Keith Jenkins is Professor of Historical Theory at the University College, Chichester, and author of several books on historiography, including the recently reissued Re-thinking History. His work has served to bring criticisms of traditional philosophy of history to the attention of the wider public, particularly with the intentionally-polemical stance he took in Re-thinking History. I was able to ask him some questions about his work and its motives.
- Interviewed by Paul Newall (2004)
PN: What was your original motivation for writing Re-thinking History?
KJ: I originally wrote Re-thinking History in the late 1980s (it was first published in 1991) because of what seemed to me to be the poverty of 'history theory' (even today a term that seems slightly odd though we readily enough accept 'literary theory' or 'critical theory' or 'social theory'). At the time most students of history had read—if they had read anything about 'the nature of history' at all—bits and pieces from texts by Marwick and Tosh, Bloch, E.H. Carr and G. Elton. And, compared with the theoretical work in adjacent disciplines/discourses at the time—in literature, sociology, aesthetics, politics, etc., these offered a massively impoverished understanding of how a discourse like history is the kind of fabrication it is—and has been. And so RH tried to both introduce students to ideas from these other areas and apply them to some of the key issues/areas in history.
PN: How would you explain the conclusions you came to in Re-thinking History to someone who had never considered historical theory before?
KJ: The conclusions I reached about history in RH were (i) that history was an aesthetic/literary genre such that it could not be an epistemology and that, therefore, the questions historians normally considered—the relationship of facts to values, of interpretation, of objectivity, truth, etc., were not much to the point if the object of their concern was not one capable of being reduced to epistemological (knowledge) claims. I thought and still think—that debates about 'history' are debates about meaning (i.e. ontological debates) and, of course, meaning (of the 'facts'; of this or that interpretation, etc.) escape facticity and interpretation. (ii) That all historical discourse is positioned—is ideological/political, and that, rather than avoid this obvious conclusion, one should make explicit one's own position... that is to say, there was a call for 'reflexivity' going 'all the way down'. (iii) Finally, I wanted students of history to be aware of the ideas of postmodernity and postmodernism and to encourage them to read 'postmodernists' (Lyotard et al) for themselves.
PN: What was the initial reaction to it, and was there a difference between lay and academic opinions?
KJ: The initial reaction from people like Marwick was openly hostile and I think—I still think—Marwick spoke and speaks pretty much for most mainline/professional historians who, whilst aware of 'theory', are still fairly immune to it if not openly hostile. But, nevertheless, RH was taken up in schools, colleges, universities (where its deliberately polemical style probably encouraged 'discussion') and, by the mid 90s probably figured on most 'reading lists' at 'A' level and undergraduate levels. But this has not, as noted, really 'filtered down' to the 'proper' history courses most students still do, and so it's difficult to judge its 'positive' impact.
PN: In an interview with Alan Munslow, you said that you "knew how intellectually backward the general condition of 'the discipline of history' was, and how rabidly anti-theoretical the academic pursuit of history was". Have these situations improved within history and how successful do you think Re-thinking History was in bringing about change or a more reflective attitude in historians?
KJ: I think my answer here echoes the one just given. There has been some 'improvement' since the early 90s (as evidenced by the increasing number of theory texts on the market) and, no doubt, in methods and historiography classes the nature of history is much more discussed. But the problem still remains of how far students have moved away from empirical approaches; of how far historical discourse is now fashioned and figured in highly effective, theoretical ways.
PN: How does the philosophy of history differ between regions, local or international? Is there a division between, say, analytic and postmodern approaches, so-called, similar to that some point to in philosophy between Anglo-American and Continental traditions?
KJ: The division isn't between, say, analytical v. post modern approaches but, insofar as 'the post modern' has had an impact, the development of interest is that of whether empiricism has been challenged and whether the aesthetic nature of historical writing has supplanted it... to some extent. And, insofar as 'continental philosophy' is linguistic and aesthetic and ontological (as opposed to factual, empirical and epistemological) then the 'history debates' do shadow continental philosophy ones—in general. For, in their particulars, the sophistication of continental philosophy is nowhere really replicated in current historiography.
