Hereditas Historiae

Website hosted by Irène Diependaal to foster some historical knowledge necessary to understand our present times

The limits of historical knowledge   

Clio, Muse of History. Arsemia Gentileschi (1632)

Jeremy Black & Don MacRaild (2016): ‘Each generation of historians has rethought the way in which history is conceived and written. However, unlike previous attempts to redefine or reorientate the discipline, postmodernism threatens the foundations - the epistemological roots - of the discipline. Borrowing somewhat eclectically from a loosely defined school of French philosophers (especially Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault and Jaques Derrida), current postmodernist philosophers of history, such as Keith Jenkins (Rethinking History, 1991), argued that because 'The past has occurred ... [it] can only be brought back again by historians in a very different media, for example in books, articles, documentaries, etc., not as actual events [emphasis added].' Jenkins pressed home his point with the revelation that because students cannot go back in time, they cannot claim to study particular periods, only writings on those periods. For Jenkins, historical writing is not scientific, objective, fixed or real; it is free-floating, relative, subjective, and, above all, “an inter-textual linguistic construct”. Postmodernism seeks to undermine each of the key dynamics of history. […] Postmodernist historians, encouraged by Foucault and Derrida, consider that texts have no fixed meaning and that, for example, historical documents change meaning with each authorial inference. Evidence is, therefore, not about a recoverable reality. Instead, as Alun Munslow, in Deconstructing History (1997), argued, it is simply a “chain of significations and interpretations”. [….] Most postmodernist arguments seem to be double-edged. That is, they apply just as much to postmodern philosophy as they do to historical writing. Thus, when Keith Jenkins denigrated an A-level in Tudor history as an A-level in Geoffrey Elton, we can just as easily point out that reading postmodernism is simply reading Keith Jenkins and his friends. [….]’

Michel Foucault,  by Nemomain (

John Tosh in his classic introduction to the study of history (2015)

The challenge of Postmodernism.  So far this evaluation of historical enquiry has implied a hierarchy of approaches in which positivist science stands as the ultimate yard stick of intellectual rigour. Scientific method is here viewed as the only means of gaining direct knowledge of reality, past or present. The procedures of historicism offer a scarcely tenable defence, and to the extent that they fall short of scientific method must be deemed inferior. This debate has been running for as long as history has been seriously studied, and it shows no sign of being resolved. However, in the past three decades the hand of the sceptics has been strengthened by a major intellectual shift within the humanities which has rejected historicism as the basis for history and all other text-based disciplines. This is Postmodernism. Its hallmark is the prioritization of language over experience, leading to outright scepticism as to the human capacity to observe and interpret the external world, and especially the human world. The implications of Postmodernism for the standing of historical work are potentially serious and must be addressed with some care. […]

The limitations of Postmodernism. However, there is a limit beyond which most historians will not go in embracing Postmodernism. Many welcome a greater sophistication in interpreting texts and a heightened awareness of the cultural significance of historical writing. But few are prepared to join in a rejection of the truth claims of history as usually practised. Confronted by the full force of the deconstructionist critique, historians tend to be confirmed in their preference for experience and observation over first principles. In theory, an impeccable case can be made for the proposition that all human language is self-referential rather than representational. But daily life tells us that language works extremely well in many situations where meaning is clearly articulated and correctly inferred. On any other assumption human interaction would break down completely. If language demonstrably serves these practical functions in the present, there is no reason why it should not be understood in a similar spirit when preserved in documents dating from the past. Of course there is an element of indeterminancy about all language; the lapse of time serves to increase it, and a 300-year-old text straddling two or three discourses may be very difficult to pin down. Historians frequently acknowledge that they cannot fathom all the levels of meaning contained in their documents. But to maintain that no text from the past can be read as an accurate reflection of something outside itself flies in the face of common experience. In a set of trade figures or a census return the relation between text and reality is palpable (which is not to say that it is necessarily accurate). A carefully considered literary production such as an autobiography or a political tract disguised as a sermon presents much more complex problems, but it is still important to recognize that their authors were attempting a real engagement with their readers, and to get as close as we can to the spirit of that engagement. It is at this point that historians invoke the discipline of historical context. The meanings that link words and things are not arbitrary but follow conventions created by real culture and real social relations. The task of scholarship is to identify these conventions in their historical specificity and to take full account of them in interpreting the sources. Whereas exponents of the linguistic approach treat “context” as meaning other texts only, with the further complication that they too invite a variety of readings, historians insist that texts should be set in the full context of their time. That means taking seriously not just the resources of language but the identity and background of the author, the conditions of production of texts, the intended readership, the cultural attitudes of the time and the social relations that enveloped writer and readers. Every text is socially situated in specific historical conditions; in the useful phrase of Gabrielle Spiegel, there is a “social logic of the text” which is open to demonstration by historical enquiry. So, for example, my reading of the language of late nineteenth-century imperialism can be taken seriously because the strains in gender relations at that time are very well documented, and because the cultural identification of empire with masculinity bore some relation to imperial realities. No doubt deconstruction could yield other interpretations, more elegant and intriguing than this; but unless they have a firm anchorage in historical context, they amount to an imposition by the critic on the text. Respect for the historicity of the sources is fundamental to the historical project; the point at which it is breached is where historians part company with the deconstructionists. Historians do not claim that in all cases their method can uncover every dimension of textual meaning; in order for historical work to be done, it is sufficient to demonstrate that some of the original meaning can be reclaimed. The verification of historical events and the discipline of historical context mean that historians can distinguish between what happened in history and the discourse in which it is represented.

