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Response to Review of Making History: The Historian and the Uses of the Past

Contrary to what Alun Munslow’s review suggests I share his view that the writing of history is fundamentally a constructivist endeavour. The historian’s creative role is crystallised in his/her final account as a text that is devised to support the interpretation of the past s/he has arrived at. Yet, the common philosophical stance notwithstanding, I part company with him as regards the nature of the historian’s final account: we have quite different views both on its emergence and the function it serves. Munslow’s preconceived notions have even led him to attribute positions in Making History from which I have explicitly and systematically dissociated myself.

It is insufficient and misleading to regard the construction a historian produces in the first place as his/her creation; rather, it is a representation conveying the idea that ‘it was not like that’.(1) Specialists in the past comment on existing knowledge: not in the sense of putting things right, but aiming at producing a more convincing interpretation. They seek to demonstrate that the subject studied is, in the form the historian has defined it, relevant to those thought to be interested in it, and to induce them to reflect on that connection. It is the historian’s message, one of the key concepts in my book, that dominates his/her final account.

‘Historians … must make it clear (to those addressed) that the past is a terrain that does not allow for debates in terms of “truths”; what is within the bounds of possibility are findings that are both sound and significant, knowledge that is sustainable’ (Making History, p. 46; italics original). However, the rejection of truth in the correspondence sense does not exclude epistemological evaluation; on the contrary, it underlines the crucial role of meeting the criteria of soundness. The interpretation argued for must be based on impeccable reasoning, be cogent in relation to prevailing explanations, and contain a plausible description of the past matters studied.

Soundness is the sine qua non of the historian’s account. ‘Everyone agrees that although there are no true or false buildings, there clearly are better and worse constructions’ as the philosopher Jouni-Matti Kuukkanen puts the argument metaphorically.(2) Embedded is that creating one’s message directs the research process. The historian starts from an inkling that the chosen topic matters, assesses the strength of his/her outlined message against the primary sources, and finishes the process by composing the final account. And at every step s/he must make sure that s/he will be able to meet the criteria of soundness when eventually presenting the findings.

The necessity of learning to work in terms of sound and meaningful knowledge instead of being captive to an unattainable truth belongs to the message Making History advocates. This notion matches the conditions in which historical research has to be done: past reality is beyond anyone’s reach. I most certainly do not argue anywhere in terms of ’the balance between truth and argument’. Nor do I use expressions like ‘the content of the past’.

Connection to the past matters studied is indirect because prevailing knowledge always acts as an intermediary. This quality is highlighted by sources from the period studied: they cannot be taken at face value. While consulting the traces that have survived, the historian must bear in mind that anyone’s comprehension of reality is conditioned by the language s/he uses to express his/her beliefs. As a result, since there neither exists objective reality nor neutral language, the historian must keep on asking ‘whose reality’ and ‘whose discourse’ (along the lines of the philosopher Frank Ankersmit). Taking one’s present-mindedness seriously is also the key to success as regards previous knowledge and the people addressed.

The basic idea of demonstrating that something is contrary to what is claimed or is believed to have been the case calls for keeping in mind the distinction between the critical and constructive sides of this effort. Professional training gives the historian competence to assess the soundness of prevailing histories: whether past people’s actions have been presented on their own terms or whether an event has been situated in a justifiable past context, for instance. This critical mandate does not, however, endow a privileged position regarding the constructivist side of the study. As regards the meanings of past phenomena in the present, ‘the specialist must adjust to a situation where his or her arguments are on a par with those of other history-makers’ (p. 36).

Making History does constantly highlight the importance of keeping soundness and meaningfulness apart from each other. Because of this it is preposterous to claim that my arguments would permit historians ‘to elevate themselves beyond desire and prejudice’ or that they would be ‘better fixed to referee the meaning of the past than anyone else’. The fundamental stance advocated by the book is that historians must give up thinking in terms of traditional objectivity, and instead concentrate on how to gain intellectual control of their unavoidable involvement in the surrounding society. To claim that I would advocate doing research ‘in an objectivist way’ is simply incomprehensible when the very idea of the book is to criticise those who suggest such an approach, and when this position has been demonstrated in several perspectives.

One of the recurrent themes in Making History is the historian’s basic predicament: the temptation to compromise the demands of soundness in order to make the message more convincing. The point here is that the seduction is present from the very beginning of the research process; the historian’s creative role is not limited to writing the final account as Munslow suggests. At the last stage of the project the basic predicament takes the form of a contradiction between reasoning and rhetoric. The composition the historian has to develop for the text must make sure that it is possible to assess his/her reasoning while simultaneously convincing the readers that the findings are relevant for them. To solve this tension calls for literary skills and bringing this necessity to the fore is Hayden White’s contribution to historical research.

