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HISTORY WARS II: Intellectual Fallout

Necessity of a particularly military sort has been the great mother of twentieth-century invention. The list of modern "improvements" that owe their existence, or at least accelerated development, to the stimulus of warfare is a long one. Plastic, computers, transport by jet airplane, radio, an integrated civil service, prepackaged foods, and radiation harnessed for treating the sick are only some of the items belonging on such a list.

Whether the cultural wars of the twentieth century will imitate the shooting wars by accelerating the development of useful intellectual spinoffs is an open question. Current debates over the meaning and uses of history, which are antagonistic enough to justify being called at least guerrilla war, are an excellent case in point. Publishers' lists now bulge with books on the subject, titled both provocatively—for example, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History—and prosaically—for example, In Face of Facts: Moral Inquiry in American Scholarship. Extensive disputes over what it means to study the past have engaged and en raged historians, philosophers, cultural critics, literary scholars, and the occasional learned amateur.

The Christian stake in the modern history wars is immense. Every aspect of lived Christianity—worship, daily godliness, private devotion, religiously inspired benevolence—and every major theme of Christian theology—the nature of God in relation to the world, the meaning of Christ, the character of salvation—directly or indirectly involve questions about how the present relates to the past. Thick books arising from long and prayerful thought, not rapid surveys like this one that reflect reading on the run, are required for adequate Christian assessment of the History and Christianity Question as it stands at the end of the millennium. What a quick survey of a dozen or so recent books can do, however, is explore some of the backgrounds to battle, sort out some of the contested terrain, and attempt to identify the most important causi belli. It might even begin the process of identifying friends and foes of believing interests, although that exercise may in fact lead to considerable surprise.


The main developments that led to the current battle have been expertly summarized in several useful books, especially in clear surveys by Georg Iggers and the team of Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob. Iggers, a German-born historian at SUNY-Buffalo, traces a primarily European story that begins with the emergence of the modern historical seminar at the University of Berlin in the 1820s under the guidance of Leopold von Ranke. Sustained by great personal drive and buoyed by optimism drawn from Enlightenment, Romantic, and Christian sources, von Ranke contended that diligent research in state archives would lay bare the genesis of modern nations and so re veal history "as it really was in its essence" (wie es eigentlich gewesen). Over the next 140 years, von Ranke's concentration on elite males as the main actors in political and military narratives was greatly expanded as various forms of social history, Marxist history, critical history, and quantitative history came in and out of fashion among different populations of historians. Yet his ideal of historical investigation as a rigorously critical enterprise ("scientific" in the broad sense of the term) that yields truths about the past—sometimes The Truth—survived. Only with the modern "linguistic turn," with which Iggers closes his account, was that ideal challenged and, as he reads it, the future of history as a scholarly discipline cast into doubt.

The last part of Iggers's book leads naturally to the expert account of the American scene provided by Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob. Unlike Iggers, these three distinguished historians do not regard the modern situation as a crisis. They point out at the start of their book that their own participation in the historical profession, as women from nonelite social backgrounds, could not have happened without the intermingled social and intellectual changes of recent decades. Yet these authors do want to discriminate between welcome aspects of the forces that upset traditional history writing and symptoms of revolutionary excess that they think go too far.

In their account, the collapse of three previous "absolutisms" are most important. First was a heroic myth about the United States' own history interpreted as the rise of "the successful male white Protestant, whose features were turned into ideals for the entire human race." Against this myth have arisen various forms of social history that treat once-marginalized populations (women, African Americans, workers, immigrants) as important historical actors. The result is sharp contention among proponents of these various groups as to which of them is most central or important for the truest understanding of America's real history. Much of the recent controversy over the National History Standards came from this kind of contention.

Second, according to our authors, was a myth about the intellectual purity of science. So long as this myth survived, historians could dignify their labor by showing how careful archival research resembled the research of scientists, because it sought verifiable conclusions drawn from facts arranged objectively to tell the truth. Against this myth arose the subversive notion that science too was a social process (or, more radically, a social construction), much more like other products of human mental activity like art, nationalism, or religious belief than had previously been thought. Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions from 1962 was the catalyst for this revolutionary assault. The tremors resulting from this work also shook the ground on which historians stood—if scientific procedures were governed by much larger social conventions and did not necessarily yield pristine, irrefragable, objective results, how much less history, with its incomplete "data sets," its inability to replicate "experiments," and its lack of "verifiable" proof for conclusions.

