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‘There is’, Richard Cobb wrote, ‘nothing more boring than books and articles on such themes as “What is History?” ’.1 As an historian Cobb lay in a long tradition of opposition to ‘theory’, and in the mid-twentieth century his was by no means a lone voice: to cite but one other, Geoffrey Elton significantly entitled his own book on the nature of history The Practice of History, and focused on just that – a practice that he believed was likely to be only hindered by ‘a philosophic concern with such problems as the reality of historical knowledge or the nature of historical thought’.2 That sort of resistance to thinking about the fundamentals of what one is doing (whether as an historian or anything else) sounds strangely dated now, after the injection of ‘self-awareness’ prescribed as an antidote to moral deficiencies witnessed during the last century; so it is disappointing – perhaps shameful even – to see Jeremy Black's cursory dismissal in History of Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth's latest book, as ‘a contribution to faddish theories of historical reality’ that is unlikely to be of any consequence for historical practice.3

It is that (as I shall argue) inadequate response to a culturally important work about intellectual foundations that has provoked this essay; so after a brief look at the general question of theory and practice, I shall try to explain Elizabeth Ermarth's position, and indicate why her ‘theories’ may not be as irrelevant to historical practice as Black implies.


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It is clear that there is still some reluctance among historians to acknowledge any relevance of theoretical concerns to their own practice.4 Indeed, that reluctance is confirmed by Black. It seems to be thought that, after decades of theoretical challenges, enough is surely enough; that historians have passed through all the angst-ridden ‘postmodern’ theorizing virtually unscathed, and can now see it for what it always was – a passing ‘fad’ that can be quickly forgotten, as they all get back to what really matters, their practice.

The implied assumption of a consensual model about which no further thought is needed or desirable is presumably what provoked David Cannadine, as general editor of the Penguin History of Britain, to lay down as one of his ‘inviolable rules’ for contributors, that ‘there would be no discussion of historiography’. That is all the more frustrating in the case of Robin Fleming, who describes (in his introduction to volume ii) how his sources had inspired him to ‘want to write a different kind of narrative history’ – something about which readers might well have been interested to hear more. But David Cannadine's prohibition serves to exemplify what Benjamin Kelley has described elsewhere as an appeal ‘to a crushing scholarly consensus’ – a reaffirmation that there is, as Chris Given-Wilson wrote in 2008, a continuing ‘broad consensus … among professional historians as to how history should be written’. Even in their recent theoretically aware text, Doing History (2011), Mark Donnelly and Claire Norton have recommended that students remember that they need to follow the rules and ‘play the game’ as currently practised: they should learn ‘the accepted ways of “doing history” ’ – the current ‘rules’ that collectively constitute ‘the historical method’ – so that they can follow those rules, and conform, learning ‘how to think, talk and write like historians do now’.5

Such attitudes towards consensus, and a concomitant reluctance (at least in some cases) to engage with any ‘theory’ that might challenge it, lie in a long tradition of anti-intellectualism that may have its roots in the British philosophical emphasis on empiricism and ‘common sense’. Thus, when a newly revived scepticism, and more particularly a developing historical Pyrrhonism, confronted historians in early modernity, their response (inasmuch as one was articulated) was to recommend a common-sense approach based on probability: as in science, so too in history, we may never reach ‘the truth’, but we can endeavour to approximate to it, by emulating the practical and pragmatic approaches adopted elsewhere (in theology or law or any other areas of daily life) – that is, by carefully assessing witnesses and evidence, and sensibly (proportionately) admitting to a range of varying probabilities.6

Other encouragements to a consensual pragmatic empiricism have included the evident abuse of histories in narratives deliberately constructed for ideological purposes of which we disapprove: Geoffrey Elton's concern to advocate a history somehow freed from any subjective input may perhaps be attributed to his recognition of perniciously propagandizing history in his native Germany. But while we may have some residual sympathy for his ideal of an ideologically pure history,7 it is hardly possible still to retain belief in the possibility of any such thing: Archimedes, with his hypothetical pivotal point outside the earth, may long have provided the model for would-be narrators-from-nowhere; but not even scientists would claim any longer to be able to keep their theories free from any human intervention and input.

So is it not preferable to be aware of that? And to make others – including one's readers – aware of that awareness?