Arguing for the meaning and importance of the matters studied is a more burdensome job than displaying the soundness of the findings. The meanings embedded in prevailing explanations and the functions the interpretations criticised perform are quite often far from obvious. In addition, analysing prevailing knowledge is for the historian the way of discovering the room for his/her alternative exposition, the method of designating the study’s objectives.

Thus, the constructivist side of the research effort presupposes that the historian carries out two tasks simultaneously: putting at a distance what is sustained by the explanations criticised and anticipating the implications of his/her alternative interpretation. In this way the historian meets the demand of double detachment, a reasonable substitute for the misleading and unrealistic traditional ideal of objectivity: s/he distances him/herself both from the interpretations criticised and the one/s s/he is proposing. Doing this helps the historian to attain the capacity needed to conduct the study adequately, getting intellectual control over the circumstances where the research has to be done.

If there is a ‘big issue’ in Making History it is not ‘the public functioning of history’ but the necessity for historians to analyse their present-mindedness and to learn to discipline their thinking. They conduct their work on the battlefield of rival interpretations; the research effort is situated socially by the politics of history. This state of affairs is clear from the very outset of the project, and that is why the sensible historian starts his/her endeavour by taking the first steps to meet the demand of double detachment. The objective is to avoid, for example, situations where insufficient attention paid to the context of the research turns the specialist on the past into a virtual piece of driftwood floating on current circumstances. The point is working towards an awareness of ‘why, and on what, I am actually doing research’. In opposition to Munslow I do not regard this as an aim that is ‘incapable of delivery’.

Reflecting carefully on one’s audience is as crucial a step to be taken at the planning stage as analysing prevailing knowledge. Here prospective historians have been left to their own devices by their profession, since the whole issue of the people addressed has been taboo for academic historians. Yet, hardly anyone denies that different people appreciate different aspects of the past, and this means that selecting a topic for the study entails choosing one’s audience. Making History demonstrates that knowledge of the people addressed is a necessary criterion for the choices that must be made in the different stages of the research process, in addition to achieving intellectual control over the context of one’s research. The historian’s answer to the key question is clearly an essential part of the rationale of his/her work: ‘for whom are the research findings likely to be important?

The rationale of historical research is, from the historian’s perspective, to call the audience’s attention to one’s selection and arrangement of the particular past matters in order to demonstrate their present relevance. It follows that the target audience is present throughout the investigation even if the various consequences of this have not been discussed. With regard to the reception of the study, the substance of the same rationale is that historians meet the demand for knowledge concerning the past. This perspective, too, has been underrated by the profession. What is more, hardly any attention has been paid to the status of the people addressed: the historian’s readers are in a way historians as well. This statement may at first seem odd, but will cease to cause surprise when one gives up the prevailing tendency to think about all history in disciplinary terms.

Accounting for the past, or creating histories as the historian David Thelen puts it, is ‘as natural a part of life as eating or breathing’.(3) The philosopher David Carr in turn reminds us that even historians ‘have a connection to the historical past, as ordinary persons, prior to and independently of adopting a historical cognitive interest’.(4) And the historian Raphael Samuel famously contends that ‘if history was thought of as an activity rather than a profession, then the number of its practitioners would be a legion’.(5) The conclusion is that history is not only a genre of knowledge but also a basic feature of human life, and for the historian this entails working in the midst of everyday history-making.

Casual references to what has taken place make up the overwhelming majority of accounts of the past, but there are also a great number of deliberately created representations. They are produced in every field of society and by a wide variety of actors, from private persons to, for example, politicians and various media. These histories serve countless purposes, so their genres abound. The diverse accounts do also influence each other and Making History suggests that their constant interaction should be called the never-ending social process of history-making. Scholarly accounts play a significant role in this reciprocal production: that is, historians participate in the process and have no chance of situating themselves outside it.

Against this background it is perfectly sensible to quote my main source of inspiration, the historian E. H. Carr, for whom historians are ‘parts of history’.(6) Through the questions they ask and the answers they produce they are ‘conscious or unconscious spokesmen of the society to which they belong’. This is why they should aim at gaining an awareness of their work that is as accurate as possible, and this presupposes clarifying their relation to the ongoing social process of history-making.

It is everyday history, the ensemble of diverse histories that signifies the historian’s relation to his/her readers. The people s/he addresses are, in contrast to what most members of the profession instinctively think, not passive consumers of scholarly findings. On the contrary, they are persons who use scholarly accounts to create their own histories and these histories, in turn, influence their actions. Yet, caution is necessary: historians easily overestimate their own influence and forget the reality of social history-making. The competition from the wide variety of public and popular histories should by no means be played down. Moreover, the individual historian must pay attention to what s/he shares with other historians, what follows from the role of their profession in society.