The need for historical explanation.  Historians are no more willing to jettison the truth claims of the accounts that they themselves construct. It is one thing to acknowledge the rhetorical aspects of historical writing but quite another to treat it as only - or largely - rhetoric. Historical narratives are certainly moulded by the historian’s aesthetic sense, but they are not inventions: some, like the major revolutionary upheavals, arise partly from the consciousness of those who lived through them; others fall into shape through the benefit of historical hindsight. The stories we tell ourselves about the past may not be completely coherent or completely convincing, but they are rooted in the fact that human beings not only believe them but enact them on the assumption that social action is a continuum through past, present and future. The task of historical explanation is similarly one that cannot be shirked. It represents not an escape from the real world, as the bleaker versions of Postmodernism insist, but an application of reason, based on patterns of cause and consequence which go beyond the confined domain of intertextuality. As for the emancipatory potential of competing narratives, this amounts to little if the ambitions of each identity group are confined to producing a history that is “true” only for its own members. Real empowerment comes from writing history that carries conviction beyond one’s own community, and this means conforming to the scholarly procedures that historians of all communities respect. That, rather than the consolation prize of a permissive relativism, has been the objective of most “multicultural” historians. Despite the pessimism of some conservative commentators, pluralism does not necessarily mean relativism. The nub of the Postmodernist critique is that historicism is dead and should be abandoned as a serious intellectual endeavour. In fending off this attack, historians point out not only that the weaknesses of historical enquiry have been grossly exaggerated but that a broadly historicist stance towards the past is culturally indispensable. It is a precondition of critical social thought about the present and the future. As Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt and Margaret Jacob put it, “Rejecting all meta-narratives cannot make sense, because narratives and meta-narratives are the kinds of stories that make action in the world possible.” A consciousness of the past as “other”, a set of coherent narratives linking past and present, and an explanatory mode of historical writing are all practical necessities. If the ambition to know the past is completely surrendered, we shall never be able to determine how the present came to be. The social function of history is not to be so lightly abandoned.

Theoretical objections, practical answers. In questioning the credentials of historical knowledge, Postmodernism has breathed fresh life into a strand of scepticism that society in the present and the future. If history was uncontested it would fail to provide the materials for critical debate on the social issues of the day. Plurality of historical interpretation is an essential - if underestimated - prerequisite for a mature democratic politics. The past will never be placed beyond controversy; nor should it be.’

Some important titles (in chronological order)

R.G. Collingwood, The Idea of History (1946, revised edition with lectures 1993).  W.H. Walsh, Philosophy of History. An Introduction (1950, revised edition 1967).  

W.H. Walsh, Philosophy of History. An Introduction (1950, revised edition 1967). 

E.H. Carr, What is History? (1961, several reprints in different kind of editions afterwards). 

W.H. Walsh, An Introduction to Philosophy of History (1961, reprints afterwards). 

H. Butterfield, The Present State of Historical Scholarship. An Inaugural Lecture (1965). Reprinted in: Herbert Butterfield, Herbert Butterfield on History (1985).