Third were myths about the ability of language to reflect reality or, put another way, the unexamined assumption that statements about human conditions were indeed really about those conditions rather than about the ones who made the statements. Here the precipitate of tumult was writing from Europe, often France, suggesting that language revealed much more about how humans perceived ("constructed") their experience than what they found in a supposedly "real" world (Jacques Derrida), and that statements about human activities in the past were mostly encrypted devices aimed at solidifying relationships of power in the present (Michel Foucault). For history writing, such assertions threatened notions about recreating the past wie es eigentlich gewesen as remorselessly as they undercut notions about historians' ability to float free above the political conflicts of their own day. Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob go on in Telling the Truth About History to show why they think destruction of the mythic absolutes was not as disastrous as some cultural commentators fear, but the most important contribution of their volume remains its diagnosis of the current historiographical situation.

Other recent books add welcome specificity to this more general picture. Keith Windschuttle's The Killing of History, an all-out counterblast against revolutionary trends, is distinguished both by its place of origin and its skill at describing problems. Windschuttle is an Australian who puts to good use lively recent controversy among historians of his country over such issues as the settlement of Australia itself, the European conquest of the Americas, and the encounter of Europeans and natives in Hawaii. He also explores the work of theorists who can be lumped together as postmodernists, along with the labors of what Windschuttle regards as the Australian and American lackeys who parrot their masters' gibberish. Windschuttle stands resolutely with traditionalists on these contested questions, and he is not subtle in expressing his distaste for Foucault, Kuhn, and other thinkers like Anthony Giddens and David Bloor. But because he is also patient in outlining and quoting from the work of modern revisionists, readers come away with a good sense not only of Windschuttle's positions, but also of those to which he objects—for example, Foucault's assertion that "Each society has its regime of truth … the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned." The Killing of History is, thus, a lively primer of a practice in dispute as well as a prescription for a cure.

Ewa Domanska's Encounters is a very different kind of book. This young Polish historian was in the Netherlands in the early 1990s as a student of Franklin Ankersmit, one of the leading philosophers promoting revisionist understandings of the past, when she began interviewing historians about postmodern efforts to reconceptualize the writing of history. This book collects 11 such interviews, including one of herself. A few of its subjects, like Georg Iggers and Domanska's fellow Pole Jerzy Topolski, have serious reservations about applying postmodernism to historical study, but many of her subjects promote this move with one degree of approval or another. The interviews are fascinating. They make clear, for instance, that "postmodern ism" represents a set of overlapping meanings rather than a sharply defined essence. According to Hans Kellner's account of Foucault, postmodernism is the "assertion that discourse—the linguistic forms that institutional power takes—lies impenetrably between us and the past." In a different rendering, to Lionel Gossman, who writes on modern European literature and politics, postmodernism means "the end of all such [modern] narratives or myths of progress and of the belief that the universal or totality is either attainable or even desirable. The emphasis is on the fragmentary character of everything."

Domanska's volume also succeeds in revealing the human beings behind the theories. Especially striking is her interview with Hayden White, whose 1973 book, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe, was a landmark that cleared the way for more radical proposals. Its influential argument was that the widely recognized great historians of nineteenth-century Europe actually functioned like novelists in how they "plotted" their narratives. White seemed to say that the difference between history and fiction was nominal rather than real, and so he seemed to open a doorway for others to make even more extreme assertions about the aesthetic, rather than epistemological, connection between the past as it had actually unfolded and later efforts to narrate past events. In his interview with Domanska, how ever, White de scribes himself as a "structuralist," calls Metahistory a "modernist" project, and denies that he promotes a "postmodern conception of history." If White's own statement of how history writing works might be read as an example of postmodern antirealism, it can also be construed in a Kantian way as leaving open the possibility of some kind of real connection between past events, though mediated by imagination, and a form of genuine knowledge: "what historians produce are imaginative images of the past that have a function rather like the recall of the past events in one's own individual imagination. … [There is no contradiction between the imagination and the real] because what would be meant by the real is always something that is imagined."

