Willem Erauw

Willem Erauw, University of Ghent, Belgium

ROUND TABLE in section III: Science, postmodernity, a new rationality.

Is History still a science ?

By posing the question as to whether history still is a science, we place ourselves on the borderline between modernist and postmodernist theories of history. When looking at the modernist side of the border, this question forces us to reflect upon epistemology: does historical practice nowadays produces scientific knowledge? With this kind of reasoning, we still believe in truth and reality as lying outside our discursive means, in history as an object of scholarship that is to be reconstructed to the best "as it really was", with facts and values kept clearly separate. When looking at the other side of the border, our initial question expresses doubt regarding the presumed scientific character of history. This doubt is linked with the postmodern current, which has stripped historical practice of any scientific character. With the differences between historical narrative and literary fiction, between objective reporting and subjective values now erased, the historian no longer reconstructs but creates an image of the past by using rhetorical and aesthetic means.

As a historian working within an environment which is firmly rooted in a traditional scientific concept of historical craftmanship, I nonetheless became fascinated by the postmodernist agenda. It liberates us from a naive form of realism to which so many historians unconsciously adhere. It makes us aware of implicit biases, of values-jugdements inherent within any kind of historical research, of the perspectives needed to approach history and to constitute the frameworks of historical narratives, of the genuine aesthetic and rhetorical aspects of writing history. Facts and causal relations are never just reported, but always selected from amongst others some of which are neglected, they are therefore the outcome of a frame-work, the value-laden perspective that does not belong to the past itself but is a product of the historian's intellect and imagination. Moreover, a frame-work not only selects certain facts and neglects others,in so doing it also it redefines the object itself, hence the continuous metamorphosis of the object of historiography. The history of the French Revolution, for instance, is not only explained and interpreted in different ways. In every new narrative the French Revolution is redefined in a new way. As Frank Ankersmit, one of the most ardent defenders of this postmodernist credo states: "There is no permanent historical object". Consequently, he proclaims: "history is not a science and it does not produce knowledge in the proper sense of the word". Given the postmodernist aversion to truth and reality in mind, he surprisingly enough calls this "an ineluctible truth".

In my daily conversations with collegues who often turn up their nose at postmodernism as if it were an intellectual disease, I became aware of some short-comings of the postmodenist position in the polarized theoretical debate on the scientific character of historical practice. Because postmodernist theory is so obsessed with the wholeness of the text and with the self-referentiality of the framework, it fails to take notice of the quest for facts, causes and effects, and their obvious reference to the past which, becomes completely overshadowed). With the postmodern linguistic sleight of hand, the content disappears behind the form and the matter behind the manner. Postmodenism fails to observe that historians work within traditions of research, within social bodies formed by academic communities. They are more often doing research against the background of pervasive consensus about underlying and unspoken perspectives, than inventing new ones.

Since the philosophy of science has disposed of its transcendental Cartesian conceptions of absolute truth and knowlegde, and has been sociologized by people like Thomas Kuhn and Bruno Latour, I am inclined to think that Latour's "black boxes" function just as well in mainstream historical practice, although they may not be as stable as they are in the exact sciences. To state in a postmodern terms that in the discipline of history, Kuhnian revolutions are endemic and run parallel with the ever metamorphosing, "fluid" historical object, thereby denying historical practice any scientific character, seems too exaggerated to me. Postmodern ascientific theory rather describes the practice of history as they would like to see it, than as it really happens day by day. The modernist stress on epistemology and scientific aspects, and the opposed postmodernist focus on the aesthetics and the literary aspects of historiography are, in my view, two sides of one single coin. Or, as one of the founding fathers of modern historiography, Leopold von Ranke, already professed: "Die Aufgabe des Historikers ist zugleich literarisch und gelehrt; die Historie ist zugleich Kunst und Wissenschaft".