Richard J. Evans’ In Defence of History

Richard J. Evans’ In Defence of History is an attack on the influence of postmodernism on the practice of history. What makes it interesting is that in this case the attack is coming from the Left.

What makes it even more interesting is that Evans is not even particularly hostile to postmodernism. His argument is that although postmodernism can offer the historian some useful insights and techniques there is a very real danger of throwing away the baby with the bath water. If historians abandon the time-honoured techniques of placing their reliance on primary sources and the belief that history is about something real, that the past can be (at least partially) recovered, then they will be left with nothing.

Taken to excess, postmodernist history can end up being not merely nothing but a mix subjectivity and wishful thinking, it can also open the door to some very serious dangers indeed. By rejecting the idea of objective truth postmodernism opens tremendous opportunities for extremists such as Holocaust deniers. If history can become whatever your own political leanings and subjective feelings want it to be there is no longer any valid reason for opposing the works of people like David Irving.

The most horrifying example he gives is a feminist history of witchcraft that treats all sources, including explicitly fictional sources, as being equally valid. His criticism in this case is especially telling since Evans himself is extremely pro-feminist.

When it was published several years ago it attracted a predictable firestorm of criticism in spite of the fact that Evans goes to extraordinary lengths to moderate his attacks on postmodernism. It seems that postmodernists believe that all texts should be regarded with scepticism, apart from their own!

A highly stimulating book, recommended for anyone who is unconvinced by the Brave New world of postmodernism.


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