The great value of the interviews in Encounters is to slow down the rush to judgment, to suggest that complexities are at work in any serious discussion about the nature of historical knowledge. In the next installment of this essay, we will return to Domanska's own views on postmodernism and history, but as a reporter, she has done real service by adding nuance, complexity, and the messiness of the personal voice to programmatic categories that are often treated as simple, straightforward, and self-evidently helpful (or harmful).


Bonnie Smith's The Gender of History is only one of the many painstakingly researched and carefully (even dully) written recent monographs showing why there deserves to be commotion over the status of historical knowledge. In her case, Smith uses the kind of research that is professionally recognized, "scientific," and archivally grounded to demonstrate that professional recognition, "science" as applied to historical study, and nineteenth-century conventions about how to use archives were all notions constructed in elite social environments that axiomatically assumed maleness to be the preserve of clear-eyed truth and femaleness to be a domain of emotion-laden naivete. In Smith's words, "Professionalism … involved control of the mirror of history by university men, whose founding practices depended on discrediting the historical vision of outsiders as feminine and thus 'low.' " As a result of her own careful research, she insists that modern standards of professional historians are all products of "multiple practices, impulses, cognitions, and subject matter that men and women have interactively devised out of a socially built and cognitively expressed alterity."

The bulk of Smith's book relates the stories of women historians in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, like Lucy Maynard Salmon and Mary Ritter Beard, who, despite often formidable intellectual power and mastery of relevant archives, were systematically excluded from the socially sanctioned male domains where "real" history writing took place. The story of those women is well told in this book, but its larger importance is to suggest that what is now regarded as a universally valid, "neutral" way to carry out historical research was, in fact, the specific product of a particular time and place framed by particular power relationships and linguistic conventions that, among other things, posited a strong notion of male superiority and female inferiority.

The Ankersmit-Kellner symposium spells out what revisionist philosophers make of the kind of situation described in Smith's volume. A New Philosophy of History does contain a few concessions to traditional views. Frank Ankersmit, for example, is willing to concede that "historical statements" (e.g., George Washington commanded the Army of the Continental Congress in the American War for Independence) are falsifiable, but he then argues that "historical texts" (e.g., a book depicting the American Revolution as the triumph of liberty) are not. The latter, in Ankersmit's view, resemble novels or paintings, which are primarily products of the human imagination. They can hardly be called depictions of what was Really Out There.

Most of the contributors to this volume—respected historians, philosophers, and literary critics at institutions such as Wesleyan, Virginia, Duke, McGill, Texas, Utrecht—have even less time for what they consider naive notions about the abilities of written histories to represent "reality." Rather, the authors agree, in the words of Hans Kellner's introduction, that "history can be redescribed as a discourse that is fundamentally rhetorical, and that representing the past takes place through the creation of powerful, persuasive images which can be best understood as created objects, models, metaphors or proposals about reality."

For several of the authors, a leading guide in this process of "redescription" is Richard Rorty, who has made a career out of cheerfully pointing out the emptiness of classical questions in epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics. The shift these authors describe and applaud is from an ideal of history grounded in the scientism of Carl Hempel—featuring schemes of "verification" and aspirations toward "covering laws"—to one governed by Thomas Kuhn's notion of "paradigm." As extreme Kantian romantics, they affirm, again in Kellner's words, "a full-blown concept that language constitutes the knowable world, limits the ways in which we can know and represent it, and offers us as natural what is in fact conventional." The book is an unusually clear guide to the implications of systematically applying postmodern standards to the tasks of history.

Most practicing historians, as we soon note, are not at all comfortable with such reasoning. An exception is David Harlan, a historian at Cal State, San Luis Obispo. Harlan is, in fact, an enthusiast for a post-postmodernist history. With evangelistic zeal, he decries what he calls "the whole tired debate about the ontological status of historical narrative," and he accepts gladly what "Barthes, Derrida, and Foucault" have proclaimed about the impossibility of treating "texts as objects that should be transparent, as signs of something else."