Aristotle distinguished between those who performed their jobs mechanically, without thinking about what they were doing and why, and those who were concerned to (and were competent to) investigate the principles on which their work was based: the former, he suggested, were effectively slaves. And we have subsequently had that old distinction many times confirmed in a variety of contexts. ‘Theirs not to reason why’ and ‘just following orders’ may (no, does) well suit a military discipline and practical efficiency. But one may wonder whether it provides a suitable model to advocate for historians. Should they just follow the long-held and well-established procedures of their subject, linking with, and thereby strengthening, a disciplinary consensus? Is the assumption that ‘history’ is now so well established that no more thought about its nature or purpose is necessary? We have our rules, procedures, presuppositions and defined functions – so now just get on with it. We know what ‘historical reality’ is – just as Dr Johnson knew, and was determined to know against any possible evidence to the contrary, that we possess free will (‘We know our will is free, and there's an end on't!’). If in doubt about the ‘reality’ of the external world, monitor your foot's reaction to kicking a large stone, or resort to the common-sense assessment of the wholesome passenger on the Clapham omnibus. And by any means avoid ending up like the centipede, which could coordinate his many feet quite well until he started reflecting on how on earth he managed to do so.

There may, indeed, be certain ‘mechanical’ procedures that are best carried out by functionaries resembling automata – by those who resist any thought about what it is that they are doing and why. But Aristotle's point was that such people are not truly ‘free’; they are less than fully ‘human’. And as an historian, his near contemporary Thucydides was in seeming agreement, taking care to outline the foundations of his own work: not only did he quite self-consciously adopt certain theoretical principles on which his own practice was to be based, but he made those clear to his readers.


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One task of a conscientious reviewer might be to set a book in the context of its author's whole oeuvre, or at least those parts of it that seem germane. In Elizabeth Ermarth's case, it seems appropriate to note at least the two earlier books that she says underwrite her argument: Realism and Consensus in the English Novel: Time, Space and Narrative ([1983] 1998), and Sequel to History: Postmodernism and the Crisis of Representational Time (1992).

The first of these is a wide-ranging interdisciplinary study, focusing as its title implies on the two key words of ‘realism’ and ‘consensus’. The concept of ‘realism’ came into its own through the development of single-point perspective in Renaissance painting: an ideal and neutral viewpoint is assumed, from which discrete and disparate parts can be organized into an assumed unity that makes perfect sense, and that seems to any viewer from that same standpoint to be ‘real’. A painting produced in that way, according to perspectival rules, appears to provide a perfect representation of the external world. There is no need or possibility for disagreement here: we can enjoy a consensus about what appears as ‘an invariant, objective world’, from which inconsistencies and incongruities are banished.8 And that ‘reality effect’ becomes the goal in the literary arts (including both fiction and history) too, where an authoritative narrator takes a supposedly neutral and objective standpoint, and tells it ‘as it is’ in a story through straightforward linear time.

For many historians this will be an instantly recognizable model, for it is one that, within the discipline of history, has largely persisted to the present. But elsewhere the picture is very different: English novelists, from Defoe on, have made a (moral) virtue of denying the propriety of any such single perspective, and have deliberately sought to open up the possibility of entry into a wider variety of viewpoints. So in the works of such writers as George Eliot and Henry James, the reader is presented with alternative perspectives (and thereby alternative narratives), by characters who may reveal their own multiplicity, their own internal contradictions and inconsistencies.

Such multi-perspectival narratives, furthermore, take place within a framework of time that is no longer straightforwardly linear, but ‘fractured’ in a way that denies the possibility of any final ‘closure’; and it is that potentially problematic issue of time and temporality that provides the focus for the second of Ermarth's underpinnings. Here again the author goes back to the Renaissance, where she sees the development of a neutral and homogeneous time becoming an ‘unexamined article of cultural faith’.9 It parallels the spatial neutrality just discussed, and once more permits (or encourages) a belief that relationships (including causal relationships and explanations) can be understood within a single temporal framework. And again this is something that is generally taken for granted in historical practice; it has become another historiographical convention.

But again it is a convention that has been challenged in the visual arts (as in Surrealism), and especially in fiction, where ‘clock-time’ in relation to personal identities and narratives has been recognized as inadequate, inasmuch as it fails to encompass human (our own) experience of time. For we are all aware of time as what Ermarth describes as ‘a multi-dimensional web of plural realities’:10 we are constantly assaulted by memories from the past, and made aware of temporal layers in our own consciousness – and thence of multiple possibilities in the present for the future. ‘Clock-time’ may seem an inevitable part of history's foundation, and a useful constituent in maintaining ‘neutrality’, but there could be advantages in examining alternatives; for these might encourage awareness of choice through multiple pathways, and thereby erode subservience to what appears as ‘necessity’.

