Postmodernism - gravedigger of traditional history?

Essay, 2002

12 Pages, Grade: A+


“In our contemporary or postmodern world, history conceived of as an empirical research method based upon the belief in some reasonably
accurate correspondence between the past, its interpretation
and its narrative representation is no longer a tenable
conception of the task of the historian.”[1]

Wrong, Mr Munslow, although otherwise you are perfectly right!
One need not go into detailed explanation of this somewhat opaque retort of mine to place a sceptical question mark after the above quote. The mere presence of contention inevitably clouds the clear, straightforward set of circumstances seemingly implied in Munslow’s statement. Even if there is only one oppositional voice to his view, how can there be a “contemporary or postmodern world” that literally takes all of us into account, making it a storehouse of generally accepted ideas, making it “our” property. Given that perspectives other than the “postmodern” do exist, could it not be that ‘facts’, including those of an “empirical research method” and its guiding beliefs, are moulded just as well by perspectival interpretation? Thus, is the “task of the historian” really conceptualised in the way Munslow describes it? If not – if it is itself a deliberately created spectre invoked only to be subsequently exorcised in the intellectual conflict about what constitutes history and what this discipline has to deal with – do we have to stroll from the beaten path at all? Are Clio’s followers so helplessly entangled in reveries that they need to be awakened from them?

These questions, and their echoing connotations, sketch out the frame within which my discussion of postmodernist ideas and their validity for the practice of history will take place. It is well-nigh self-evident: we are moving on highly theoretical ground. Although postmodernist critique is aimed at methodological problems of the historical discipline, it departs from the very battlefields of occidental philosophy. What is reality? Is there any ontological truthfulness ‘out there,’ beyond our representations of the world? Postmodern answers to these questions do not only undermine the intellectual premises of a self-indulgent group of academics, burdened with theory. Indeed, they attack the whole profession of history; they might impact on the fate of careers. To say so is certainly not to distort the debate into a struggle of life and death; but it helps understand why the so-called ‘postmodernist challenge,’ threatening as it does to invalidate the very life-paths of persons, has provoked, and still provokes, intense emotional responses – albeit less fervently in most recent years. What is at stake is the future, and in fact the past, of a discipline whose foundations were laid some 150 years ago, and, since then, have not been shaken seriously.

Postmodernism’s most uncomfortable cannonades aim at the very pillars of historical work – “the belief in some reasonably accurate correspondence between the past, its interpretation and its narrative representation,” as Munslow puts it. What does that mean? To understand the full significance of the ‘correspondence theory,’ often referred to in the pamphlets of postmodern theorists,[2] it is worthwhile scrutinising each of its explanatory terms in its own right. What exactly is the ‘past’ historians are confronted with? Suffice to say, it is not an entity one suddenly stumbles over while doing historical research. The ‘past’ is the designation for an open-ended temporal space, extending from the present up to infinity. It can include a sole season in a rural village on the upper Nile or the whole evolution of mankind – the historian decides what part of it he analyses. However, as said before, the past is not just there, it has to be reconstructed. Means to this end are historical sources. Any remnant of bygone days, be it left behind deliberately or by accident, may serve as a tool to get to grips with past ‘reality,’ i.e. to show “how things actually were.”[3] The Rankean motto already includes a second aspect of the correspondence theory; reconstructing the past presupposes that contexts are being established, lines are being drawn from one piece of evidence to another; in short, that the historian traces back the furrows of causality.

Enter historical interpretation. It is the historian’s task to infer meaning from the sources he has found. This process, however, does not rest on human shoulders exclusively. The whole heuristic circle, as outlined by Leopold von Ranke and still adhered to by the majority of today’s historians, gravitates about the notion that the sources will speak for themselves, namely through the medium of (historical) imagination. Taking back as much as possible of his personal luggage – views and morals informed by the present – the historian is supposed to be all wrapped up in the image of the past that suggests itself by the evidence.[4] We have arrived at another Rankean signpost. Each epoch is unique to God and has to be understood in its own terms.[5] Framed in modern terminology, the intended meaning becomes clearer: historical interpretation has to be objective – its only arbiter is the range of sources the historian draws from, nothing more, nothing less. The same degree of objectivity must then be applied to transferring the findings to the written condensate – the last item in the correspondence rule-of-three, narrative representation. What is put into (his)story has to be related as explicitly and impersonally as possible.[6] The final product – the written account – is ergo directly connected to the sources and the reality they (re)create against the black cloth of the historian’s mind; it is, so to speak, a truthful representation of past reality. This is where the term ‘correspondence’ stems from and this is, again, where postmodern critics so vociferously cut in.

Heretofore, the historical discipline has managed to place itself independently somewhere between social science and literature, between empirical verifiability and narrative interpretation. Demanding its practitioners to use sources as the litmus test for truth or fallacy of their accounts, and giving them the possibility to whet their craftsmanship in heuristic method, it was able to stake out the claim of having its own epistemology, i.e. its own form of knowledge. Postmodernists vehemently refute this idea; history, in their eyes, belongs to the realm of literature. They attack all three layers of its theoretical background, their main focus being language as a flawed medium for representation. Such a view on the historian’s very means of expression needs further elaboration. Why is language deemed to obscure the relation between reality and its representation?


[1] Alun Munslow, Deconstructing History, London and New York, 1997, p. 2.

[2] Kramer, for example, paraphrases it as the ‘historiographical paradigm of reality and representation,” Lloyd S. Kramer, ‘Literature, Criticism, and Historical Imagination: The Literary Challenge of Hayden White and Dominick LaCapra’, in Lynn Hunt, ed., The New Cultural History, Berkeley, 1989, p. 100.

[3] John Tosh, The Pursuit of History: Aims, Methods and the New Directions in the Study of Modern History, 3rd edn, London, 2000, p. 5

[4] See Munslow, Deconstructing History, p. 10 – I am using Munslow as a reference here, because no other of the texts discussed depicts the classical methodology of history à la Ranke so clearly. This advantage, in my opinion, outweighs his actually being ‘one from the opposite side.’

[5] Tosh, The Pursuit of History, p. 5.

[6] Munslow, Deconstructing History, p. 10.

Excerpt out of 12 pages


Postmodernism - gravedigger of traditional history?
University of Auckland  (Department of History)
Seminar - Major Problems in Historical Method, Stage III (5.-6. Semester)
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ISBN (eBook)
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405 KB
Postmodernism, Seminar, Major, Problems, Historical, Method, Stage, Semester)
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Geoffrey Schöning (Author), 2002, Postmodernism - gravedigger of traditional history?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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