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About this book

In this radical reassessment, Alun Munslow challenges conventional notions of history and offers a new vision of historical thinking and practice. Deploying a range of concepts such as scepticism, aesthetics, ethics, standpoint, irony, authorship and a new understanding of truth, The Future of History examines history as a form of knowledge in itself, arguing that in the future the multiple forms of its expression will be as significant as its content. This thought-provoking, challenging and unique book offers a way forward for history after postmodernism and is essential reading for anyone asking the question 'what is history?'.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Introduction

Abstract
It seems to me that there is no longer a ‘common agreement’ on the nature of history. Moreover, as the famous logic of the differend suggests, once an epistemic choice is made there are no disciplinary codes or professional rules that can cross the resulting gulf between it and other discourses and discursive choices.1 So, the epistemically motivated conventional history of a particular kind and so called unconventional histories are incommensurable. This is because unconventional and experimental histories are epistemological acts of disobedience and dissonance undertaken by multi-sceptical history recusants. Such histories are always unnatural, de-forming and re-forming ‘events’ that by their nature question the totalising procedures of the epistemologically driven and self-styled proper way ‘to do history’. Reduced to its basics, my concerns in defending present and future unconventional and experimental history-making centre on the relationships between epistemology, scepticism, relativism, irony, ethics, the historian’s responsibility in respect of their self-styled and acknowledged subjectivity and subjectivity/standpoint and the functional role of aesthetics in the future of history as discursive experiment and expression.
Alun Munslow

Part I

Frontmatter

1. The Epistemological Problem for Historians

Abstract
In this chapter first I argue against the understanding that epistemology — as the theory of knowledge — is the only and absolute foundation of history’s meaning creation nature.1 I do so by evaluating epistemology as a problem for historians. This is because the epistemological choice permits only history of a particular kind. I then make my first foray into the nature of scepticism. I do this so I can argue for an alternative theory and practice of historical understanding.2 My argument will be to establish that epistemology — defined by its defenders as the theory of knowledge — is a choice not a given and one which creates a problem for the discipline of history that is incapable of resolution. After examining the epistemological problem I propose that all historians should consider ‘moving on’ to consider an alternative range of multi-sceptical choices which, I argue, will allow for the generation of new historical practices.
Alun Munslow

2. What Do Conventional Historians Believe

Abstract
I want to introduce this chapter with an extended quotation. This now classic definition of the key ideas and practices of conventional history was provided 20 years ago in the first two pages of Peter Novick’s provocative analysis of the American historical profession.1 Novick defined the foundational concept of objectivity in history:
The principal elements of the idea are well known and can be briefly recapitulated. The assumptions on which it rests include a commitment to the reality of the past and to truth as correspondence to that reality; a sharp distinction between knower and known; between fact and value; and, above all, between history and fiction. Historical facts are seen as prior to and independent of interpretation: the value of an interpretation is judged by how well it accounts for the facts; if contradicted by the facts, it must be abandoned. Truth is one, not perspectival. Whatever patterns exist in history are ‘found,’ not ‘made.’ Though successive generations of historians might, as their perspectives shifted attribute different significance to events in the past, the meaning of those events was unchanging.
(pp. 1–2)
Alun Munslow

3. Scepticism, Relativism and Ethics

Abstract
As most philosophers have accepted, scepticism (and not just common or garden empirical scepticism) is conditionally correct. As the sceptical philosopher Michael Williams has argued, the sceptic may be wrong to claim that they do not know the simplest things, but this is not because we do know them after all.1 What this suggests is that the potency of scepticism is not something we can insulate ourselves against. And this, of course, is the irony of our sceptical existence. Now, having introduced the modes of scepticism, in this chapter I will examine the connection between scepticism, relativism and ethics, relocate classic notions of ‘best fit explanation’, ‘defeasibility’ and ‘inference’, and conclude with a brief comment on the significant concept of ‘the-past-as-history’.
Alun Munslow

4. Irony

Abstract
I think the least objectionable way that historians can cope with the past — and by that I mean creating useful meanings for past reality — is to ‘be ironic’ about almost every aspect of the project. As we shall see shortly when I note the main types of irony (verbal, situational, Socratic and romantic) I shall be arguing that our existence can only be understood figuratively. To speak or see the present or past world as something (say as history) is (paradoxically) to make a contrast with the assumed real not to capture its nature. For me as a historian, the central irony that I accept is what we have already come across and which I have described in the figurative shorthand: the-past-as-history.
Alun Munslow