Thus we are returned to ‘reality’, and the need to question that seemingly obvious concept. Our very language – the ‘discourse’ in which we live – serves to determine the reality we experience; and an important function for history then becomes (as Coleridge long since recommended) to question the roots of the presuppositions entailed by that: ‘we must’, Ermarth insists, ‘learn to perceive not “reality” but the mechanisms by which we constitute a reality’; and we need to ‘take responsibility for conventions that we have naturalised’.11

Taken together, these earlier works show that Elizabeth Ermarth, though working with a cross-disciplinary approach, has history as a primary focus. As we have seen, her analysis of Renaissance perspective in the visual arts indicates its centrality to the development of a narrative form in which authority is derived from a consensus regarding the assumption of a detached and supposedly neutral or ‘objective’ standpoint. From that a narrator can report as if ‘from nowhere’, unifying disparate elements (of the past as well as nature) into an aesthetically pleasing whole. Similarly Ermarth's interest in linear time, as another central ingredient of conventional narratives, can be seen to impact most seriously on history, whose practitioners have simply assumed a regular ‘flow’ of time from past to present to future, which has enabled the identification of causal relations and so facilitated explanation. Spatial and temporal neutrality thus run in parallel, not least within historiography; and another shared assumption has been the validity of a language adequate for faithful – ‘realistic’ – representations. In both fiction and history, there has long been reliance on a language that has been assumed to refer directly to the external world; and this has helped to underpin a belief in an uninvolved narrator, who can accurately represent experience as accessed in the approved manner. The whole process has come to appear as natural, or only common sense.

From this analysis of modernity's legacy, Elizabeth Ermarth goes on to argue in History in the Discursive Condition that we are now in the midst of another cultural revolution. The post-Renaissance consensus, as we have seen, has already been challenged, and then undermined, by developments in the literary and visual arts; and it is time for history to catch up – time for wider recognition that the old certainties have gone: what has long been taken for granted as simply ‘natural’ and ‘real’ is in fact only contingent and a matter of contention. A main basis for that claim is that the linguistic revolution initiated by Saussure – with its questioning of the direct relationship between words and their referents – has left us aware that we live in a ‘discursive condition’: that is, we are all inevitably constrained within the ‘prison house’ of language – the language of our own time and culture. That language (whatever it is) is a self-contained rule-based system that is, within any given culture, universally accepted (and of course enables us to get around). But – and this is the point – it actually lacks any reliable basis in ‘reality’, or any ‘referential anchor’.12 So while it organizes the world within a frame that enables us to talk of ‘truth’ and ‘reality’, it affords us (and allows us) only a partial description of that world; and that implies that it could be described quite otherwise, so that we inhabit only a contingent reality – a reality, in short, rather than the reality.

That still sounds (in its quite literal sense) disconcerting, and it is: as Rilke long since realized, we no longer feel very ‘securely at home’ in what is after all only ever an ‘interpreted world’.13 Hence a certain resistance is only to be expected, and not least from historians, whose function has often been to bolster the cultural conventions of modernity. But, for Ermarth, the implications of residing (not least as historians) in a ‘discursive condition’ (and accepting that) can be very positive, since – with the realization that our own ‘discourse’ is only contingent – our range of choices becomes enormously extended (if not infinite): we are offered ‘opportunities as well as foreclosures’14 – not only in the discipline of history but in society more broadly too. For it opens up the possibility of options that have hitherto been suppressed in modernity: we become aware of the ‘palimpsestuous multiplicity’ of both individual identities and societies, and may thence come to recognize, for example, the inescapability (rather than the impossibility) of inconsistencies and contradictions within.

What is needed, then, is for historians to become creative in the manner of those artists who display the vision to see beyond their current situation – to see beyond the world as currently fixed within a single discourse. T. S. Eliot wrote long since of poetry helping ‘to break up the conventional modes of perception and valuation … , and make people see the world afresh, or some new part of it’; and Richard Rorty wrote similarly of how philosophy is usually ‘a contest between an entrenched vocabulary which has become a nuisance, and a half-formed vocabulary which vaguely promises great things’.15 So within history, Ermarth argues, there needs to be a ‘constant prising open of expected closures’, couched not (in traditional mode) as a smoothly running unified narrative from a single authoritative standpoint, but rather with such ‘continuous, digressive distractions’ as can already be seen in fiction and film, and where ‘what seems ancillary momentarily becomes focal’ in ‘a fractured, disunified field’.16 Then, and above all, the self-conscious constructedness of histories might be made clear.


