Thursday, July 12, 2012


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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 0th 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.’()

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.’() 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.

Ren� Descartes (born in 156) 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 (16), Descartes believed that ‘if you cant be sure that anything is true, then you should accept for the time being what the people around you believe, especially in the field of morals. Once you arrive at certainty, then you can reject what other people say is true, but until then, you need some system of knowledge and morality to live by.’(5)

In his bid to find a common truth he realised the most simple of notions; the fact that he possessed the ability to think proved that he existed. He is renowned for his quote, “Cogito, ergo sum” which translates as “I think, therefore I am.” Hooker (16) suggests that ‘the importance of the cogito is that it privileges the individual over tradition (Descartes is explicitly rejecting tradition) and privileges the individuals perception of the truth over some objective truth or some commonly shared truth.’(6) This basically means that the individual’s subjective experience is the foundation of truth. However, the fact that only one viewpoint can generally be accepted poses many problems, as often there are no absolute truths.

The following traditional parable offers an example of the problems associated with the belief that an individual’s subjective experience may offer the foundation of truth

An elephant was brought to a group of blind men who had never encountered such an animal before. One felt a leg and reported that an elephant is a great living pillar. Another felt the trunk and reported that an elephant is a great snake. Another felt a tusk and reported that an elephant is like a sharp ploughshare. And so on. And then they all quarrelled together, each claiming that his account was the truth and therefore all the others false.

(Cited from Kierkegaard, 15)

Although the accounts offered by each of the blind men are viewpoints, they cannot be considered as absolute truths nor can they be dismissed as false. Kierkegaard (15), suggests that an absolute truth, or one that is true for all, ‘cannot be achieved because of the constant motion of circumstances of who said it, to whom, when, where, why, and how it was said.’(7) However, it is generally recognised that if the blind men had accepted the different truths and every perception of the elephant had been taken into consideration, then quite obviously opinions may have changed and adapted.

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