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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 2: What is History? •

What is History?

A portrait of the Roman historian Tacitus

The principal office of history I take to be this: to preserve the memory of virtuous actions, and to prevent evil words and deeds by instilling the fear of an infamous reputation with posterity - Tacitus (55 - 117AD)

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What history is

by Professor Alun Munslow

How do historians, at least in the anglophone West, make history? By that I mean what consequences flow from the fact that all the events and processes in 'the past', are 'turned' by the historian into that narrative we call history? The debate on this 'narrative' or 'linguistic turn' - the recognition that history is a narrative about the past written in the here and now, rather than some distanced mirror of it - has been a significant issue within the profession for several years. What are some of the consequences that flow from this view of history as a narrative about the past constructed by the historian in the present?

Much of the debate on viewing history, as the narrative construction of the historian, is whether this judgement distorts what history is, what historians do, and it reflects upon the objectivity and truth-seeking nature of the exercise. As a writer of history it is my conclusion that the linguistic turn - the essential element in the postmodern challenge to a view of history founded solely on the empirical-analytical model - is no threat to the study of the past. This is not because it does not fundamentally change how we think about history - I think it can - but it offers the opportunity to redefine what we do and broaden the scope of our activities.

How do historians gain historical knowledge? It is assumed in every historical narrative that form always follows content. What this means is that the historical narrative must always be transparent in referring to what actually happened according to the evidence. As Voltaire said, and most conventionally trained historians might still agree, 'too many metaphors are hurtful...to truth, by saying more or less than the thing itself' (quoted in White 1973: 53). To get at the thing itself, objectivity is the aim and this demands the referential language of historians. With this aim and this tool we can infer the realities beneath the misleading world of appearances. To the Western modernist Enlightenment-inspired mind objectivity and the historical narrative must remain compatible.

The nineteenth century European critique of that vision, particularly in the work of Hegel and Nietzsche, moved beyond how knowledge is derived, to concentrate more how it is represented, and the effects the process of representation has upon the status and nature of our knowledge. This debate about knowing and telling within the European-American discipline of history continued into the last century in the work of many historian-philosophers: initially Benedetto Croce and R.G. Collingwood then, among many others, Carl Hempel, Ernest Nagel, Patrick Gardiner, and later Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Hayden White.

The study of the past has never been static. The practice of history has witnessed many shifts and turns in the way it is thought and undertaken. Since the 1960s, for example, the discipline of history has experienced a 'social science turn', a 'cliometric' or 'statistics turn', a 'women's history turn', a 'cultural history turn' and so on. These are not novelties that have not come and gone. Each has remained a significant way for historians to reflect upon and write about change over time. But, in all this one thing has apparently not altered. This is the epistemology of history. In spite of this rich variety of methodological developments or shifts and turns of interest, the foundational way historians 'know' things about the past' has been unchallenged. Despite the use of statistics, the new themes (society, women, gender, culture) and the application of fresh concepts and theories, there remain two steady points in the historian's cosmos: empiricism and rational analysis. As the product of the European eighteenth-century Enlightenment the empirical-analytical model has become the epistemology for undertaking the study of the past.

However, since the 1960s and 1970s something has changed at this epistemological level. Doubts about the empirical-analytical as the privileged path to historical knowing have emerged. This has not happened in history alone, of course. In all the arts, humanities, social sciences, and even the physical and life sciences the question is increasingly being put, how can we be sure that empiricism and inference really does get us close to the true meaning of the past? In history how can we trust our sources - not because they are forgeries or missing, but because of the claims empiricism is forced to make about our ability not only to find the data, but also just as importantly represent their meaning accurately? It is not an abstract or scholastic philosophical question to ask, where does meaning come from in history? Is it the past itself? Is its meaning simply ushered in by the historian. Is the historian merely the midwife to the truth of the past? Or is the historian unavoidably implicated in the creation of a meaning for the past. Does the past contain one true meaning or several? Is there one story to be discovered or several that can be legitimately generated? I think most historians today would agree on the latter analysis. The difference comes over the consequences of that implication, and what it does for truth. In other words is it the historian who provides the truth of the past as she represents it rather than as she finds it? This is the essence of the postmodern challenge, the turn to the narrative-linguistic and its implications.

What makes this turn more significant than the others is that it demonstrates a deeper change in our views concerning the conditions under which we create historical knowledge. In other words it has challenged history not with new topics or methods as such, but by confronting the discipline's empirical-analytical foundations. The linguistic turn in history, of course, continues to rely on the empirical-analytical model, but it extends the our epistemology to include its narrative-linguistic representation, the form we give to the past within our texts, and it accepts history as an essentially literary activity, one that is self-evidently authored. The emphasis now is less on history as a process of objective discovery and report but, rather, accepts its unavoidably fictive nature, that is, its literary constructedness. By this I mean recognising the figurative assumptions that underpin authorial activity in creating the text and which are already (in a pre-empirical sense) and necessarily brought to the historical field, often determining the selection of evidence and its most likely meaning. This is a process that is revealed by the complex analysis of authorial activity.

Postmodern history, because it is a literary as much as an empirical project, recognises it cannot escape its authorship. In other words, the past is not just re-interpreted according to new evidence but also through self-conscious acts of re-writing as well. Thus it is that history and the past cannot coincide to the extent that the former, whether we like it or not, is principally a narrative about the latter. Arguably there are no original centres of meaning to be found outside the narrative-linguistic. Data in and of itself does not have given meaning. Though empirical and analytical, postmodern history deliberately draws our attention to the conditions under which we create knowledge, in the case of history its nature as a series of forms, or turns perhaps, of a realist literature? In a very real sense the postmodern challenge forces us to face up to the highly complex question of how we know things about the past and what we, as moral beings, do as a result.

In other words, it extends the remit of history to include the historian's pre-narrative assumptions and how we translate those assumptions figuratively as we construct our strategies of narrative explanation. Postmodern historians thus ask many fresh questions. Are facts best thought of as events under a description? Is all data ultimately textual and, if so, what are its implications? Should history be written primarily according to literary rules and, if so, what are they? What is the significant difference between literary and figurative speech in history and how does it create historical meaning? How do we distinguish the historical referent of a discourse and its constructed, i.e., its ideological, meaning? Can history ever exist beyond discourse? And the very big question, is history what happened, or what historians tell us happened? All these have to be addressed when we do history, to ignore them is to do only half the job.

October 2001

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