G.R. Elton, The Practice of History (1969, several reprints in different kind of editions afterward).

Arthur Marwick, The Nature of History (London 1970).   

C. Benan McCullagh, Justifying historical descriptons (1984).  

Hayden White, The Content of the Form (1987).  

Peter Novick, That Noble Dream. The “Objectivity Question and the American Historical Profession (1988).  

Thomas L. Haskell, “Objectivity is not Neutrality: Rhetoric vs. Practice in Peter Novick's That Noble Dream”, History and Theory 29 (1990).  

G.R. Elton, Return to Essentials. Some reflections on the present state of historical study (1991).  

Keith Jenkins, Rethinking History (1991; republished in 2003 with conversation between Keith Jenkins and Alun Munslow).  

John Vincent, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to History (1995).

Keith Jenkins, On ‘What is History?’ From Carr and Elton to Rorty and White (1995).  

Richard J. Evans, In Defence of History (1997).  

Alun Munslow, Deconstructing History (1997, revised edition 2006).  

George G. Iggers, Historiography in the Twentieth Century. From Scientific Objectivitity to the Postmodern Challenge  (1997, republished with new epilogue in 2005).  

Keith Jenkins (ed), The Postmodern History Reader (1997).  

Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt and Margaret Jacob, Telling the Truth about History (1997).  

C. Benan McCullagh, The Truth of History (1998).  

Michael Bentley, Modern Historiography. An Introduction (1999). 

Keith Jenkins, Why History? Ethics and postmodernity (1999).  

John Tosh (ed), Historians on History. An Anthology (2000).  

Arthur Marwick, The New Nature of History. Knowledge, Evidence, Language (2001).  

C. Behan McCullagh, The Logic of History. Putting postmodernism in perspective (2004).  

F.R. Ankersmit, History and Tropology. The Rise and Fall of Metaphor (2009).  

Keith Jenkins (ed), At the limits of History. Essays on Theory and Practice  (2009).  

Alun Munslow, The Future of History (2010).

Alan Robinson, Narrating the Past. Historiography, Memory and the Contemporary Novel (2011). 

Afterword - Alun Munslow (2009)  

‘In writing this brief Afterword I am happy to admit to being partial. As Keith [Jenkins] has noted, I published several of the articles in this collection in the journal I co-edit Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice. Indeed, the journal’s title is a straight lift from Keith’s first and revolutionary text Rethinking History (1991). I also wrote a short preface to the second Classic Edition of that text (2003) and conducted the interview with Keith published in that book. In addition, our collaborations over the years have included the editing of The Nature of History Reader (2004) and, with Sue Morgan, Manifestos for History (2007). Keith and I have also offered mutual support on a variety of conference and lecture platforms over the years warding off the brickbats and even enjoying the occasional approval of the audiences. Not that Keith ever needed much help from me. His clarity of reasoning, unwillingness to suffer empiricists gladly and pugnacious attitude towards all critics usually saw off the invariably grumpy opposition. More often than not I just sat there and appeared rather meek and mild. Indeed, as a member of one audience once said to me it seemed to be a case of good cop and bad cop.

And this leads me to an important point. Keith’s analysis of the state of history thinking - summarised in 1997 in his essay included here from an early issue of the journal Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice - has all too often been met with the disapproval of historians of a particular kind (his description as I recall, but one I now use regularly). In this article he asked why we should bother with history. He has no regrets about his answer and nor should he have. As a self-professed disobedient historian as described in a Rethinking History essay published in 2003 and also reprinted here, he has always welcomed the opportunity to confront what I will call conventional empirical-analytical thinking and its vain efforts to deflate his arguments especially when he ran his “end of history” thesis. But, and most importantly for me, Keith has also been energetic in his efforts to rectify the situation of low esteem in which historical theory and philosophising about history was and is still held by many historians.

It is an index of this situation that so much of Keith’s work continues to be met by hostility and outrage. Probably because there have generally been far more of them, I tend to recall the criticisms more than the congratulations. It surprises me that so many conventional historians still seem to think it is “business as usual” and that history must remain a non-philosophical but sternly empirical-analytical and representational act. Why is it that so many still think this way given Keith’s lucid and, at least for me, largely unanswerable position? (….)