Harlan's argument, which will eventually come to a surprising conclusion, goes like this: history writing in the United States is now at a paralyzing impasse because historians have sold their souls to the false gods of professionalism and scientific precision. The result is the production of more and more exhaustively researched monographs about matters of less and less significance. Moreover, leading American historians make the situation worse by hanging on to an ideal of objectivity in historical writing and by defending various kinds of pragmatic truth as the special contribution of historical study.

Forget it, urges Harlan. The postmodernists have taught "us" (Harlan's "us" is an infuriating locution sprinkled liberally throughout his pages) that historians' language, like everyone else's, is not up to these tasks. Instead, Harlan wants historians to pursue "the possibility that we could go all the way with contemporary theory and come out the other end with a reinvigorated but nevertheless traditional vision of history, that is, history as a form of moral reflection."

That is Harlan's surprise. He is thoroughly postmodern, but he is also thoroughly committed to the moral meaning of history. Professionalism and a fixation on objectivity have, in his opinion, made historians afraid to talk about right and wrong, which in his view the great historians of the past (like Perry Miller) were always eager to do. In his eyes, his proposal is "traditional" since it returns history to what it does best—"it is the stories that interest and sustain us, not the truth claims made on their behalf. … It is the values we find in those stories that count for us." Harlan, in other words, proposes a radical divorce between fact and value in order to save value. Truth claims for Harlan reside exclusively in the realm of morals, not in the realm of fact.

To a traditional Christian, Harlan's argument is disconcerting. Morality in classic Christian terms rests on a real, God-given natural law, on divine commands like those revealed in the Ten Commandments, or on both. The heart of the gospel also seems bound up with a realistic view of history: "if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith" (1 Cor. 15:14). In this traditional Christian view, Harlan's appeal for an antirealist morality doesn't compute. Yet the moral goal of his argument is not the only apparent anomaly in this book. Among all the authors considered here, Harlan is only one of two (along with Thomas Haskell) to pay even the slightest attention to historic Christianity; he is the only one to refer to the Bible with respect; and he is the only one to draw on classical Christian thinkers such as Augustine, Luther, Pascal, Edwards, and Kierkegaard to make his case. My own feeling is that Harlan's argument is at bottom incoherent, and that his belief in a morality that flourishes because it is cut off from the realm of verifiable fact is a fatal delusion. Yet his passionate appeal for a history writing aimed at moral reflection and his deep engagement with Christian tradition begins to suggest that it might not be quite as simple for traditional Christian believers to identify allies and antagonists in the modern history wars as might first appear.


Most professional historians are far more intellectually conservative than David Harlan, and far less interested in philosophy to boot. From the small minority who take time to address theoretical issues, the preferred solution to postmodernist challenges might be styled the stiff upper lip of common sense. These more typical responses are well represented by a solid set of books from working historians, including Telling the Truth About the Past, whose authors have won renown as students of early American political thought (Appleby), French politics and culture (Hunt), and the wider social meanings of the scientific revolution (Jacob); in the survey by Iggers, who has written a number of well-received studies of German historical practice; in the Streitschrift by Richard Evans, a distinguished British historian of modern German topics, including debate among German historians about whether and how to factor guilt for the Holocaust into the writing of German history; and in the collection of essays from Thomas Haskell of Rice University, one of the most judiciously fair-minded American scholars now writing on large-scale questions of historical interpretation, whose book will be treated at length in the next installment of this essay.

To revisionist assertions that conventional history writing has involved staggering self-deception, the standard response of working historians is often to concede that poststructuralist, deconstructive, and postmodernist proposals have indeed provided some helpful clarifications. Iggers's acknowledgment of positive lessons derived from postmodernism is fuller than most, but still representative. He agrees that promoters of "the linguistic turn" have "rightly raised the point that history taken as a whole contains no immanent unity or coherence, that every conception of history is a construct constituted through language, that human beings as subjects have no integrated personality free of contradictions and ambivalences, and that every text can be read and interpreted in different ways because it expresses no unambiguous intentions." In addition, Iggers thinks that "Foucault and Derrida have with good justification pointed out the political implications of language and hierarchical relations of power inherent in it." Once having made this kind of concession, however, the working historians pull back. They refuse to agree with a bon mot of Stanley Fish, which David Harlan quotes and then urges upon his fellow historians: "Once you start down the anti-formalist road, there is no place to stop."

