Jul 15 2011

Book review: “In defence of History” by R.J. Evans

evansI’ve been interested in the history of science for some time, as a result of hanging around with historians on twitter I have been led to historiography – the study of history and its methods. This has brought me to "In Defence of History" by Richard J. Evans. It provides an opportunity to compare the ways of the historian with those of my area of science.

In his introduction Evans makes clear the book is a response to postmodernist criticism of historical practice. I was also amused to note that he cites a source as saying that historians were resistant to philosophising about their subject and criticism of their methods. As a scientist it sometimes feels as if other academic disciplines, such as philosophy and history, are on a crusade to "help" science with their criticism – this has never felt at all supportive or helpful. What this book makes clear is that one shouldn’t lump all such outsiders into one hostile blob!

It becomes clear through the book that postmodernism is not really a single thing. The core is the idea that all things are text, and that an external, objective world is less relevant – this idea originated with linguists and philosophers who were relatively unconcerned with the external world. As a somewhat hostile outsider Evans probably does not provide the best introduction to postmodernism, although he does acknowledge that ideas from postmodernism have been useful in the study of history and historical study.

As a by-product of this defence Evans gives a clear survey of what history is and what it claims to do.

The book begins with a history of history: raising first pre-modern styles of history, such as the chronicle and the morality tale of Gibbon’s "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire". Leopold von Ranke is cited as the father of the modern method, that’s to say the inspection of contemporary documents in the historical record using them to identify causes for historical events and "facts". Here the distinction is made between the primary sources and secondary sources. For Ranke the key subject of history was politics, a view that held sway for many year but more recently has been receding. The key to the historical method therefore is hunting down original documentation and reading it with a mind to its original purpose and the context of other documents of that period with a care not to be caught out by changes in language and unspoken purposes.

Evans also identifies the crisis in history following the First World War, a stark reminder to historians that predicting the future was tricky although Evans does not sign up to the idea that history is at all about predicting the future. There’s an interesting parallel here between Toynbee’s "A study of history" which tried explicitly to make laws of history for predicting the future and Asimov’s Foundation series of novels, which are based on precisely this idea. Predicting future events sets a high barrier for successful prediction, some fields of science face similar challenges such as in seismology – we can say an awful lot about earthquakes but exactly where and when are not amongst the things we can say. For these fields it’s typical to talk about the probabilities of events and the statistics of large numbers of events.

One thing that struck me was the statement that history was a scientific, imaginative and literary exercise, the first two are things that a scientist would sign up to for their own field immediately, but literary? For sciences such as the one I trained in, physics, students are scarcely asked to string words together. Exam questions are largely a case of putting a sequence of calculations together. My own writing is a reflection of this lack of training.

At one point Evans spends time trying to motivate the idea that history is a science, this seems to me an empty discussion – once you’ve decided whether or not history is a science what are you going to do? Put on a labcoat?

Since Ranke’s time history has diversified immensely with the increasing focus on non-political history such as social history and an appreciation of a wider range of themes , I find this liberating since my interest in history is primarily in "people like me", therefore social and scientific, rather than political.

In contrast to any scientific research I know the political beliefs, defined broadly to include race, gender and sexuality, have a strong bearing on historical research with fields driven to support currently political agendas and the political leanings of the researcher a subject of comment. The same goes for nationality with many European historians focused very much on their own nations and with a distorted view of their importance. It’s very difficult to find parallels in scientific research, to stretch a point you can perhaps look at genetic and brain imaging studies of homosexuality. There is a degree to which there exist national styles of scientific research which have varied with place and time but this research driven by the political agendas of the researcher feels alien to a scientist.

When doing battle with the postmodernists the work of a scientist is easier than that of a historian, since ultimately the usefulness of science is measured by tangible outputs, by impact. If postmodernism increases tangible outputs then it is welcomed into the fold, if it doesn’t (and I don’t believe it does) then it isn’t. Science is tied down by reality which is always there for a return visit, with new methods, in case of dispute. History on the other hand is always flowing past, with no chance of return.

An interesting note on style is the forthright criticism of other historians through the book, and also in the afterword where he addresses his critics in detail and at length. This type of writing is rarely seen in science, that’s not to say the thoughts do not exist just that such discussions are left to the bar, or other informal locations.

I found this book immensely thought provoking because it describes the inner workings of history from the point of view of a practioner, making a striking contrast with my own workings as a scientist.


  1. Athene Donald

    I too found the book very thought provoking (I discussed it here, with a rather different emphasis from yours).

    You are only too right about students of physics often finding it hard to string a sentence together, but I don’t think we should be content with this and take it lying down. As a PhD supervisor I get out the red pen and correct spelling, punctuation etc because if we – as scientists – can’t communicate we aren’t going to get very far, however brilliant the science is. So we need to encourage students to think much harder about how they write about science. (This goes beyond just physics of course) . Even if science is not viewed as literary, at least scientists should and must be literate.

  2. Ian

    I’d forgotten you’d discussed Evan’s book – thanks for adding a link.

    I think we should be training scientists to write better too, possibly we’re leaving it a bit late by the time they reach their PhD! Maybe there’s more scope for the essay type exercise for undergraduates; personally I’d get them all blogging but I suspect that’s a personal bias. In a sense it is not the low-level spelling/grammar that I feel I’m lacking, rather the larger scale structure and style.

    Communication is the most important part of my current job.

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