Richard J. Evans, In Defense of History (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2000).

Evans, IN DEFENSE OF HISTORY
Evans, IN DEFENSE OF HISTORY

Richard J. Evans’ In Defense of History is a passionate defense of the work done by historians. In light of the postmodern shift there have been many philosophers and even historians who have argued that there is no way to do “objective” history. All historical reconstruction is essentially narrative and the facts do not matter. While Evans does not defend the antiquated idea that we can be purely “objective” he does go toe-to-toe with those who deny that historians can tell us something about what happened in the past.

In Chapter 1 (The History of History) Evans gives readers a lesson in historiography. In Chapter 2 (History, Science, and Morality) examines two things primarily: whether historians can make moral judgements about the past and whether or not the discipline is a “science.” Chapter 3 (Historians and Their Facts) addresses the question, “What is a historical fact?” Chapter 4 (Sources and Discourses) examines the difference between the sources used by historians to construct their narrative and the narrative itself. Chapter 5 (Causation in History) asks whether or not there is any way one can say one event or a series of events caused other events. Chapter 6 (Society and the Individual) is concerned mostly with whether or not certain individuals can be understood as separated from their society, caused by their society, or some middle position. Chapter 7 (Knowledge and Power) addresses the postmodern challenge that all history is a grasp at power written by the victors to suppressed the oppressed. Chapter 8 (Objectivity and Its Limits) is a defense of what we may call “critical realism” (though I don’t recall him using this label) in the face of radical postmodernism while at the same time tipping his hat to those aspects of postmodernism that have helped the historian become more self-critical and aware.

This is a fine volume for anyone wondering what it is that the historian does and whether history can be written. Evans does not reinforce older ideas regarding unreflective “objectivity,” but neither does he shy from strongly challenging radical subjectivity and relativism, often showing how the more extreme postmodernists are self-contradictory. Since Evans is a historian of Europe most of his examples—both data and his interaction with other historians—focuses on European and North American history, but I think historians studying a wide array of subjects can find value in this book.