Since the early 1990s publication of Re-thinking History (1991) through to this collection with its typically disputatious Jenkinsite introduction, Keith has confronted the stubborn desire among so many practitioners to disregard the nature of any inquiry that takes them beyond their empirical, inferential and representational belief system. And yet, despite this fear of any historical thinking that takes us beyond simple empirical scepticism, his first polemical text remains a bestseller. The paradox in this may be because it still shocks and, while the death of postmodernism is now a conventional cliché, the analysis that that text (now a Routledge Classic) contains remains one of the most devastating critiques of both the attitude and professional practice of such historians. (….)

Although historians can “evidence” that something happened by reference to the sources this act cannot in and of itself sort out the elementary predicament of knowing what it truthfully means. History - analogically - is thus quite unlike a court of law. (….) Once it is acknowledged that the references can be the seat of more than one interpretation then the relativism at the heart of epistemology has surfaced. As Keith pointed out with his usual dogged determination this situation of uncertainty can only do more good than harm. As he has long and regularly pointed out: “truthful interpretation” is an oxymoron even if such an insight remains lost on all epistemologically inspired historians.

The epistemological vulnerability of history results, for Keith, from (a) the situation whereby evidence is selected rather than being self-selected, (b) that because representation always fails history cannot be a facsimile of the thing­-in-itself, (c) that historians are authors who create historical narratives, and (d) they cannot escape their own powers of creation (ontological and semantic). (….)

The repugnance engendered in conventionalists has resulted in the claim that Keith is arguing that historians cannot “tell the truth about history”. And of course they were right - but not for the empirical and analytical reasons they offered. In a sense all Keith is saying is that it is unfeasible to tell the truth about a representation. In an echo of Ankersmit, depictions have no truth value even if they have referentiality. Only by denying this can historians open up a world where claims can be made that historians can “tell the truth about the French Revolution” or worse that they can learn their ethics from history. (….)

Until his book Why History? (1999) Keith was sworn postmodernist. This, I think, is because he believed (as did I) that deconstruction offered the prospect of liberating history from its magical (although the preferred term was practical) realist belief. (….)

As Keith suggests, history is out of joint and he sees in the work of Ankersmit and Cohen that both have fragmented our history culture and that this is not just a good thing, it is excellent. Although I have taken a path different to Keith in that I want to see many different understandings of history in the future rather than just forgetting it, I am indebted to his willingness to go where no historian has dared go before. And this is truly an excellent thing. I do not wish to summarise what I have said as a conclusion. In this Afterword I have merely selected a few ideas I have personally associated with Keith - the duty of the historian to be disobedient, his “end of history” argument, a programme of epistemic scepticism, the perpetual failure of representation and the unbridgeable gulf between “the past” and “history”. But I have omitted others. I leave it to you to reach your own conclusion about Keith and his work. But, whatever conclusion you do reach, please read more of his work than you may already have.’  

Postscript by Irène Diependaal, written for Hereditas Historiae

Irène Diependaal has never been a postmodernist in the narrow meaning of the philosophers of history. Her personal view is just like that of the conventional historians: solid evidence-based historical research to discover the historical truth is the foundation of historical studies. Of course there are limitations to research historical facts. Just like the intellectual discourse is a natural element in the study of history. However, the historiographical discussion by postmodernists turned out to be dangerous: it is opening the door to manipulation. Every historian who has been working in private archives does know the (soft) pressures to work according to the view of the owners and to write a “tactful” conclusion of research. Academic rules and conventions are therefore necessary: a historian is not a servant to be hired to prove something a non-historian wants to be proved and to present it is as result of “science”. Scholarly independence is not to be confused with disobedience to a commercial client or a patron of arts. Academic founded rules and conventions, which are clear-cut by a scholarly community of historians, sustains the individual historian in this independence while he or she is doing his or her job, while at the same time the reader of published conclusions or synthesis of the research is able to trust the historian has done his job well. The postmodernist discussion has destroyed the unity within the scholarly community on maintaining basic attitudes and has done a lot of harm to the conventional craft of skilled historians by denying a historical truth is ever to be reconstructed. The selection of quotations in the section “In pursuit of truthful history stories” does not represent the personal opinions of Irène Diependaal, but do give a reflection of her view in general.

