Keith Windschuttle: Postmodernism and the Fabrication of Aboriginal History

Roundup: Talking About History

[Keith Windschuttle is a historian, author and publisher. He is a frequent contributor to Quadrant, Sydney, and The New Criterion, New York. ]

History is an intellectual discipline that goes back to the ancient Greeks. The first real historian, Thucydides, did a remarkable thing. He set out to distance himself from his own political system and to write a work that examined critically what happened to Greece in the Peloponnesian Wars. He not only told of his own side's virtues and victories but of its mistakes and disasters. Thucydides also distanced himself from his own culture and religion. Instead of the mythical tales that all previous human societies had used to affirm their place in the cosmos, he faced the fact that the Greek oracles could not foretell their future and that the Greek gods could not ensure their fortunes. In short, what was remarkable about Thucydides, and all those who have followed him, was that they made a clean break with myths and legends. Instead, they defined history as the pursuit of truth about the past.

The ability to stand outside your own political system, your own culture and your religion, to criticise your own society and to pursue the truth, is something we today take so much for granted that it is almost part of the air we breath. Without it, our idea of freedom of expression would not exist. We should recognise, however, that this is a distinctly Western phenomenon, that is, it is part of the cultural heritage of those countries — Europe, the Americas and Australasia — that have evolved out of Ancient Greece, Rome and Christianity. This idea was never produced by either Confucian or Hindu culture. Under Islam it had a brief life in the fourteenth century but was never heard of again. Rather than take the idea of history for granted, we should regard it as a rare and precious legacy that is our job to nurture and to pass on to future generations.

Until about fifty years ago, the overwhelming majority of the history books written in the West were about two subjects: politics and warfare. The main characters who bestrode the historical stage were those men who ruled the political systems and who commanded the armies and navies. The reason was that history was written largely as a narrative of causes and consequences. Readers wanted to know how kingdoms, empires and republics had come into being, and why many of them had subsequently gone out of existence. Historians saw the social life of ordinary people as something that could flourish only under organized systems of political authority. They also recognized that successful warfare could expand a particular form of social life well beyond its origins, as happened under the Roman Empire, but also that military defeat could snuff out a social system and a culture literally overnight. So the writing of history was largely about trying to understand the major causes that operated in the human world, and these major causes were seen as politics and warfare.

In the last few decades, all of this — the entire intellectual heritage of history writing — has come under challenge within our universities. Academic historians have argued that the attempt to distance themselves from their own political system cannot be done. According to many, history is “inescapably political”. In tandem with this has come the notion that history cannot be objective because there are no independent vantage points from which one can look down on the past. We can only see the world through the lenses of our own culture, so what we see is inherently subjective. And if that is so, then the pursuit of something as objective as the truth becomes a mere pipe dream. And we have to give up the idea of truth as an absolute concept and substitute a relative idea of truth. Under this notion, different cultures and even different political positions each have their own truths, even if they are incompatible with the truths of other cultures. This stance generally goes under the name of postmodernism.

Along with this critique has come a reconfiguring of the subject matter of history. In most university history departments, political and military history are now minor parts of the curriculum. The pre-eminent position is now held by the new field of social history, which celebrates the achievements not of great men but of ordinary people, especially those minority or disadvantaged groups supposedly outside the mainstream such as women, homosexuals, blacks and immigrants.

Overall, then, in the writing and teaching of history today, the views that are in the ascendancy are those that support a skepticism about the pursuit of objectivity and truth, and those that want to replace political and military history and their focus on great men, with social history and its focus on minority or disadvantaged groups.

I want to argue today that the direction history is now taking is a big mistake....

comments powered by Disqus