The Impact of Postmodernism on the 'What Is History?' Debate

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To explain the impacts of postmodernism, we have to understand the very composite nature of postmodernism, which is a relatively new all encompassing philosophy and one that reputedly lacks a historiography. The nature of the title question is very philosophical to which an equally philosophical answer could be given – why? However I am not so bold as to give that as the answer. I will therefore endeavour to simplify and qualify, what I consider are, related factors and, where applicable, their origins. Similarly, as the title requests, I will also tackle their relationship with the ‘what is history?' debate (having first explained exactly what it is) to offer a conclusion as to the profundity of their impact.

The debate that continues through modern day historians on exactly ‘what is history?' was instigated by the writings of Collingwood, Elton and Carr, during the 20th century. It appears a very multifaceted issue and seldom does a historian writing about the ongoing debate fully agree with any of his cohorts in any of the intellectual disciplines.

In the words of Oscar Wilde, ‘To write history we have to rewrite history'. Obviously, this always involves revision, which encompasses ‘our understanding of the past and our sense of the persistence of the past into the present.' (1) Once again, it is a complex issue to address as each individual may offer a different perspective, on their view of past histories due to personal circumstance and ideology, which subsequently ‘emphasises the connections between different fields of human endeavour.'(2)

There is commonly a distinction between history and sociology in as much as history commonly refers to study of past events and human affairs, while sociology may be defined as ‘the study of human society, with an emphasis on generalisations about its structure and development.'(3) Rather than to get engaged in the parochial debate between how history and sociology differ, it is much easier to accept that they compliment each other. In fact there are a number of intellectual disciplines (including social anthropology, geography, politics and economics, to name but a few), which are all complimentary to the writing of history.

Clearly the more recent the event, the more likely we will have more evidence as contemporary sources whether they be oral accounts, manuscripts, diaries and so forth have had less time to withstand the destructive processes, experienced by many other similar sources, throughout the passage of time. However, this is not to dismiss findings from archaeological digs, as with the help from modern technology it is believed we can interpret quite accurately dates, scenes and lifestyles of societies from long past epochs. With regard to the impact of postmodernism on the history debate we need to understand the meanings of both modernism and postmodernism. The former is the philosophy that began with the enlightenment during the 17th and 18th centuries in which science and art flourished. René Descartes (born in 1596) is perhaps the single most important philosopher of the European Enlightenment, the period in which philosophy emphasised reason and individualism rather than accepted tradition. Having studied under the Jesuits, who stressed the importance of the method of acquiring knowledge over everything else, Descartes developed a life-long obsession with how knowledge was acquired rather than the substance of knowledge itself. He deliberated over the basic principles of philosophy by asking the questions and reasoning with the answers to ‘How do we know things to be true and how do we distinguish the false from the true?'(4) Initially he stopped believing in everything but later realised that this was practically impossible and therefore set up a provision of rules to adhere to. Summarised by Hooker (1996), Descartes believed that ‘if you can't be sure that anything is true, then you should accept for the time being what the people around you...
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