However, it is also important to use literary writing styles. A good narrative style of writing is necessary to hold the attention of the reader. The broad audience of the readers nowadays demands well-written books: in the age of mass media a general reader needs to select which books are to be read and which are to be neglected. Apart from that, literary writing styles are useful in cases a lot of historical evidence does not exist anymore. A historian is always working with traces of evidence. Working with models borrowed from literature and notions learned from mass communication: it is possible for the historian to reach the intelligent reader without making statements which can’t be validated. An intelligent reader will recognise irony and a multi-layered book if the construction is quite clearly not an academic (re)consideration or a simple description of facts. In cases like that, the reader will use his or her imagination and will understand there exists a story which can’t be delivered by a historian with references to hard evidence.

So, in Irène Diependaal’s opinion the postmodernist historians were partly right: during historical research it is important to deconstruct historical texts, both primary texts and the writings of historians. Every age is creating its own research perspectives. The authors in “In pursuit for truthful history stories” were also right to warn for hindsight: we now what happened afterwards, but the historical person who wrote down some “evidence” didn’t. The authors quoted in “The historian as detective” gave some important warnings. Partly for the same reason it is dangerous to repeat what is already written down by a historian or to rely on a published selection of “evidence” by the heirs of the documents. A historian certainly has to be careful if he or she gets signals during the research that some established historical views are outdated or facts were manipulated in the past. The motto in cases like this: return to the evidences. The existing primary sources always have to be examined in their own right during historical research. Very often it is refreshing to start with archive research or reliable printed sources with an open mind without having read in an early stage of the research all the interpretations by later historians. In the pursuit of the truth it also important to check the conclusions by other historians and the manner in which an academic synthesis is delivered to the broader audience. Certainly if an historian is going into discussion with a colleague historian, this is an important procedure. Within the academic conventions the reference notes for history books are developed for a good reason: every reader has to be able to check the delivered information. Reference notes are part of the first step to clarify if the information is coming from a primary source or a book written by another historian. If another historian wants to check if the colleague has done a good job: they have to read all those books full of academic considerations themselves and to go to the archives to check all the evidence. The postmodernist historians were the first to use reference notes themselves and the topic problem of  the post-truth discussion was outside their scope. Besides, they were serving an academic public of peers and most often the postmodernist historians were honest people themselves. The problem is otherwise: with their denial to make a distinction between “fiction” and “non-fiction” the postmodernist historians made the present fashion of “faction” possible: a story of fiction based on the foundation of a collection of some true but also some manipulated and even invented facts.

Sir Geoffrey Elton made his view quite clear in Return to the Essentials (1991): ‘(…) we have come to accept so basic a fact about the historian's existence. He must from the beginning understand and accept that all he says will lack the perfection of proof, will be subject to review and perhaps attack, and will constitute part of an ever continuing dialogue. If he does his work well he can also rest assured that much of his reconstruction will stand up to future tests and that even errors and slips will almost certainly, by the correction they provoke, contribute to an improvement in understanding. Everything, therefore, depends on what one means by the phrase, “if he does his work well”, and there certainly exist differences of opinion on that point. I can only state my principles, though I can claim that they are principles which I have seen employed successfully by myself and by others. Nor are they very obscure, and they do not need to hide behind pseudo-intellectual jargon.’ Shortly afterwards the postmodern debate became overheated, but Sir Geoffrey already passed away (1994). Indeed, as most quotations above have showed, most historians did use a lot of jargon and some texts by philosophers of history listed above are very technical. Alun Munslow defended his own attitude in a lot of writings, but also wrote a handy companion to everyone who wants to try to understand the rather philosophical books and the terminology used by both conventional and postmodernist historians: The Routledge Companion to Historical Studies (2000). Of course, the (alphabetical) entries are reflecting his ideas, but the reference notes and his suggestions for further reading are useful.

Most books, listed above, gives - from the view of the authors - suggestions for further reading. They are useful for every historian to refine his or her skills.

The quotations on this page are taken  from:

Jeremy Black & Donald M. MacRaild, Studying History (4th revised edition, 2016). This classic introductory for history students gives a select, useful oversight on the postmodernist challenge and gives selections for further reading.

John Tosh, The Pursuit of History (6rd revised edition 2015).

Alun Munslow: Keith Jenkins (ed), At the limits of History. Essays on Theory and Practice (2009).

The passages taken from Tosh and Munslow: there are abridged.