Wednesday, May 31, 2017

In Defense of History by Richard J. Evans

It’s not often that I read a book that’s written by a character in a movie, but I did so when I read Sir Richard Evans’s In Defense of History (1998). Sir Richard, Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University, is no swashbuckling character.  He was portrayed the movie Denial (my review) about the libel trial of Irving v. Lipstadt in which he served as an expert witness for Lipstadt as she proved the truth of the Holocaust against the falsehood of Irving’s denialism. Evans is an expert on modern German history, and he wrote a three-volume history of the Third Reich. But in this book, he’s not writing history; he’s writing about history.

The lineage of this undertaking is a long and venerable one. Evans notes predecessors like E.H. Carr (What is History?) and Sir Geoffrey Elton, among others, and he mentions Collingwood only in passing and not in a flattering way. But Evans’s primary project in this book isn’t to argue with his well-known predecessors, but with his contemporizes, especially those who fly the flag of postmodernism. But in doing so, Evans isn’t out to pull them down so much as to pull them back. Evans, like other critics of postmodernism (Ken Wilber pops to mind), do not argue that they’re all wrong, but that they take some fundamental insights and run them to an extreme that collapses under the weight of logic. Postmodernism and relativism (of which postmodernism is the current incarnation) collapse in a performative contradiction when it’s insights are pushed to their logical conclusions. But Evans is not acting like an old curmudgeon here. In fact, he welcomes many of the insights provided by postmodernism and other innovative approaches to history, including its subject-matter, its way of investigating and knowing the past, and how history is written.

I’ll keep my review short, as many on Goodreads have shared the same insights. But before closing, this book deserves a place alongside the works of E.H. Carr and Sir Geoffrey Elton, and yes, even R.G. Collingwood, Evans’s ill-considered dis notwithstanding. It’s a thorough and persuasive appraisal of the historical profession and what it can hope to achieve, and it’s an excellent guide to (relatively) contemporary thinking about history.