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The New Nature of History: Knowledge, Evidence, Language Paperback – 12 Jul 2001
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'...passionate rebuttal of postmodernist criticisms of the mainstream positivist movement in hisorical science...' - International Review of Social History
About the Author
ARTHUR MARWICK is Professor of History at the Open University. His many books include British Society since 1945 (3rd edition 1996), The Sixties: Cultural Revolution in Britain, France Italy and the United States, c.1958-c.1974 (1998) and A History of the Modern British Isles, 1914-1999: Circumstances, Events, Outcomes (2000).
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Top Customer Reviews
There is a great deal of sensible, basic advice for the beginning historian here, but it is interspersed with a constant flow of comment which is either flippant and offhand, smug and sanctimonious, or bordering on the libellous. Marwick snipes at the idea of the historian as 'auteur' who can say what s/he pleases without regard to the wider profession, but in this book, that is exactly what he has done.
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Knowledge is essential to Marwick's view of history. He offers a definition of history as "bodies of knowledge about the past and all that is involved in producing this knowledge, communicating it, and teaching about it." (p. 269) Accordingly, "what historians do is produce knowledge about the past." (p. xiii) Marwick sets forth a distinction between the past, "what actually happened in the (human) past (whether or not historians have written about it)", and history, "the accounts of the past provided by historians." (p. 25) Marwick views the search for universal meaning or universal explanations as futile; yet, contrary to post-modernist assertions, historians do not construct history. "History is about finding things out, and solving problems, rather than spinning narratives or telling stories." (p. 28) For Marwick, "a reasonable degree of objectivity" in history is achievable when historians adhere to the precedence of accumulated bodies of historians' work and respect the peer-reviewer system of professional scrutiny. (p. 45, 48) Marwick's conclusion places a great deal of faith in his fellow historians' observance of methods and principles that "govern" professional history.
Marwick also shows much deference to the evidence upon which historians base their knowledge. In particular, he views primary sources as the bedrock of historical knowledge. "The only way we can have knowledge of the past is through studying the relics and traces left by past societies. (p. 26) Secondary sources are necessary to commence research. However, "primary sources...form the basic `raw material' of history." (p.26) He emphasizes that archival work with primary sources, while essential to the historian's trade, can be arduous and boring. According to Marwick, historians do not search the archives for facts, but for "material conditions, and changes in them; states of mind; the working of institutions; motivations, mentalities, values; the balance between intention and accomplishment." (p. 153) Yet, the sources do not speak for themselves. Historians analyze and corroborate source material. They employ technical skills to garner indirect knowledge through inference and to refine nuances within texts. Moreover, ready access to primary sources, such as those in the French archives or the new archeological sites in the Mediterranean, opens up new avenues for historical study.
After the historians labor in the archives, the task of communicating the knowledge of the past presents itself. Marwick expends much energy discussing the need for historians to write precisely and explicitly. He agrees with the post-modernists on the importance of language to the discipline's proficiency. He rejects, however, their proposition that the historians' narratives do not significantly differ from those of novelists. Marwick contends that history and literature, as disciplines, use language differently. An important distinction is that "all history should be written clearly and unambiguously." (p. 195) For him, it is possible to write history that communicates narrative, description, and analysis. Emphasizing the importance of an adequate structure for writing, Marwick says "structure is devised, and revised, by the historian in order to produce an account,...which best conveys to the reader what actually was happening, what interactions there were, what changed, and what did not, as perceived by the historian. This is no the way novelists work." (p. 263)
The New Nature of History acts not only as an obvious-lover-of-history's overtly retaliatory strike on the discipline's post-modern critics, but also as a labor of love by a loyal practitioner dedicated to the relevance and credibility of his profession. Marwick's writing throughout the book displays a pained quality, as if the critics have affronted him personally as a historian. The impetus for the book is his understanding that post-modernism is not a scholarly discipline, but a belief system--one that has no business criticizing the historical profession. He wants to set the record straight: history is not in a state of crisis. History, like science, evolves from evidence and remains "of central importance to society." (p. 268) In addition to fending off the post-modernists, The New Nature of History, with its instructive chapters on sources and writing, can serve as a professional reference to would-be historians of any philosophical persuasion. Moreover, the lucidity and vigor with which Arthur Marwick argues his case can encourage graduate students that "historical study, conducted in accordance with the precepts set out in it, is important, as well as interesting and, sometimes, exciting." (p. 19) Even when one has done it for as long has Marwick has.
According to Marwick, professional history is based on extensive analysis of evidence provided in primary and secondary sources. In this regard history is much like science, acquiring knowledge about the past, instead of the natural world, through collaborative efforts. Subsequently he writes, “Historians do not rely on single sources, but are always seeking corroboration, qualification, [and] correction” when engaging in the creation of history. (p. 27) Further, throughout the process, “historians take ‘history’ as a set of procedures for finding out about the past.” (p. 10) Thus, Marwick maintains through empirical study and collaboration, a historian seeks to create knowledge of the past and dispel any preconceived biases in himself or his intended audience. While interpretations of events differ between individual historians, Marwick argues professional historians support their individualized conclusions through citation of sources to show “how they developed their train of reasoning.” (p. 40) Therefore, as critics denounce professional history for practicing ‘fetishism of documents,’ historians actually are basing conclusions in sound strategy and evidential research. With extensive footnotes and multitudes of sources, a professional historian invites participation and criticism in his production of history.
Supporting this collaborative effort is the presentation of conclusions in precise language. As Marwick holds professional history is an objective-based field, an explicit discourse facilitates corroboration and prevents misunderstandings. Language is the means to share interpretations of history, “to separate out unambiguously what is securely established from what is basically speculation.” (p. 215) Thus, Marwick argues that precision is necessary to support scientific-like approaches to history while avoiding the frivolous adornments of literature or art. Additionally, he advocates the dispelling of biased interpretations of the past through explicit diction. Marwick writes “by the very nature of what they study, [historians are] particularly well qualified to understand the influences [of bias] operating on them, and, therefore, to escape from them” by formulating their work with a base on evidence and unadorned, specific language. (p. 46) Without clarity in communications, the conclusions of a historian serve no purpose to his intended audience. A concise approach prevents ambiguity and encourages impartial dissemination of history.
To that end, Marwick asserts that history helps cultures relate to one another and understand contemporary problems/conflicts. “As memory is to the individual,” he writes, “so history is to the community or society.” (p. 46) A society without memory cannot function or formulate an identity with which to interact with others and address standing concerns. In addition, beyond forming a functional identity, history also empowers societies and individuals through the “diffusion of knowledge.” (p. 2) This empowerment, Marwick argues, dispels powerful societal myths which encourage grave misunderstandings. For example, history taught to an interwar Germany during the 1930s propagated a mythos of Teutonic superiority which directly informed the Holocaust. Consequently, Marwick posits “as long as counties go on teaching their biased versions of history… accurate, professional history is a necessity if tensions and suspicions are ever to be removed.” (p. 35)
In The New Nature of History Marwick successfully defends his argument for the propagation of objective history. His assertions that history should strive to be scientific and precise, support his conclusion that history is essential to dispelling conflicts\biases in societies. However, while refuting the postmodernist critics of history, Marwick frequently degrades the narrative with defaming commentary. Though needing to rebuke postmodernism’s critiques, he ignores his own assertion to present an objective argument. These prodigal reproaches undermine even his most basic pronouncements on historiographical development or historical research processes. However, if one can forgo his animosity, this monograph provides a well-developed guide to approaching history as an empirical, scientific endeavor which clearly reinforces the urgency of professional history to society.