's somehow not a 'proper' historian?

    I think we have to accept that just as great music or great literature can be written by thoroughly nasty people (there was a recent discussion about this with reference to V.S. Naipul on a blog I read), there is important work done by historians with offensive views, and unfortunately, some poor quality done by really nice people. This is ceratinly the case with women's history.

    But I'd also add one further point. I think the most important thing that historians can do with regard to the ethic of universal human value is to model it in their lives. I was very lucky to have Jinty Nelson as my PhD supervisor, and her efforts to respect other researchers and find interest in research that wasn't necessarily to her own taste made a big impact on me. I wouldn't claim to be a brilliant ethical model myself, but I think any discussion of ethics for historians does need at least a mention of how we might be able to develop that kind of virtue ethics in ourselves and our students.

  2. Hi Guy

    I agree with the comment that we all need to be careful with the whole "good thing" and "bad thing" terminology. You seem to be taking on some very large arguments here that while applicable and important to history go way beyond it.
    To use your example, the judgement of whether the holocaust is "right" or "wrong" is a reflection of the society in which the judgement is being made. Any view, therefore, of the ethics of a historian are therefore made through the same societal filter.
    This probably exhausts what I should legitimately say about history, but reflecting back to my own field I would suggest two examples that offer a similar problem:
    1. Religion (well, belief in God anyway) - is this a viable, reasonable view for a rational person to take, or a delusion? Any definition of a delusion within psychiatry can only be valis if held against the mirror of what society calls "normal".
    2. Schizophrenia. I mis-wiring of the brain or possession by demons. In a society where the supernatural is considered everyday the latter is a "right" explanation leading to treatment that our society would consider both barbaric and ineffective. Again though it is society's boudaries that define the "rightness" or "wrongness" of an action or viewpoint.

    So, to me your very interesting discussion/monologue seems to be trying to reconcile the ethics of your profession against something which might be undefinable, unless you are "fixing" a particular societal, ethical framework in which it can sit. To make this work more widely you would first need to prove that there are some universal ethical "truths" that you could then measure history against.

    (and I don't think there actually are)

    ...back to the philosophers?

    Anyway, back to scraping the cornflakes off the breakfast bowls.



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