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Rethinking History [Paperback]

Keith Jenkins
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

March 21 2003 0415304431 978-0415304436 3

History means many things to many people. But finding an answer to the question 'What is history?' is a task few feel equipped to answer. If you want to explore this tantalising subject, where do you start? What are the critical skills you need to begin to make sense of the past?

The perfect introduction to this thought-provoking area, Jenkins' clear and concise prose guides readers through the controversies and debates that surround historical thinking at the present time, providing them with the means to make their own discoveries.


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Review

'Far and away the best introduction to the state of the question currently available.' - Hayden White, University of California at Santa Cruz, USA

About the Author

Keith Jenkins (1943-). Professor of Historical Theory, University College Chichester, UK

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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In this chapter I want to try and answer the question 'what is history?' Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
When many people think of history, they think of facts. But as Keith Jenkins argues in this book, the "facts" or "truth" from the past are impossible to reach. Instead, when we think of history, we are dealing with a historian's perception of past events, and inevitably, almost every historian will reach a different conclusion. This may cause some to become frustrated or apathetic at the possibility of never knowing the truth, but in Jenkins' view, this may not be such a bad thing, each different reading can add to our understanding as a whole. This book is small (roughly 70 pages of text), but it is filled with engrossing arguments and perspectives on history, education, and our world today. It's alot more interesting and rewarding than this little review makes it out to be. I highly recommend this book to any person that likes (or maybe more importantly, dislikes) history.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A CLASSIC!!! Dec 10 2002
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
Jenkins is a very valuable author for anyone venturing into the study of history--even more valuable for those that have been doing history for a long time and haven't got the clue yet. This book challenges the presuppositions of 'proper' historians regarding 'truth', 'facts', and 'objectivity' in a evry thought provoking manner. Jenkins challenges historians to be USEFUL, and not just antiquarians. The book is short enough (70 pages) to be read in an afternoon, which is very handy. After reading RE-THINKING HISTORY, read the sequel, REFIGURING HISTORY, which is possibly even better.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.8 out of 5 stars  8 reviews
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An intriguing, provocative view of the historian's craft Oct. 27 2006
By Ronald Angelo Johnson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
In Re-thinking History Keith Jenkins argues that there is no history, only histories constructed by historians' perspectives. To use Alun Munslow's words, "all history is unavoidably situated." (p. xiv) There is neither a proper way to do history nor a hidden truth waiting to be found. The historian employs literary narrative as a professional tool to create a meaning for the past, a framework in which to tell his/her [hi]story. History and the past are not the same things. Though historians use primary and secondary sources in their work, they cannot know if their finished products correspond with the past. The Routledge classic edition of Re-thinking History uses three succinct chapters--plus a preface, a Munslow-Jenkins conversation, and an introduction--to lay out Jenkins's post-modern view of history in relation to previous norms. In chapter one, which concludes with a whopping 97-word definition of history, Jenkins discusses the question of what is history in theory and in practice. He distinguishes between "the past" and "history". The terms are not synonymous; in fact, they "float free of each other...ages and miles apart." (p. 7) Jenkins suggests use of the terms "past" and "historiography" (the writings of historians), for "the past has gone and history is what historians make of it when they go to work." (p. 8) To illustrate the past-history distinction, he emphasizes the obvious: though millions of women have lived in the past, only a few appear in history.

The historian faces three problematic theoretical areas when trying to fit the past into history: epistemology, methodology, and ideology. The limits of historians' epistemology--the way they know what they know--prevents history from presenting objective, accurate accounts of a `real past'. That a historian can only write about the past from his/her present dictates the writing of history as a personal construct, built upon the narrator's (historian's) knowledge (including primary and secondary sources) and assumptions. Jenkins dismisses notions of definitive historical methods to get at the truth, given that the existing range of legitimate methods. As such, ideology always affects the construction of history. Jenkins aptly says, "History is never for itself; it is always for someone." (p. 21)

Jenkins's discussion on the practice of history is not a how-to section. Rather, it provides a post-modern vision of the historian's work. Historians make history. They do so, not from an impartial position seeking objective truth. Instead, historians wield a dominant sway over the reading of evidence that can be understood different ways. For Jenkins, this view of the historical discipline is liberating, allowing a historian to deconstruct the history of another and construct one of his/her own.

