Top critical review
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Interesting but long-winded
on 11 January 2011
In Defence of History aims to take stock of forty years of historical theory and practice after Carr's ground-setting What is History?. Ostensibly targeted at postmodernism, the book actually aims to stir a middle ground, praising some cultural history and relinquishing old-fashioned claims of objectivity while claiming there is a legitimate purpose to history-writing.
Predictably, Evans stirred a riot among the academic community, and his book was excoriated by hard-core objectivists and fluffy postmodernists alike. But while the book has strengths and weaknesses, they are probably not what the author thinks they are. In Defence of History is good at summarising historiographical trends, from Von Ranke's revolution to today. As such, it will be useful to history students, who take exams on this. It is also hugely entertaining in its examples, its discussion of individual historians' works. Evans pulls absolutely no punches, and his historiographical erudition is monumental (he is a Cambridge professor, by the way). Indeed, his own defence in the face of his book's critics, provided in the Afterword, is probably the book's most readable part.
But I found In Defence of History less good at theory. Evans's conclusion, called Objectivity and its limits, is somewhat muddled and boils down to the idea that as long as the historian is scrupulous in his method all will be fine. Then Evans criticises Carr's opinion that facts are created in the act of being picked up by historians. Evans claims that facts pre-exist history-writing, and that subjectivity intervenes only in the interpretative phase. But this skirts Carr's argument that there is an infinite number of potential facts, and that the historian's selection of what is relevant is subjective. Facts differ from one writer to the other: the medievalist monastic chronicler may concentrate on what happened to his abbey, the historian on the social or political trends his chronicle unwittingly betrays. This is just one point, but generally Evans draws insufficient difference between the notionally possible and the practical, as a result spilling much ink on arguments which brevity might have made stronger.
Perhaps three stars is a little grudging as an evaluation. Evans's merit is to have put the postmodernists in front of their own 'internal contradictions'. If all historical narratives are equally valid, for example, this gives equal claims to authority to such nasties as Holocaust deniers, a point which the high-minded post-modern advocates seem to have missed (you'd be surprised). And if the postmodernists deny the existence of such a thing as the truth, claiming all texts are unstable and lacking in a definitive meaning, they must deny the truth of their own theories, or don't they? Nevertheless, the reality is that history as discipline is thriving, and that no one, or very few, have taken to heart postmodernism's call to abolish it, least of all the numerous cultural historians who took from it the tools of textual deconstruction and carried on merrily writing their books. Evans does say that. Still, In Defence of History might have been more effective with 100 less pages and half the venom.