Recently I finished Keith Jenkins’ book Re-Thinking History (Routledge, 1991). Jenkins is a professor of history at the University of Chichester who is known for his advocating of a postmodern historiography. What characterizes a “postmodern” historiography? Well, oddly enough this statement by the philosopher Voltaire works quite well:  “There is no history, only fictions of varying degrees of plausibility.”

In other words, when someone writes a “history” they take data available to them (archaeological, botanical, paleontological, papyrological, etc) and they reconstruct a narrative from that data. It could be argued that many events given a cause-and-effect relationship in say a book on Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon are the complete invention of the author. Sure, we find that this or that happened, but do we know that this or that caused Caesar to move toward Rome? How do we know?

Some historians seek to do history as scientists do science. They want testable hypothesis that result in some form of “objective” knowledge. Others say that this is not possible, so the best analogy for the work of a historian is that of an artist taking various materials to paint a picture for his/her audience.

In Jenkins’ book he advocates a very subjective, almost relativistic understanding of history.  I think there is a lot to learn from what he says, though I have my contentions. Over three parts I will interact with Jenkins as an amateur in historiography. I hope to come away a better thinker on how to do historical studies.

History is Histories; there isn’t one “history”.

Jenkins is a Lyotard of historiography in that his first attack is upon the idea that there is one “history” that is all encompassing. Rather, Jenkins argues that there are many, many “histories” (plural) that tell many, many stories from many, many angles. (p. 3) These histories are discourses on various subjects. (p. 5) History and “the past” are not one and the same since the past has happened, but history is a present interpretation of some of the events of the past. (pp. 6-7)

When the historian seeks to bridge the past to the present s/he does so with presuppositions involved. S/he has “epistemological fragility” as Jenkins dubs it. He states, “…no historian can cover and thus re-cover the totality of past events because their ‘content’ is virtually limitless. What he wants the reader to note is that even a modern historian writing on say the election of President Barack Obama must chose to include and exclude details and there are thousands of details that the historian cannot know. “Second, no account can re-cover the past as it was because the past was not an account but events, situations, etc.” (p. 11)

In addition to the chasm of time we have the chasm of experience. Jenkins notes that “…history relies on someone else’s eyes and voice”. (p. 12) Often we aren’t the primary source of our historical work. We rely upon the accounts of others. We receive the events through their subjective lens.

So how do historians make their work secure? Often it comes down to a discussion of methodology. Jenkins thinks this falls short since historians use many different methodologies and often do not agree on how to do the task at hand. (pp. 15-16)

Even if a historian thinks they have a well-developed methodology there are many more factors to consider: the guild and it’s influence, epistemological presuppositions, particular “routines and procedures”, the influence of the work of other historians, the process of writing a history (including the work of editors, limited word counts, sell-ability), and finally, to move to the reader, their own subjective understanding of what you wrote. (pp. 20-24)

What Jenkins accomplishes in his first chapter “What is History?” is the deconstruction of the reader’s confidence in objective historiography. He humbles the reader’s epistemological self-understanding. He challenges the whole guild of historians who feel that their club has discovered the “rules of engagement” for doing good historical work that allows us to say with confidence that this happened, this did not, and this is why this happened.

So you may ask what Jenkins offers once he has torn down the common understanding of historiography. This is his definition of “history”:

History is a shifting, problematic discourse, ostensibly about an aspect of the world, the past, that is produced by a group of present-minded workers (overwhelmingly in our culture salaried historians) who go about their work in mutually recognizable ways that are epistemologically, methodologically, ideologically and practically positioned and whose products, once in circulation, are subject to a series of uses and abuses that are logically infinite but which in actuality generally correspond to a range of power bases that exist at any given moment and which structures and distributes the meanings of histories along a dominant-marginal spectrum.” (p. 26)

If Jenkins is correct in his understanding of “history” then we should abandon any idea that we can be “objective” in our historical work or that we are recovering the “bare facts”. No, we are reconstructing a narrative from the available data. That said, it seems that Jenkins departs from epistemological arrogrance to epistemological nihilism. Does it have to be “all-or-nothing” or can we reframe the discussion around “degree” of “plausibility” instead?