There are many differences between the two besides their definitions. Firstly, there were millions of people in the past, yet there are only few in History. This is linked to the idea of historical significance and the role of the historian in writing History. The past is something that can never be relieved; immediately causing problems for the historian.

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On the contrary, as he explains in the introduction to At the Limits of History, in the late s, when he first became acquainted with the postmodern critique of history, he chose merely to distance himself from those historians who ignored or challenged it. The outcome was an at times furious and prolonged debate, in which there were numerous accusations of insane individualism, solipsism, fantasy-mongering, left-wing posturing and hectoring authoritarianism — a debate which no self-respecting historian could easily ignore; though it has to be said that many did.

It was no doubt this last qualification that eventually led to his appointment as a lecturer in history at Chichester. In the space of 30 years or so, he believes, these and many other thinkers so deconstructed the foundational and essentialist presumptions of the Western tradition as to leave it entirely bereft of all intrinsic meaning and value.

In Rethinking History , a remarkable bestseller, much translated, Jenkins argues compellingly that the conventional view of academic history — that it enjoys the benefits of a uniquely effective epistemology and methodology which enables it to discover from historical facts, properly established, some sort of historical truth, a truth, moreover that can be conveyed to a willing audience by way of historical narrative — is fundamentally flawed. Even the most perfunctory understanding of conventional historical method, properly analysed in a postmodern way, will show that the historian, no matter how well trained he might be, can never really know the past, as the gap between the past and history is an ontological one, one that in the very nature of things cannot be bridged.

Nor is it possible for the historian to attain to some kind of methodological objectivity, free from prejudice and bias. No amount of skill or expertise will make that possible. Conventional history, despite all its extraordinary pretensions, is basically just a contested discourse, an embattled terrain, on which people, classes and groups construct essentially autobiographical interpretations of an imagined past to suit themselves.

Any contemporary consensus can only be arrived at when one dominant voice or set of voices silences others, either by means of overt power or covert incorporation. Debates about history are debates about meaning, and meaning is no more entailed by facts then values are by discourse. This he does in order to expand and elaborate the arguments regarding the fallibility of history outlined in Rethinking History.

In order to appear plausible any such discourse must normally look simultaneously towards the once real events and situations of the past and towards narrative-type myths common in all social formations. Moreover, history cannot recover that past, but only such evidence of a past as remains in accessible traces. These traces are then transformed into written histories by means of a series of theoretically and methodologically disparate procedures ideological positionings, tropes, emplotments, argumentative modes and so on ; which historiography may then be made subject to a series of uses, logically infinite, but in practice for the most part the product of social power.

Histories, that is to say, are invariably fabricated, without any real foundations beyond the textual. In Why History? In this way he once again shows, as he puts it in the introduction to Why History? Otherwise the ethical choice made will be merely formulaic, one intended to obey the rules of a previously worked out system or code. Postmodern thinking will, therefore, lead inevitably to the end of all rule-based ethical systems, in much the same way that it lead to the end of history.

It was at this point, it may be noted, that Jenkins finally concluded that we should forget history, let it go, learn to live in new ways of timing time. This he does by trying to promote in history the endless openness advocated by Derrida and other postmodern philosophers.

Endless openness, logically unavoidable, he argues, will allow for new, disrespectful, contentious radical readings and rereadings, writings and rewritings to be produced. Such, it seems, is the ultimate purpose of Refiguring History.

Finally, in At the Limits of History , a collection of essays on the theory and practice of history written in the period —, Jenkins covers a wide range of subjects ranging from time to Marxism, the ethical responsibility of the historian and the works of Hayden White and Sande Cohen. For, as he remarks in his introduction, history depends not on the past for its current existence, but on its present representers historians and their representations.

No representations, as he puts it, no past. History, in short, having no object of enquiry, being able only to figure forth proposals, is merely a sort of rhetoric a category in which Aristotle placed it over 2, years ago , inescapably aesthetic. These very much condensed are: That the universe matter, stuff, materiality exists. That we human beings, of whatever culture or denomination we happen to come from, can never really know that matter, stuff or materiality, whatever it might be.

