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.