Chapter two, as its title indicates, poses and answers several questions about the nature of history. Of the seven questions addressed, three are mentioned here. First, to the question of whether history is a discourse about truth, Jenkins contrasts Geoffrey Elton's view that "the study of history...amounts to a search for truth" (p. 17) with the suggestion that such a search is "unachievable." (p. 34) Jenkins, influenced by Richard Rorty, understands truth as created and "dependent on somebody having the power to make it [truth] true." (p. 38) Second, Jenkins views as impossible the ability to empathize with research subjects. Historians cannot enter the minds of their examined actors to fully understand their predicaments. It is not really the mind of the past people that matter; for Jenkins views "all history as the history of the historian's minds." (p. 57) Third, to the question of "sources", Jenkins adopts E.H. Carr's proposal that a source "only becomes evidence when it is used to support an argument (interpretation) prior to which, although it exists, it remains just an unused piece of stuff from the past." (p. 59) Jenkins deems the idea that history rests on primary source documentation as an effort to grasp some [unachievable] truth and to embrace [ever-elusive] empathy.

In chapter three Jenkins proposes that historians live in a post-modern world that has produced a multiplicity of histories. Any attempts to stake out or recuperate a status quo will fail. He uses Jean-Francois Lyotard's view of post-modernism as the "death of centres" and "incredulity towards metanarratives" to suggest a reflexive approach to analyzing history as a discipline and to doing the historian's work. Post-modern historians should choose a theoretical position and deconstruct all historical interpretations that claim centre status. Moreover, beyond the realm of histories of periods and events, Jenkins prompts historians to produce histories that help historians understand "the world that we live in and the forms of history that have both helped produce it and which it has produced...a series of `histories of the present.'" (p. 83)

Keith Jenkins makes no attempt to mask that Re-thinking History is the philosophical product of his affinity for the post-modernism which stems from Friedrich Nietzsche, Hayden White, and Michel Foucault. The book opens with a page-long quote from White, in which he quotes Nietzsche. According to Jenkins, during his tenure at University College Chichester, he noticed that students lacked interest in questions such as "what is history?" and also possessed an intense hostility toward the question. These sentiments exist likewise among professional historians. Practically, Jenkins offers the book as a deliberate replacement to the [then] dominant thinking about history, as derived from scholars such as E.H. Carr, Geoffrey Elton, Arthur Marwick, and John Tosh. He wants to persuade historians that his is the best way to theorise history, "as a narrative prose discourse the content of which is as much imagined as found and the form of which is expungeably problematic." (p. xvii) If indeed Jenkins led the post-modernist charge on reshaping the historian's craft in the 1990s, apprentice historians can only hope to contribute as much to the discipline's growth in a lifetime as he did in a "short, cheap, and cheerful polemic" of 84-pages.
18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent introduction to the process of "making history" May 1 1999
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
When many people think of history, they think of facts. But as Keith Jenkins argues in this book, the "facts" or "truth" from the past are impossible to reach. Instead, when we think of history, we are dealing with a historian's perception of past events, and inevitably, almost every historian will reach a different conclusion. This may cause some to become frustrated or apathetic at the possibility of never knowing the truth, but in Jenkins' view, this may not be such a bad thing, each different reading can add to our understanding as a whole. This book is small (roughly 70 pages of text), but it is filled with engrossing arguments and perspectives on history, education, and our world today. It's alot more interesting and rewarding than this little review makes it out to be. I highly recommend this book to any person that likes (or maybe more importantly, dislikes) history.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars All history is ideological discourse June 24 2007
By Lissa Heart - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book was recommended to me by a musicologist at the University of California San Diego, and it is apparently in their progressive (even radical) syllabus. It is a short, succinct, well-organized explanation of what the practice of history actually is. It is NOT, Jenkins said, a window to the past, and no work by a historian will ever provide an objective recreation of the past as it was. What historians do is provide new insights into the historiological discourse by taking an ideological stance (which is inevitable- there is no neutral/central position)and then using it to illuminate interpretations of history that can actually enhance our understanding of the present world.