Moreover, what little we do know about such things, either by way of intuition or by their representation, is radically contingent, dependent always on the circumstances of their production, that is to say, the way we access them. Language meaning , far from corresponding to the world, is simply imposed on it, initially by way of what is in effect an act of violence. And as language words, such as history cannot escape indeterminacy being always subject to interminable re-description we shall never know what such words mean.

Given how many such reified projections there have been, he adds critically, one might have expected them to have been seen for what they patently are, mere expressions of human desire. But apparently they were not so seen. Nevertheless, he [Jenkins] really is quite commonsensical, rational and measured. He knows what he knows and argues it forcefully, clearly, plainly, cogently and authoritatively. The authors of these argued variously: That Jenkins is not qualified to comment on the discipline of history, as he does not himself write history Zagorin, Waites.

That the postmodern critique commonly associated with Jenkins must be inconsequential as it has made little or no impact on the way historians write history Cannadine, Zagorin. That though truths about the past are not absolute, they are yet somehow attainable Appleby, Hunt, Jacob. That the insights associated with postmodernism are for the most part ancient, cyclical and repetitive. That the postmodern analysis of history is itself merely the product of a particular historical phase, reflecting the decline of the West, a collapse in belief in progress and a disillusion with science Tosh.

That despite the many valuable insights that postmodernism has provided, on pragmatic grounds alone we cannot do without the concept of historical truth Southgate. That in certain circumstances a mass of ascertainable facts may yet determine an overall interpretation Friedlander.

And, finally, that history is, not so much a philosophically-based subject, founded on sound reason, as an activity, based on the everyday language of collective experience Oakeshott. Zagorin, in an article in History and Theory 1 , launched a wholesale attack on the postmodern critique of history, in particular that represented by the articles contained in The Postmodern History Reader 2 , a collection of articles recently edited by Jenkins.

In his article, Zagorin explained at some length that American history had for some time been threatened by mainly continental postmodernism and relativism. But in the end, thanks largely to the strength of American mainly analytical philosophy, it had succeeded in resisting the assault. As a result, most American historians, convinced that knowledge of the past, as a vanished reality, is attainable, have continued to write history based on the principles of rationality, logicality, objectivity and truth.

Jenkins is simply unable to conceive the viability or value of an historical effort to restore to comprehension a vanished past. In any case, most historians never have made the claims to absolute knowledge that Jenkins and his like suppose they make.

They have always been aware, or should have been aware, that historians are human beings, potentially incompetent, biased, fallible and subjective; that the significance of facts is not embodied within the facts; that sources need to be contextualised; that languages and the vocabulary of documents require careful translation and critical decoding; and that any correspondence between historical sources and a lived past is at best tenuous.

Most historians admit that they construct, configure and shape their texts by story, discourse, and emplotment. Nevertheless, they cling to the belief that collective and disciplined endeavour will in the end enable them to construct a plausible narrative about, or model of, some aspect of the past that will justify their claim to tell a plausible story about it; even though that story will always remain conjectural, provisional, tentative, and open to future disagreement, refinement and ultimate obsolescence.

Most historians, in short, share common political and cultural concerns with their eloquent antagonists; but they do not for the most part, engage seriously with the linguistic turn that would suggest that nothing real or objective exists outside language — a proposition that would lead to the destruction of history. Finally, Michael S. And what he has to say is not particularly convincing. How, for instance, is the by now conventional linguistic scepticism — that we can never know anything for certain because the language we use for knowing never can convey or contain stable meaning — relevant to historical studies?

Certainly, historians impose meaning on the past, but it cannot be said that they find in the past only what they are looking for. Bringing their own values and preconceptions to their study of the past does not prevent them from being surprised, any more than the fact that physicists use a common methodology or paradigm prevents them from finding disconfirming evidence.

Or, no more than the fact that we speak our own language prevents us from communicating with someone else. Why should not the disciplinary conversation of history and other practices be sufficient to produce all the grounds for decision making we ultimately need? Anti-foundationalism no more justifies historical and literary experimentation than it does its opposite.

Jenkins would do well to recognise that the new postmodernism has now grown old. It is time to write its history. What is the conventional historian to make of the extraordinary conflict debate, dispute between Jenkins and his opponents? Is some sort of compromise possible, or are the two points of view irreconcilable? Probably they are. It is also clear that the inconsequential impact of the postmodern critique is not a measure of its validity.

