An Australian Intellectual View of the History Profession

By Neville Buch, MPHA

Greg Melleuish is an Australian intellectual historian, a rare and strange creature in this country. He is an Associate Professor at the University of Wollongong, and is  generally considered a conservative scholar with very critical views of the contemporary history discipline and the humanities generally. There are problems that he sees in the current state of play in Australian history, and that includes the sub-genres that we professional historians engage.

Although his criticisms, at times, lack certain empathy, he does make important observations.  These are observations which are not as polemic as they might first appear. In a recent interview on Amanda Vanstone’s Radio National Counterpoint program, Melleuish stated that the history discipline is best approached as judgements of both good and bad, with a sense of irony. Vanstone had thought history should “focus on good things.”

I believe Melleuish’s point about irony is right. It stands well on the contemporary ethical scholarship which rejects the old moralism for a view of life in moral ambiguity, un-systemizable, conflictual, and particular. I am thinking here of the history-focused philosophers, Isaiah Berlin, Bernard Williams, and Jonathan Darcy.

Melleuish also states that the best history is grounded in evidence, not models. Most historians reflecting on the historiography of the last few hundred years would probably agree. This was the weakness in the approach of Hegel, Marx, Spengler, and Toynbee. The sociology of history has been useful in identifying networks of thinkers but the modelling seems to always breaks down. The evidence is forced to fit preconceived ideas of how the world ought to be. The idea of evidence is contestable (although what we call evidence is not; to be contestable implies the evidence) on a number of levels. Evidentialism has much to offer in epistemological understanding, but the debate continues, in particular what constitutes evidence. Nevertheless, it is the right direction. The important question for us is what constitutes historical evidence. Whatever the answer, it is less likely to be the theoretical framework, and will be found in the human condition; that is, what is it we perceive to be human. I think that Melleuish’s point is that “what is to be human” is more than intellectual enterprise, it is lived. How we live and what we desire from life — many and contradictory values — should be the starting point. I am an unapologetic humanist in that regard.

This takes us to Melleuish’s third point. History needs to be grounded in the wide human experience. Melleuish’s argument is that it is not how Australian historians have been operating in last twenty years. In the past generation of Manning Clark, Geoffery Blainey, and Henry Reynolds, whatever disagreeable contentions there may have been, there was a perspective to engage broadly. Historians now, according to Melleuish, have been trained far too much as specialists and don’t have a wider knowledge-base than their specific sub-field. We have become bureaucrats and technicians. I think the issue is overstated, but I am afraid that there is much truth here. I’ll stick my neck out. I believe that what is being suggested is the horrible danger in both the heritage and genealogical industries (if not the case). I certainly want professional historians working these fields. My concern is that we erode our professionalism if the only work that is done is the bureaucratic and technical tasks.

Whether this is, or how much this is, the case, I’ll leave it for those historians engaged in these sub-fields. However, my plea is that we have a better chance of creating solid professional history by deploying synergies across wider circles of history. Heritage and genealogical work needs to be extending into local history studies. Local history studies should be extended, for us, into Queensland history.

This third point follows into a fourth point. We need to get the balance right between Australian history and the international perspectives. Some years ago, in the distant past, we had a national History Summit. Melleuish suggests that a reason why nothing long-lasting came of that Summit, except for changes in the school curriculum (back to the history discipline after the failure of SOSE), is due to Australianist centricness. As a historian interested in belief, not narrow cultural identification, and as a philosophically-inspired historian, I fully support this criticism. That was one thing very good about Manning Clark’s history. He engaged the global ideas.

The final point is that Melleuish directly attacks the ideological force that has steered the history discipline in the last few decades. He thinks that the problem is with what he calls the “post-modern Google historians.” Post-modern historians are too emotionally-clouded in their judgements.  Epistemological arguments about reason and emotions, however, are complex. How reason and emotion works, or does not, we are left with a view that both reason and emotion are problematic in history work, and that we do well to reflect (often reason-directive) on the processes (often emotive).  Post-modernist perspectives in history downplay the capacity to be reflective in our history, to be sensibly rational. Reason is portrayed as the villain in history’s theatre of the absurd (and don’t misunderstand me, some existentialists had a higher view of reason than others).