5. Self, Standpoint and Subjectivity

Abstract
With this chapter I conclude Part 1 of this book by considering the ‘irony of self, standpoint and subjectivity’ of the historian and the implications of the shift from objectivity to self-consciously responsible subjectivity in history. In so doing I will argue that an understanding and welcoming of the ironic self-consciousness of the historian — the I in history — is necessary to the creation of new forms of historical experimentation and expression.1 In asking what happens when historians locate themselves on the ‘subjective’ side of the space between belief and reality I think I am required to examine the nature of what I call standpoint. The significant consequences of self, standpoint and subjectivity are substantial and will be considered in the second part of this book.
Alun Munslow

Part II

Frontmatter

6. Responsibility

Abstract
I have argued so far that history is much more than a cognitive discourse. It is also dissonant and relativist and must therefore be regarded as an ethical undertaking. In other words, I have acknowledged the unavoidable subjectivism of history and suggested how an understanding of the aesthetics of historical representation can strengthen the social value of history when understood as an ethically construed artwork. Perhaps only when understood as a subjectively inspired aesthetic can we start to see the value of history? What I am now going to recommend is that conventional notions such as ‘how truthful is this history?’ or ‘what lessons can we learn from that history?’ should be replaced by matters concerning the relationships of epistemology to art, ethics and the absent past.
Alun Munslow

7. History and Aesthetics

Abstract
Building on previous arguments, in this chapter I will inquire further into the question of historical aesthetics by examining the key knowledge claims likely to be made on behalf of an aestheticised history by the self-conscious, multi-sceptical, multi-ironic and dutiful future historian.1 I am, of course, well aware that little I say can move us beyond the initial analysis of Hayden White in his ‘The Burden of History’, first published in 1966. Over 40 years later this remains the single most original argument concerning the disputed nature and value of the historical consciousness.
Alun Munslow

8. Authorship

Abstract
I have already introduced the matter of style, but there are number of issues that require further elaboration. This is so I can support my claim that history is best understood as an artwork. As many recent commentators have pointed out, for history to qualify for this status our understanding of it must move beyond elementary ideas of representation or simply noting the varieties of its formats — representations in film, TV, play or whatever. It has long been suggested that if we think making sense of the past-present continuum is best understood as art, then we must become more theoretically aware of the alternative ways of seeing and presenting the past that are available to us.
Alun Munslow

9. Form before Content

Abstract
Why have conventional historians never accepted the argument that history is valuable precisely because it cannot recover ‘the narrative of the past’? Also, why is it regarded as feckless to believe the (synaesthetic) argument that the historical narrative is much more complex than its claim to referential accuracy will allow? And, because of these two conventional beliefs, why is it ‘natural’ to argue that history presupposes the authority of content over form? I find this attitude particularly surprising given the debates on the so called narrativist theory of historical explanation of the past half-century. So, in this chapter I start with a brief analysis of the ideas on the connections between art and history — selectively — of John Dewey, Benedetto Croce, R. G. Collingwood and more recently Nelson Goodman, Hayden White, Robert Rosenstone, Paul Ricoeur and Frank Ankersmit, in the context of narrative formalism and what I will call ‘history for its own sake’.
Alun Munslow

10. Experimental History

Abstract
In the last two chapters I have suggested that the authorially constructed connection between form and content allow for the production of a radical new way of historical understanding.1 This robustly sceptical and ironic attitude towards the past and its representation I have summarised in the phrase ‘the-past-as-history’. For the experimental historian, as we shall see in this chapter, whether or not history has representational content may be quite immaterial to its standing as either a serious engagement with the past or as an artwork.
Alun Munslow

11. Expressionist History

Abstract
For the future historian who refuses the epistemological choice, history will be understood as an expressive form that mediates the constructivist and dialogic status of ‘historical knowledge’. Such a historian (or however they choose to describe themselves) should they wish to provide meanings for the past, will do so in new and (syn)aesthetically imaginative ways. Of course, such a future historian will welcome and work with the problem of representation. They may wish to break with history either of a particular kind or experimental history as it is presently conceived, just as cubism broke with perspectivism and surrealism with cubism. So it is time to make good on my hope that future historians will deliver new kinds of self-conscious, emotionally inspired and ethically wrought historical expressions by imagining what the future of history might be.
Alun Munslow

Conclusion

Abstract
I have argued in this book that the future of history means rethinking the basic concepts and practices that most historians presently deploy. To the metaphysical realist who complains that the past would not cease to exist if historians suddenly evaporated as a profession the multi-sceptical and ironically styled future historian is going to agree. I suspect, however, that they will also say that if historians did disappear the past would not because the past in no way causally depends on the existence of historians. The ‘past historian’ (to coin a phrase) will not be happy with this response because they are still going to worry that the past might be claimed to exist and possess a meaning but only relative to our conceptual schemas and expressions. Well, I think this is a genuine worry because we do tend to have lots of historical explanations constituted out of many different and competing conceptual schemas and expressions that seem to explain the past equally well (or badly).
Alun Munslow
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