Telling the truth about history book review

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telling the truth about history book review

Telling the Truth About History by Joyce Appleby

Kind of interesting, but when the authors get the point of talking about post-modernism and especially Derrida I had to put aside most of their thoughts and opinions as ill informed and not much more than a popular and superficial reading of his work. The fact that all the information they site on Derrida, Nietzsche (ok, there is one super inflammatory quote they pull from Freddy)and Heideggar come from second hand sources or the opinions of some mysterious persons who have explained this too them makes their critique of the post-modern project kind of weak, and since this was the only part of the book I actually had a good grounding in it makes me wonder about the other parts of the book and the validity of what they are saying. I would expect Historians to goto the original sources of the material they are discussing and not rely solely on others interpretations of the material. But the book does make some interesting observations on the way epistemology has been viewed by history, and even if I dont philosophically agree with the pragmatic turn they make at the end the book did open up some nice avenues of thought. Plus its so damn cute when social scientists and people like historians really try to defend their discipline as being scientifically objective (thats not quite fair, they do move away from this towards their final conclusion, but the structure of residual positivism is still left).
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Published 02.12.2018

history of the entire world, i guess

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Joyce Appleby

Telling the Truth about History

New York: W. IS there a truth that historians can tell? Yes, in thunder, answer the authors of "Telling the Truth About History," a confident, breezy account of the historical profession's encounters with post-modernism and multiculturalism. Of course, historians are influenced by their own character and circumstances. But just because nobody can have a God's-eye view of events does not mean that historians are writers of fiction or merely the agents of particular tribes or interest groups. A genuinely diverse community of historians can neutralize the biases and compensate for the blind spots found in any person or group; the result can be history warranted widely enough to be called true.

On the contrary, as he explains in the introduction to At the Limits of History , in the late s, when he first became acquainted with the postmodern critique of history, he chose merely to distance himself from those historians who ignored or challenged it. The outcome was an at times furious and prolonged debate, in which there were numerous accusations of insane individualism, solipsism, fantasy-mongering, left-wing posturing and hectoring authoritarianism a debate which no self-respecting historian could easily ignore; though it has to be said that many did. It was no doubt this last qualification that eventually led to his appointment as a lecturer in history at Chichester. In the space of 30 years or so, he believes, these and many other thinkers so deconstructed the foundational and essentialist presumptions of the Western tradition as to leave it entirely bereft of all intrinsic meaning and value. In Rethinking History , a remarkable bestseller, much translated, Jenkins argues compellingly that the conventional view of academic history that it enjoys the benefits of a uniquely effective epistemology and methodology which enables it to discover from historical facts, properly established, some sort of historical truth, a truth, moreover that can be conveyed to a willing audience by way of historical narrative is fundamentally flawed. Even the most perfunctory understanding of conventional historical method, properly analysed in a postmodern way, will show that the historian, no matter how well trained he might be, can never really know the past, as the gap between the past and history is an ontological one, one that in the very nature of things cannot be bridged.


Rarely has the study and teaching of history been the subject of such intense public debate as in the United States today. American historians, however, like the public at large, are a resolutely non-theoretical lot. No one much cared when Jacques Derrida questioned the epistemological foundations of historical knowledge, or Hayden White insisted that historical narratives are, in large measure, carefully contrived myths. Today, it seems, one can scarcely open a newspaper without encountering bitter controversy over the public presentation of the American past. In recent months, the flying of the Confederate flag over public buildings in the South has inspired marches and countermarches; it even became an issue in the Virginia Senate campaign between Oliver North who favoured the flag and Charles Robb who opposed it. There has also been controversy over proposed national standards for history education, drawn up with the participation of hundreds of scholars and every major professional association of history teachers. Lynn Cheney, former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, has condemned the plan because, among other things, George Washington is mentioned less frequently than Harriet Tubman, who led groups of slaves to freedom before the Civil War.



2 thoughts on “Telling the Truth About History by Joyce Appleby

  1. One of Australia's leading Aboriginal historians takes us to the heart of the 'history war' over our Aboriginal past.

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