More than one culprit in historical whodunit


The Killing of History: How a Discipline is Being Murdered by Literary Critics and Social Theorists
By Keith Windschuttle
Macleay, 1994. 266 pp., $39.95 (hb)
Reviewed by Phil Shannon

Foucault, Barthes, Lyotard, Baudrillard, Derrida, Lacan — if you have ever tried to read any of these authors' convoluted works and found yourself longing to talk about the weather, or football, or anything closer to the real world instead, then Keith Windschuttle's new book is a must for understanding what all these postmodernists and post-structuralists (posties for short) are on about and why they are a blight on the intellectual landscape.

Windschuttle sets out to defend, through the discipline of history, the "pursuit of truth and knowledge about the human world" against the relativists of the postie school. He argues that the obscurity of their prose does not equal profundity of insight but merely pads out their extremist thesis that there is no such thing as the real world or real human history but merely "texts" — subjective individual perspectives — none of which has any more validity than any other.

Windschuttle knocks this Rafferty's Rules view of history and knowledge on the head in a series of case studies, comparing traditional historical treatments with that of the posties where they have descended from the outer stratosphere of abstract theory to analysis of specific historical events.

He considers, for example, one postie view that the Spanish conquest of the Americas in the 15th century was made possible because European culture was superior to the Aztec "in the art of semiotics". He concludes that more traditional explanations based on political, military and technological factors are far superior accounts. Similarly, the mutiny on the Bounty and the European settling of Australia fare poorly at the hands of postie-influenced authors compared to accounts based on more material factors.

Windschuttle, however, whilst demolishing the posties' view of history, would erect in its place a one-dimensional, empiricist view. Whilst rightly reasserting the existence of the real and the importance of the ascertainable fact, Windschuttle baulks at allowing any legitimacy to any philosophy of history, to any theory about underlying forces that drive the historical process.

Windschuttle is strong on narrative but, ironically, like the posties he criticises, he abhors the "meta-narrative" such as the Marxist class struggle philosophy of history. He can see only trees — specific historical events — and not the wood because woods require an overall view of history and this can not exist until the last indisputable fact is in and the computer can generate the meaning of history. Windschuttle adopts a spurious trans-ideological historical neutrality, shunning any notion of moral choice or political commitment by the historian — in a visceral reaction to the awful Marxists, perhaps.

As with philosophies of history, so with science: Windschuttle launches a broadside against Thomas Kuhn's path-breaking and widely respected 1962 work on scientific revolutions because it introduced ideology and sociology into the "pure" realm of science, thus sullying the liberal ideal of the "disinterested pursuit of truth".

At times, Windschuttle, piqued by all these ideological "contaminations" of the pure sciences, including history, lumps together and condemns the posties, Marxists and the "politically correct" historians who argue that issues of sex and race have been ignored by much conventional history (as they indeed have). Windschuttle's hard-line empiricism can even make the posties appear attractive because of their emphasis on rediscovering marginalised historical voices (convicts, indigenous persons, Foucault's "outcasts" such as prisoners and the mentally ill) and their belief that the detached, value-neutral historian is a myth.

Although taken to lunatic extremes of hyper-relativism by the posties, this latter view does recognise that historians unavoidably bring their values and ideological assumptions to their examination of the past. History is as much about the present, and the individual historians' values, as about the past. The debate over the Russian Revolution by Marxists, anarchists and anti-communist conservatives, is the most prominent example of this.

Indeed, this is demonstrated by Windschuttle's own comments on Marxism and the Russian Revolution — Marxism is "politically untenable", socialism is "the dead end of a blind [Marxist] alley", Leninism and the Russian Revolution were a "horrendous mistake" and so on. These comments are about as subjective and removed from disinterested objectivity as one can get, are disdainful of the complexities and contextuality of historical fact and are as "politically correct" in the real conservative meaning of that anti-progressive backlash phrase as it is possible to be.

Windschuttle's empiricist critique of the posties' historical relativism is not adequate for an understanding of history nor for a historically informed guide to contemporary political action. The best of the Marxist histories, such as Trotsky's, though not devoid of errors of fact and judgment, combine a serious attention to objectivity with a commitment to a political philosophy, to produce a history which can be used to change the world, which should be the point of history.

Windschuttle has written a useful explication and critique of postmodernism, post-structuralism and other not-very-easy-to-understand-isms, but if you do read it, have a copy of E.H. Carr's 1960 classic What is History? close to hand — a collection of his essays. Carr tackles some of the early precursors of the posties and some old empiricists with equal verve and a dedication to a history that goes well beyond Windschuttle's objective compilation of facts or the posties' view of historical reality as nothing but the subjective product of the mind of the historian.