Impact is not a measure of validity truth. That Jenkins occasionally uses an historical methodology to debunk history i. His use of historical explanation is, as he frequently remarks, merely rhetorical. That the postmodern approach to history is, in all its essentials, ancient, cyclical and repetitive does not necessarily invalidate the postmodern argument, any more then longstanding doubts regarding the existence of essential substance or some such invalidates the conclusions of modern physics.

That the postmodern analysis of history is itself the product of a particular historical phase should be seen as strengthening the analysis, not as weakening it. It merely suggests that historians are not very logical. And, finally, the proposition that, in certain circumstances, a mass of ascertainable facts may entail a certain interpretation of them can be considered valid only if the interpretation is already presupposed in the mind of the observer. But it seems to me that certain of his basic points are now beyond challenge though many historians and others will no doubt continue to challenge them.

These might include the following: That it is no longer possible to talk, in a meaningful sense, of foundational suppositions and beliefs God, essence, absolute truth and such like. We are all Buddhists now! That history is constructed from the present remains of a putative past, made up of memories, reports, records and such like, that happen to survive in the lived present. That history, in its grander realisation at least, is the product mainly of tropes, emplotment, stories, discourses and narratives.

That history as a cultural creation differs substantially from memory, which is a natural phenomenon; though there could well be a cultural element in what we remember. In the light of the above it is evident that the conventional view of history — that the historian, properly qualified, can somehow access describe, portray, explain the past, in part at least, by way of philosophical analysis, inferential logic and evidence, appears unconvincing, the more so as we cannot, it seems, access the past to prove or disprove the case.

No more can we access the past to prove that the past cannot be accessed described, portrayed, explained. The position adopted, therefore, both by Jenkins and his opponents, seems to be a matter, not of proof or evidence, but of belief rather like religious belief in God.

Not that the issue in dispute turns entirely on the accessibility of a real past. What ultimately divides the two points of view, then, is not only their attitude to belief in the accessibility of the past, but also their attitude to belief in the capacity of language to describe that past. Jenkins is absolutely clear that language cannot describe the past or for that matter the present.

My position on these difficult questions also a matter of belief rather than evidence is that, as Jenkins suggests, we cannot actually know a real past, lived or otherwise. History then is a sort of self-knowledge, constructed biologically from a well-stocked brain, in ways that we do not yet fully understand. Not that it makes much difference. So deeply embedded is the human conviction regarding the existence of a real past that can be accessed, primarily by means of memory the existential foundation of all history , that it is extremely unlikely that human beings will abandon history, or something very much like it some sort of claimed knowledge of an actual past.

Nevertheless, we no doubt half-baked philosophical few have much to thank Jenkins for, not least his persistent and almost always well argued reminders of just how fallible history really is. Back to 1 The Postmodern History Reader, ed. Keith Jenkins London, Back to 3 Michael S. David Cannadine, What is History Now? London, Carr, What is History?


Re-thinking History

Shelves: post-modernism , history Brief and polemic, this is a fascinating read that will definitely be on my mind as I read other history texts and works. It challenges the work of historians not as studying scientifically the past to get to some sort of true interpretation which is stated to be a contradiction itself that could be called History. Jenkins starts by making this distinction between past and history to show that the discipline of history is actually historiography as it deals with creating interpretations from Brief and polemic, this is a fascinating read that will definitely be on my mind as I read other history texts and works. Jenkins starts by making this distinction between past and history to show that the discipline of history is actually historiography as it deals with creating interpretations from texts and traces from the past. He brings up the epistemological and ideological issues about this work but also the real human issues that show up as this historiography is made by humans. The book explores how ideology and power is used to determine which is the valid interpretation.


Keith Jenkins

Jump to navigation Jump to search Keith Jenkins is a British historiographer. Jenkins studied medieval and modern history as well as political theory at The University of Nottingham. This means that different historians will inevitably ascribe different meanings to the same historical events. Nevertheless, all historians are constrained by the common body of historical evidence or "artifacts".


Keith Jenkins – Re-thinking History.




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