The working historians think they can stop. Richard Evans holds that postmodernist history collapses under its own logical weaknesses: "Why, after all, if all theories are equally valid, should we believe postmodernist theories of history rather than other theories?" Evans is also troubled by what he considers the moral dead end of postmodernist history, and he is especially disturbed over the dignity lent to Holocaust deniers and their ilk when language is treated as opaque to historical events. His conclusion is to reaffirm that "the truth about patterns and linkages of facts in history is in the end discovered not invented, found not made."

A similar combination of methodological and moral reservations holds Iggers back from joining the postmodernists from whom he admits he has learned a great deal. For his part, Iggers contends that the Enlightenment ideal, which is so systematically savaged by postmodernist polemics, should not be consigned to oblivion. Iggers can see how "the universalism of the Enlightenment and its faith in rational planning and control" led to the totalitarianism of Robespierre and Lenin, but he also contends that "the stress on the autonomy of the enlightened individual" offers powerful resources for resisting "all forms of arbitrary authority and total control." Iggers's summing up is graphic: "The alternative to an albeit chastened Enlightenment is barbarism."

The alternatives envisioned by Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob are not as dire, but they too think that recognizing some virtue in multiculturalist and postmodernist attacks on conventional historical understanding need not lead to the loss of either truth or morality in historical writing. Their prescription for rescuing what seems to be threatened is pragmatism resting on democracy. As they see it, opening up historical study so that women, African Americans, homosexuals, and other previously silenced groups can compete in writing the story of America is a good thing: "Far from diluting or distorting knowledge, democratic practices have toughened and seasoned the truths that have been generated since the eighteenth century." Their faith in democracy is greater than their fear of polarized, antagonistic, segregated ideological communities each writing a history in compatible with all others. The kind of historical truth that a democratic scramble for control of the past produces will be pragmatic, not ontological; it will be potentially transitory; but it will not for those reasons be insubstantial: "pragmatism makes a distinction we consider crucial: all knowledge can be provisional in theory, without eliminating the possibility of some truths prevailing for centuries, perhaps forever."

As Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob describe it, this vision of democratic and pragmatic historical interpretation does not seem too reassuring. Recent public controversies, like the battle over the Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution, seem, rather, to point out how easily the harnessing of ideological animus to the mighty engines of mass communication can easily overwhelm well-intentioned efforts to get at the truth concerning contested historical events. In short, the skill with which Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob have depicted the recent historiographical landscape offers stronger support for the possibilities of meaningful historical knowledge than do the principles of their democratic pragmatism.

Next issue: History Wars III: Allies?

Mark Noll is McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College.


Georg G. Iggers, Historiography in the Twentieth Century: From Scientific Objectivity to the Postmodern Challenge (Wesleyan Univ. Press, 182 pp.; $15.95, paper, 1997).

Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob, Telling the Truth About History (Norton, 322 pp.; $25, hardcover; $13.95, paper, 1994).

Keith Windschuttle, The Killing of History: How Literary Critics and Social Theorists Are Murdering Our Past (Free Press, 298 pp.; $24.50, 1996).

Ewa Domanska, Encounters: Philosophy of History After Postmodernism (Univ. Press of Virginia, 293 pp.; $55, hardcover; $19.50, paper, 1998).

Bonnie G. Smith, The Gender of History: Men, Women, and Historical Practice (Harvard Univ. Press, 306 pp.; $35, 1998).

Frank Ankersmit and Hans Kellner, Eds., A New Philosophy of History (Univ. of Chicago Press, 300 pp.; $55, hardcover; $19.95, paper, 1995).

David Harlan, The Degradation of American History (Univ. of Chicago Press, 289 pp.; $41, hardcover; $15.95, paper, 1997).

Richard J. Evans, In Defense of History (Norton, 320 pp.; $25.95, 1999).

Thomas L. Haskell, Objectivity Is Not Neutrality: Explanatory Schemes in History (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, $35.95, 1998).

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