Cause and Effect Essay on a Book

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In Defence of History by Richard J Evans was first published in Great Britain by Granta Books in 1997. The copy of the book I read was published with (quite an extensive) afterword by the author in 2000. I had not heard of the author of the book before so was unsure of who he was. Having looked him up online I established that Richard J. Grant not only was appointed Knight Bachelor in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List in 2012 for services to scholarship he also is a British Historian who has been Regius Professor of History at Cambridge University (among many other appointments at other Universities). I also wondered before reading the book, why he wrote an afterword (and a very long one at that) three years after first publishing In Defence of History. Had he changed his views on the subject on which he was writing? Had the book caused controversy among fellow historians that Richard J. Evans had to defend what he had written?

So what is the book about and who is it aimed at? Richard J. Evans writes that “this book is about how we study history, how we research and write about it, how we read it”. The book it seems is aimed at the budding historian, those just starting out on their journey, it is there to help give an insight into the tools they need to study history and the struggles historians have had trying to document the past.

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It took a couple of attempts to start reading the book due to the author's use of purple prose, and ornate and elaborate language that meanders in such a way it distracted from the main points he was trying to make. Also, he throws Historians' names about a bit, jumping from one historian to another was a little confusing, causing me to reread parts of the book so as not to attribute what was being said by one historian to another (although isn’t that the point the author is trying to make about checking and rechecking your sources?) Having said that once I started to go with the flow as such and stopped getting quite confused by the volume of names being thrown at me I started to enjoy what I was reading and started thinking about the theories and arguments that were being put across by Richard J. Grant. The book was well written, without (I thought at first) any bias towards any thoughts that the author may have had on the practices and ideas of other historical and academic figures. The Afterword to the book does show clearly where the author’s intent for the book lies, as well as his thoughts on other academics within his field, and does later slightly change the opinions formed of the author.

The chapters of the book are laid out clearly although I feel as if a lot of the theories and themes are repeated throughout such as political, social, and scientific concepts. I think this just reflects that these themes continuously influenced the past and continue to influence the world around us. The main concept of the book seems to be how we can approach acquiring knowledge of the past objectively without clouding it with our preconceived thoughts and ideas. Historical theory and methods continuously change and everybody has their own methods or other methods they prefer to use when deciphering history. Each historian has a view on whose methods of historical research be it Ranke, Pollard, or Droysen (amongst many others mentioned in the book) are best. Anything can be offered up for interpretation whether we stick to tried and tested methods or not. You can give ten people the same historical document and each will have their own interpretation of it. Historical research is continuously changing and we must be careful of the sources used and how we use them. Those who claim to be objective in their research and writing may not always practice what they preach, many of the founders of scientific history have failed to follow their own rules.

Richard J. Grant discusses whether or not history follows a pattern or a natural order, reflecting on H.A.L Fisher's remarks in the preface to his book History of Europe, published in 1934; that History, in this bewildered view, was just ‘one damned thing after another’, devoid of meaning, and beyond interpretation. Does history have to follow a pattern or a natural order, I think not, but neither does it have to be ‘one damn thing after another’. Things do just happen, as a species we can be predictable but as an individual we can also be unpredictable. If History did have a pattern or natural order we would have no need for the historian as we would know how things would work out, everything would be predictable.

‘Historians according to Carr, should not judge the past in moral terms; their purpose was rather to understand how the past had contributed to human progress’. Reading this book made me think about my approach toward history and how applying today's society's moral compass to that of the past undermines the task of looking at history through an unbiased methodology. If we are to apply morals for an unbiased view it's best to try to apply those that were around at that period in time (unless you are studying and looking at morality throughout history and how it impacted society for your own thesis).

Are the writers’ arguments valid? At this moment in time, I cannot say yes or no, having not read other Historians' arguments or theses on how we study history. To agree with Richard J. Carr this early in my studies would show a lack of awareness and critical thinking, although the book is a great starting point from which to jump and study and read other historians' hypotheses and views. I can see that this book and the writers’ ideas have influenced a lot of people and in turn, I can see that he himself seems to have been influenced by E.H. Carr amongst others (even writing an introduction to the 40th anniversary edition of his book what is History, discussing the impact that the book has had since it was first published).

And now to the afterword that was added to the book at a later date. Richard J. Grant writes in his opening paragraph; “Critics seemed to disagree fundamentally about many of its central theses, such disagreements raise once more the question of how far readers put meaning into a text, how far an author is able to limit the variety of meanings people put into it.” Everyone is a critic, surely if you are that confident in what you have written there would be no need to write your thoughts on what others think of your book. I can understand writing an argument to those who have misunderstood what has been written and who have misconstrued the arguments put forth by the author, but surely when writing your views on a subject you do leave yourself open for critical discourse. As for readers putting their own meaning into a text, you cannot write a book with other people’s ideas and thesis in it and expect those to be interpreted in the same way that you have.

My final conclusion; The Author has shown there are lots of theories and schools of thought of how history should be approached. I feel the role of the historian is to narrate (unbiased of course) and maybe along the way come to an understanding or discover the roles of people and events that have shaped the world. The role of the historian is far from over and there are still plenty of facts to discover and ideas, theses, and hypotheses to form and reflect upon. Richard J. Evans has shown that developments within the history profession ebbs and flows according to whatever is happening throughout history politically, academically, economically, and socially. History is constantly being rewritten due to new discoveries and different methods that are being used. Whatever opinion or thesis one historian has there will always be someone who will have an antithesis to counteract or offer a different perspective.

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