It seems to be plausible to suggest that the never-ending social process of history-making is universal by its nature and goes back to time immemorial, and likewise that the historian’s craft has an equally long lifespan. In any case, history has been allocated high value in everyday life, at least in Europe since antiquity. The emergence of historical enquiry as an academic discipline in the early 19th century can be seen to have led to the detachment of trained historians from the social process of history-making. What then, in more specific terms, is the role of specialists in the past in society? Answering this question was my main objective from the outset when working on Making History.

My search resulted in a two-part answer as was suggested above. The critical dimension of historical research makes experts referees in everyday history. They represent, as the historian Richard J. Evans puts it, ‘a critical, sceptical discipline’.(7)  As regards the constructivist dimension, trained historians are consultants in history-making, a definition that is uncommon and calls therefore for explanation. The key issue is here the relation of scholars to everyday history.

What justifies the existence of the historical profession is that meaningful knowledge of the past is sustainable only if its foundation is sound. This is the crucial element embedded in the rationale of 19th century founding fathers of the discipline: the specialists in the past are there to produce sound knowledge, not to convey moral stories or political lessons, for instance. In the mainstream historians’ view this idea meant keeping non-academic histories at arm’s length, but the idea of upholding everyday history-making seems to have gradually taken its place (8)  in the wake of the paradigmatic change of the discipline at the end of the 20th century.(9)

Active consultancy takes place in the large number of local, community and familial projects that represent collaborative history-making (10), but expert advice does not necessarily call for a new kind of activity. A mere change of perspective may lead to fresh thinking. An example is double detachment , that serves didactic purposes even if its primary function is to control one’s unavoidable involvement in society. By displaying their social and cultural position the historians make clear the contested nature of all historical knowledge. They also have the opportunity to demonstrate in practical terms the demand of soundness. In other words, even if accountability is the primary reason for making one’s method of working transparent it offers by the same token the trained historian an undemanding way of acting as an consultant of history-making.

The historian’s dialogue with the people addressed is a recurrent theme in Making History, and dialogue is also the mode of thinking suggested for approaching the people studied. Through virtual conversation it is possible to gain an understanding of the way they assessed their situation and to define their intentions. Interpreting the meaning of their actions and deeds is then part of the historian’s general constructivist operation. The logic of dialogue is furthermore, in my opinion, the key to the historian’s ultimate goal, creating a virtually reciprocal relationship between the people of the past studied and the people addressed.

The ultimate idea of the dialogue is to connect the study being conducted to the audience’s present concerns in a way that gets them to relate their own ideas to the ways in which people who had lived in very different conditions had thought about themselves and their circumstances. This is the deepest sense of the historian’s message: to open up new perspectives on the world for the people addressed and prompt them to ponder their own values. Reconstruction is the prerequisite of the historian’s ultimate goal: the virtual conversation suggested makes sense only if the description of the people studied is plausible. True, the traditional requirement ‘in their own terms’ is as unattainable in a correspondence sense as is ‘past reality’, but this does not undo reconstruction in an ethical sense.

‘Being unfair to the people studied results in at least one, but in many cases two, scenarios. One possibility is the spreading of propaganda, where those studied have become the historian’s pawns, their views and actions misrepresented to serve the historian’s message. The other is where historians have deceived not only themselves but also their audience by strengthening prevailing prejudices. Failure to produce a fair description is really to lose the very point of historical research’ (p. 35).

It is thus hard to accept Munslow’s basic point that regarding reconstruction as the foundation of historical research testifies to the anachronistic nature of Making History.


  1. Stefan Collini, ‘Review of Raphael Samuel, Theatres of Memory, Vol. 1’, The Times Literary Supplement (10 March 1995).Back to (1)
  2. Jouni-Matti Kuukkanen, in an unpublished research plan. See also his: ‘The missing narrativist turn in historiography of science’, History and Theory, 51 (October 2012).Back to (2)
  3. David Thelen, ‘A participatory historical culture’, in Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life (New York, NY, 1998).Back to (3)
  4. David Carr, Time, Narrative and History (Bloomington, IN, 1986).Back to (4)
  5. Raphael Samuel, Theatres of Memory, Vol. 1, Past and Present in Contemporary Culture (London and New York, NY, 1994).Back to (5)
  6. E. H. Carr, What is History?, (London, 1961).Back to (6)
  7. Richard J. Evans, ‘The wonderfulness of us (the Tory interpretation of history)’, London Review of Books (17 March 2011).Back to (7)
  8. Peter Mandler, History and National Life (London, 2002).Back to (8)
  9. To demonstrate the significance of this change, the proportions of which have been underrated by historians, is the idea of chapter one in Making History.Back to (9)
  10. Active consultancy is the substance of the last chapter in Making History, ‘The potentials of a participatory historical culture’. See also my ‘What is history for’, History Workshop Online <> [accessed 18 June 2012].Back to (10)