Beyond irony and relativism: what is postmodern history for

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This essay argues that, to avoid debates over postmodernism in history becoming sterile disputation, new views of the purpose of history are required. Works which address the teaching of history in relation to postmodernism have tended to converge on the idea of history as a public discourse/narrative, to the neglect of questions of its individual educative value for the student. History reconfigured as a mode of exploration in human action and perception, via the kind of ethical perspectives suggested by Richard Rorty, would evade the need to find ‘truth’ either in agreed narratives or a critical present‐centred perspective (an implication, it is suggested, of Keith Jenkins's recent work). The value and purpose of history, if it cannot unproblematically indicate ‘truths’ outside of the individual's perspective, would best be seen as helping to expand and destabilize that perspective by challenging its bases. History as a tool of personal growth requires rather more discomfiture to the student than is suggested by a reading of Keith Jenkins's advice to ask always cui bono? The extent to which even postmodernism has been historically constructed, and to which the present remains complicit in, and consequent to, the past, cannot be evaded. History can be treated as essentially a product of imagination, but that is all the more reason not to leave its ethical and moral issues external to the present‐day observer, and their methods of re‐imagination. In conclusion, some of the implications of this view are laid out in relation to recent debates in the historiography of the Holocaust.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)311-326
Number of pages16
JournalRethinking History
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1997


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