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Response to Review of Doing History

We thank Beverley Southgate for his thoughtful and detailed review of our book. He provides a thorough overview of Doing History and on many matters clearly and accurately represents the views we were hoping to convey to audiences in the work. He is correct in his comment that in a book covering such a vast chronological, geographical and philosophical span there will be (hopefully minor) inaccuracies which lay the authors open to ‘sniping’. We therefore appreciate having our attention drawn to our description of Thucydides’ history. Although we note on page 20 that Thucydides was the author of a history of the Peloponnesian War, and while Thucydides does discuss the wars between the Trojans and the Greeks, it would have been preferable to describe the main subject of his history as the war between Athens and Sparta.

Concerning our reliance on ‘secondary’ sources, Doing History aims to provide a thoughtful and informed introduction to the current debates in the field of history without eliding the philosophical, political and ethical dimensions of these arguments. This necessarily entails the use of a range of ‘secondary’ sources as well as key theoretical texts, but we hope that we have not simply summarised the arguments of others, but instead used them as inspiration to produce new ways of thinking about old historiographical problems.

The main point of Southgate’s review that we would like to address here is his concern over our perceived epistemological ambivalence. Southgate organises his review of our work around the assumption that we are sitting on the historiographical fence; that there is a tension in our work between the traditional and postmodern approaches to history; that we are attracted by postmodern developments but can’t quite let go of the old certainties that a traditional realist epistemology provides. He hints that this failure to fully commit to the postmodern position may arise from our historical training or from a difference of opinion between the two authors. We would like to reassure Southgate that we are not only fully committed to, but we also agree upon, our epistemological understanding of history. To state it clearly for the record: we could both be reasonably described as Rortian anti-representationalists, that is we reject the epistemic model which conceives of our relationship with the world in representational terms and therefore distinguishes between the world as it is in itself and our perception of it. Similarly, we find correspondence theories of truth and meaning to be problematic and prefer instead what might broadly be termed coherence theories of truth, and a Wittgenstinian or Fishian model of meaning based upon use. In a historiographical context this means we are not convinced by the model that argues for the existence of a singular, true past that exists separately from our perception of it which can be accessed via a close study of primary sources and that ultimately determines the shape of (hi)stories. We prefer an epistemic model which acknowledges that the conventions and procedures for constructing historical knowledge are not fixed and immutable, nor do they therefore provide access to, or correspondence with, a stable, fixed, singular past. In our opinion history is simply one particular way of narrating the ‘before now’, a practice which is determined not by what actually happened, but a process which is shaped by the interests and interpretative frameworks of the historian, the questions asked, the available sources and the broader socio-political context in which it is constructed. There are therefore multiple possible valid pasts or narrations of the ‘before now’.

It seems that the possible confusion over our philosophical commitment to non-representationalist theories of knowledge and postmodern histories may have arisen from the non-polemical tone of our text and our desire to fairly represent the main arguments of both the main historiographical schools. This should not however, be confused with any kind of theoretical ambivalence, a desire to forge a middle path between the two approaches, or an attempt at objectivity or impartiality. We have no desire to be all things to all people, nor do we refuse to commit one way or another. As we note in the preface to our book we are not neutral, disinterested observers, we espouse a clearly articulated, and argued for, position. However, while Doing History is intended to provide a fresh approach to the often ‘stale debate’ surrounding historiographical issues we also wanted the book to work as an introduction to these discussions. We wanted those unfamiliar with the arguments to be excited and inspired. We wanted to help equip them with the vocabulary necessary to engage with the issues underlying the current debates about the status of historical knowledge. We wanted them to be able to take part in the conversation, without necessarily forcing them to take sides in a debate which they have only just encountered – something, which is, we stress, not the same as recommending that they never take a position. Our comment to students on page six that the debate does not necessarily require one to take sides is therefore not a plea for them to remain neutral or objective, but an attempt to make the debate more accessible and to foreground the philosophical issues without the polemical hectoring so common to books published by proponents of both sides. Although we are both persuaded that anti-representationalist models of knowledge provide a more coherent means of talking about the past, and that postmodern histories more usefully reflect the various interests surrounding such discussions, we felt that a less confrontational tone which tried to present the arguments of both sides fairly would be more heuristically beneficial in this particular book.

In a similar manner, we are not advocating mindless conformity to the protocols of history writing. We repeatedly acknowledge the contingent, community-determined nature of these rules and thus their amenability to change and modification. In our discussion we are simply acknowledging that students and historians working in the profession, if they want to pass their degrees, get books and articles published, be awarded grants, and have conference papers accepted – that is if they want to actively participate in the historical community – will have to abide by many of the established practices and conventions of that community. Moreover, if they abandon or re-interpret the protocols that they feel are no longer useful or pertinent to their work they will need to be able to coherently explain and justify their decision. We want to encourage students and historians to question the usefulness and appropriateness of the conventions and practices that make up the historical method, but before this can be done it is necessary to know what these rules are and why some historians consider them to be so important. It comes as no surprise that many historians who are experimenting with radically different historical forms are already established in their profession and have secure tenure. It is easier to rebel when one has a permanent job and an established reputation.

Southgate worries that our refusal to advocate a complete abandonment of the genre protocols for history in their entirety is further evidence of us wanting it both ways, that beneath our radical exterior lies a rather conservative core. Our reasons for not arguing for such a collective abandonment do not arise out of a conservative desire to ensure that history remains unchanged. Instead, as we note on page 112, despite the contingent nature of these protocols it is not possible for an author to abandon them all simultaneously and also have their work recognised as history. We recognise a piece of writing as belonging to one genre rather than another because we are part of a community of readers who implicitly agree on the norms that constitute a text as an example of a particular genre. It is therefore community-determined convention that allows one to recognise a particular text as being representative of a specific genre. If one abandons all the usual markers of a genre then an audience simply will not recognise the text as being of that genre. Moreover, what we actually say on page 192 is that we do not foresee, nor necessarily desire, such a collective abandonment. Equally though, if the rules governing the practice of history were to change entirely then we would welcome this new re-conception of the discipline manifested by its proponents and we would be curious to see what form these new historical texts would take. It would certainly not be something that we would worry about or disapprove of.

Lastly, as a result of our comments in the conclusion concerning the possible ontological function that memorialising the past or story-telling about the ‘before now’ may have for human communities, Southgate seems concerned that we believe that there is something essential about history that transcends the contingency of the practices and customs of individual human societies. However, our argument was simply that all human societies seem to feel a need to tell stories about the ‘before now’ either textually, or through dance, art or music. We are suggesting that this propensity for narrating the past in a variety of forms of which history, as we recognise it today, is only one, might reflect a common desire among human communities to establish a sense of self by making explicit connections with past ancestors. But this is a very different claim to arguing that there is something essential, natural, fixed and enduring about history. On the contrary we argue throughout the book that history is a contingent, culturally determined, fluid practice.

To conclude, we thank Southgate for his thoughtful review, but we emphasise that rather than sitting on the fence, or trying to forge a middle path between the two camps we are resolutely on his side, we have just preferred in this volume to take a less polemical stance and have tried to extend the debate by teasing out some of the philosophical issues underlying current historiographical discussions, as well as demonstrating the positive, exciting possibilities inherent in redefining the genre of history to account for, and respond to, the postmodern challenge.