PN: In the years since writing and re-issuing Re-thinking History, what developments have there been in historical theory? What would you include if you published another edition?
KJ: I have written a 'new' RH under the title of Refiguring History (Routledge, 2003). I was asked by Routledge around 2001 to write a new edition of RH, but I can't go back... The debates that were around in 1991 are not articulated in the same way today and so I thought a new book was better than an 'old book' updated. Nevertheless, Routledge still wanted a second edition of RH and so I agreed to this by adding to it an interview with Alun Munslow... but the text remains untouched. For those interested I have talked about all of this in the Munslow interview (in RH, 2nd edition 2003); in the Introduction to Refiguring History and in an autobiographical piece I wrote for the journal (also called 'Rethinking History') entitled 'After History' (Rethinking History journal, 3, 1, Spring, 1999, pp. 7-20).
PN: In the book, you wrote that "[t]heoretical discussions are still on the whole skirted by robustly practical practising historians...". Why are historians so reluctant to consider the theoretical issues?
KJ: I think historians are reluctant to consider theoretical issues because of the continued dominance of empirical and epistemological thinking. Historians don't like to be told that history is a fictive process; that a history is 'an act of the imagination'; that there is no such thing as a 'true history' (any more than there can be a 'true story') because truth—at the level of the text (as opposed to the text's singular statements) is just not an applicable concept. And so historians—who are impatient about any kind of theory let alone the kind of theory I might advocate—are particularly anti 'post modern' (or anti post-structuralist or post-feminist or post-Marxist or deconstructionist positions)... basically it problematices 'normal', academic/professional histories and so, understandably, it isn't welcomed.
PN: Do you think historical theory could benefit from being discussed in terms of the realism/anti-realism debate in philosophy generally? Can there be such a thing as anti-realist accounts of the past?
KJ: Anti-realism is not a position I (and as far as I know, no 'postmodern' historian as such) embrace. I/We are not at all anti-realist, but I/We are 'all', I think, anti-representationalist.
PN: In the book, you wrote that the difficulties in historical theory could—if properly understood—be considered "liberating" and "emancipating". Can you explain this briefly and comment on your critics' response to this possibility?
KJ: I think that, by the terms "emancipating" and "empowering" as applied to a reflexively held position, I meant—and mean—that a history that raises to consciousness its constructive apparatus can demystify (and defamiliarise) historical accounts that variously attempt to 'tell the story of the past in and for itself' and thus allow the development of critical positions to emerge that can then spread into other discourses and into 'everyday political life'. This may seem rather optimistic and I suppose it is, but I want students to have a critical purchase on as many aspects of life as possible so that they can then decide how to live the life they have. To be—insofar as this is every remotely possible—'in control of their own discourse'.
PN: What is next for you? Please tell us a little about your current projects and forthcoming works.
KJ: Since Refiguring History and the 2nd edition of RH (2003) I have co-edited and introduced (with Professor Alun Munslow) a new Reader for Routledge (The Nature of History Reader, 2004)... in the Introduction, Munslow and I reflect on many of the concerns raised in this 'interview'. I am now working on another Reader for Routledge co-edited with Dr Sue Morgan entitled The Feminist History Reader (probably out in late 2005/early 2006) and another book—also for Routledge—entitled Manifestos for History in which we have asked some 20 historians to write Manifestos for the kind of histories they would like—feel necessary—for the 21st century. This collection of essays is edited by myself, Professor Alun Munslow and Dr Sue Morgan, and should be out in late 2006. Apart from that I'm writing various essays for journals... for example an essay on J.F. Lyotard is due out in the journal Rethinking History in late 2004 and an essay on "History and Ethics" is appearing in the December 2004 issue of the journal, History and Theory.