Mellueish’s criticism and his call for balance — reason and emotion, as well as Australianist and international perspectives — harks back to Aristotle’s concept of the mean, the tension between extreme positions of thought and behaviour. That may appear to be old-fashion, but for all its faults, it is in fact, the new intellectual wave (classics revival yet again). In the last decade there has been a another turn to the ancient western classics, which is more than Aristotle, and includes the perspectives of the Stoics and Epicureans. Although there is debate here, where the optimal position lies (embracing emotion, denying it, or finding the mean) reasoning still plays the optimal part.

The philosophical questions raised by Mellueish, and my analysis here, is unapologetically western. We talk of global history and international perspective but the bite in the criticism directed at Mellueish  is that ends up being western ideology. But let me share my criticism of the criticism (and I suspect that it Mellueish’s as well). Our ideas cannot help but draw from the western traditions of philosophy and history. The questions themselves were always framed in that particular trajectory backwards, and to a certain extent the western connotations will continue into the future. The mistake that post-modernists make is to assume that non-western perspectives are, therefore, excluded.  The idea of the “western” is more accurately seen as a direction of history than any particular collection of cultures.

The idea that our western intellectual view excludes an understanding of a wider range of cultures is a mistake because it misreads the history of both western and non-western thought. A correct view has to take in the complexities that exist in these histories, and it almost parallels the complexity in the relationship between reason and emotion. The “guilt” of the West is, in large part, its colonisation. And as an aside, if we introduce the notion of “guilt” into our history then we have taken on a moralism, a problematic approach to ethics which will turn around and bite us later in our historical appraisal. Mellueish’s argument of irony is that persons in the past are just like us. It is a debatable point. I have often pointed out that the worldviews of men and women in time gone-by were radically different to how we see the world today. However, I openly declare the truth limits to this statement for two reasons.

First, there is a shared history that cuts across traditions and cultures — cross western and non-western boundaries. Ideas, ideas bigger than culture and tradition, move in and out of places and time, and changed in that journey. Even back in the ancient worlds these ideas extended as far as they could across the globe. Why? And this is the second reason. There is a shared humanity. Human beings can differ greatly inside the one same culture or tradition. Humanity is not a cultural artifice. There is a bond of empathy and thoughtfulness between us all. Some say it includes all mammals, some say it includes all animate objects, and some say it includes all life. But be it as it may, our consciousness is human, not cultural or tradition. I know that mine is not the only mind that exists because I have human fellowship with the other.

The post-modernist critics have tended to introduce to the history practice a deification of culture or tradition. It does not matter whether it is, western or non-western, colonised or indigenous, professional historian should not be backward in tearing down what Bacon called the “Idols of the Mind:”

  1. Idols of the Tribe (Idola tribus): This is humans’ tendency to perceive more order and regularity in systems than truly exists, and is due to people following their preconceived ideas about things.
  2. Idols of the Cave (Idola specus): This is due to individuals’ personal weaknesses in reasoning due to particular personalities, likes and dislikes.
  3. Idols of the Marketplace (Idola fori): This is due to confusions in the use of language and taking some words in science to have a different meaning than their common usage.
  4. Idols of the Theatre (Idola theatri): This is the following of academic dogma and not asking questions about the world.
  5. Idols of the School (Idola schola): This is due to a belief in a blind rule reasoning.

The Baconian guide, imperfect and contestable as it maybe, is helpful to professional historians.  There are other rich resources for the practice of professional history from an appreciation of the intellectual frameworks that have been employed in the history discipline for many generations.  I commend the view from the mountain tops.