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Theorists might concede that some of their own number produce works that are not only intellectually daunting, but appear to have little connection with practice. With an ever- expanding technical vocabulary, and a propensity to weave those scholastic-style intellectual cobwebs to which Francis Bacon took exception, there can be a self-induced ‘disconnect’ from the actual practice of history. Indeed, some have expressed their own suspicion of that ‘transparency’ that obscures more than it reveals, and have deliberately chosen to write in a style that defies easy comprehension and thereby forces hard work on any unsuspecting reader. But that is hardly the case with Elizabeth Ermarth, one of whose main concerns is that historians (of whom, surely, she may be accounted one) debate the nature and purpose of what they are doing, and make clear to their readers their own thought processes and procedures;17 while another concern is that they accept the role of ‘artist’ in breaking free from conventional constraints and proposing alternative realities.

How to fulfil that positive role in practice – that is the question. A hint may be found in Iain McGilchrist's hugely ambitious and endlessly suggestive study of the brain.18 There he recommends a rebalancing of the left and right hemispheres (or of their respective functions). A bird, he explains, uses one eye to focus as it swoops towards an appetizing crumb, while it retains the other for the complementary role of scanning the wider field for prospective hostile predators. But humans seem to find it hard to keep that balance, between focusing on specifics and at the same time maintaining peripheral (or in intellectual terms, lateral) vision. So historians are not alone in finding it difficult to narrow down their concern (which is of course necessary in any research) while at the same time remaining open to inputs from any number of alternative directions: they are likely, then, to avoid looking beyond their immediate concerns – seeking sanctuary in the confines of their disciplinary cage, rather than expending energy on what seems an unnecessary engagement, or negotiation, or reassessment and adaptation in the face of changing circumstances.

But such reassessments and adaptations are necessary, not least for a discipline that is itself a human construct – an edifice that could be built quite differently, with different aims and purposes, and perhaps even on different foundations. It might be as well, in our ongoing cultural revolution, to keep our right hemisphere in use – and that means keeping minds open to new theories, amongst which Elizabeth Ermarth's may be not so much ‘faddish’ as perennially insistent for historical practice.

  1. 1

    Richard Cobb in a letter to Hugh Trevor-Roper, quoted by Simon Skinner, London Review of Books, 19 July 2012, p. 21.

  2. 2

    G. R. Elton, The Practice of History (1969) [hereafter Elton, Practice], p. vii.

  3. 3

    Jeremy Black's review of Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth, History in the Discursive Condition: Reconsidering the Tools of Thought (Abingdon and New York, 2011) [hereafter Ermarth, Discursive Condition], is in History, xcvii (2012), 115.

  4. 4

    Admittedly, some theorists may conversely fail sufficiently to take into account developments actually taking place in historiography, but that is not my concern here.

  5. 5

    Robin Fleming, Britain after Rome: The Fall and Rise, 400–1070 (2010), p. xii; Chris Given-Wilson, ‘Past Times for All’, Times Literary Supplement, 15 Feb. 2008, p. 14 (where it is argued in particular that history ‘should in some sense be “scientific” ’); Benjamin Kelley, ‘Deviant Ancient Histories’, Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice, xii (2008), 361382, at p. 374; Mark Donnelly and Claire Norton, Doing History (2011), p. 7 (my emphasis).

  6. 6

    So, at least, suggested Lord Bolingbroke in his Letters on the Study and Use of History (1735); but it is noteworthy that his recommended procedures by no means entailed ignoring the then fashionable philosophical problem of scepticism – but rather self-consciously adopting a position in relation to it.

  7. 7

    See Elton, Practice, p. 77 : ‘that men cannot ever eliminate themselves from the search for truth is nonsense, and pernicious nonsense at that’.

  8. 8

    Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth, Realism and Consensus in the English Novel: Time, Space and Narrative (Edinburgh, 1998; 1st edn. 1983), p. 66.

  9. 9

    Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth, Sequel to History: Postmodernism and the Crisis of Representational Time (Princeton, 1992), p. 20.

  10. 10

    Ibid., p. 67.

  11. 11

    Ibid., pp. 92, 214 (my emphases).

  12. 12

    Ermarth, Discursive Condition, p. 37.

  13. 13

    Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies, trans. J. B. Leishman and Stephen Spender (1963), p. 25 (my emphasis). The quoted First Elegy was written in 1912.

  14. 14

    Ermarth, Discursive Condition, p. 44.

  15. 15

    T. S. Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933), p. 155; Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge, 1989), p. 9.

  16. 16

    Ermarth, Discursive Condition, pp. 60, 63, 68 (original emphasis).

  17. 17

    It is not for nothing that Ermarth's book has as its subtitle, Reconsidering the Tools of Thought.

  18. 18

    Iain McGilchrist, The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Modern World (New Haven, 2009).