The book involves a lot of deconstructionist ideas but without much depth to them (since it's waaaay beyond the scope), but it has a great bibliography and encourages the reader to keep a critical eye on all of the ideas so that they can decide for themselves what to accept and adopt. I certainly won't accept all of his positions, but I'm glad I read the book.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars History in a Postmodern World Feb. 27 2008
By James F. Mueller - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The other reviews on amazon give excellent presentations of the arguments contained in this short and well-written book. I will just add a few thoughts. Keith Jenkins wrote this book with the express purpose of introducing "deconstructionist" ideas into a generally conservative discipline. He is concerned with the lack of discussion of theory in history circles and, when discussed, by its limiting scope. Keith Jenkins is convinced that we live in a post-modern world, a world in which everything is ideologically positioned and morally relative; where nothing is fixed and everything is open to revision.

This book basically applies these insights to historiography (the theory of how history is practiced and written). Keith Jenkins, who is basically an expositor of the ideas of Hayden White, is seen here attempting a popularization of a lot of Hayden White's work. Needless to say he is incredibly successful in this. Keith Jenkins presents these arguments in very readable and intelligible terms, and shows that history is what historians do when they want to understand the past. History and the past are two completely different things. The past is that which precedes us here in the present, and history is the way historians write about it. But because people are always ideologically motivated and positioned in the present, authoring an objectively true account of the past is impossible because facts must be selected in an infinitely rich and inexhaustible world, making those facts which come to be selected ideologically-laden. Moreover, there is no way to compare the relative merits of competing accounts of the past because the past itself is not an account, but a series of past events. Therefore, since there is no fundamentally correct "text" or account to which all other accounts can be compared, all we have are variations (interpretations) of the past, each equally groundless and ideological.

Keith Jenkins does, however, offer a novel defense of relativism in this book, parting company with Hayden White. Hayden White argues that relativism is desirable because is serves as the basis for "social toleration and the positive recognition of differences" (page 68). Once we recognize that there is no such thing as a correct view of the past, we can begin to entertain seriously other interpretations that differ radically from ours both in the style of argument and in the conclusions reached. Relativism, White argues, should prevail because it promotes a respect for diversity and creativity. Keith Jenkins takes a "power struggle" view and argues that some positions are deemed more correct than others because they have managed to gain control of the power structures. Citing Foucault, Jenkins argues the "knowledge is related to power" (page 31), and that notions of truth are "dependent on somebody having the power to make it true. ... [T]ruth and similar expressions are devices to open, regulate and shut down interpretations. Truth acts as a censor - it draws the line" (page 38-39). This is an interesting argument, and I found it persuasive.

Anyway, this book is recommended not only as an introduction to historiography, but to postmodernism as well. Consider it the most reader-friendly application of postmodern ideas to historiography out right now! A very entertaining read.

I would also recommend Jenkins' follow-up book, "Refiguring History", a much more mature and sustained work that contains wonderful discussions of the philosophy of Derrida.
5.0 out of 5 stars A Must Read for Anyone interested in History! Aug. 23 2014
By Shea Johnson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Keith Jenkins illustrates how the retelling of history is problematic and how we must examine our history to find the gaps that lie within it. Jenkins draws from narrative theory to illustrate the problematizing of history through chronos and story telling. First of all it suggests that events 1 and 2 lead to event three where as they may or may not be related at all. Jenkins in his argument demonstrates the difference between the past and history and how they correlate with one another. He draws upon historical events and illustrates how our retelling may be questionable or even downright false. The book is short and enjoyable to read. It is though-provoking and will encourage you to dive deeper into the question of what is history. I also recommend reading Hayden White as his insights are also interesting.
Enjoy!
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