Lecture 11: History Writing in the 1960s and 1970s and the ‘linguistic turn’



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Lecture 11: History Writing in the 1960s and 1970s and the ‘linguistic turn’

This session will move us away from history writing in the era of modernity into history writing of postmodernity –no worries I shall explain both terms in a moment. The moment of this transition are the 1960s and 1970s. It is then when we can start to detect a new mode of writing – influenced by new hip French philosophical trends -- which broke with many of the convictions and unquestions belief of modern history writing.

Although we shouldn’t imagine it as a complete transition. Historians in particular were very slow to take up this new trend – indeed they were not interested in the beginning, and when it swapped over into history writing, they became first angry and then paranoid. Postmodern history writing would be the end of history writing, as some historians such as Richard Evans claimed and quickly wrote his ‘Defense of History’ at the beginning of the 1990s.

So, when this new trends began to unfold their wings, first on the continent in France in particular since the 1960s, and then in the US from the 1980s (Britain is even later) the majority of historian probably didn’t even noticed it. (Partly because it is French and not translated until much later into English). In the 1960s and 1970s the British hip historians were totally enamoured with the ‘new’ social history a la Thompson. Yet, we need to start our lecture on postmodern history writing in the 1960 to understand why by the 1990s, this form of history writing and its related world-view and its view of the human subject became an almost dominant feature in history writing world-wide.

But let me start with Thompson. We heard before the break that Thompson fought a battle against traditional Marxist historiography and its tendency to negate the lower classes an own ‘culture’, to negate these people their own interests and agenda. Thompson aimed to resuscitate the ‘experiences’ of these ‘forgotten’ people. He wished to show that they had a sophisticated culture of their own, their own traditions, their own morals and beliefs which they applied cleverly in order to achieve their political and social aims. These people Thompson demonstrated, were actors in their very own right, in the basis of their own agency, not merely being pushed around by the forces of production as dominant Marxist materialist history of his time would have it. He moved away from the idea that the socioeconomic sphere constituted an objective structure, that explained human collective behavoir, but began to grant increasingly importance to the idea of autonomous individual agency, if you like. His new history writing was called the ‘new’ social history’. He began to move away from the focus on the socio-economic forces of the society as a cause of human action to include an examination of ‘culture’ – defined as the society’s repertoire of interpretative mechanism and value systems (Cabrera, 4). Although Thompson never said good-bye to a general Marxist framework of interpretation and remained a Marxist – or ‘social humanist’ as he rebranded himself – all his life, he gained the conviction that the cultural was not simply a function of the material but that, instead, peoples beliefs and ritual activities interacted with their socio-economic expectations. That is why the category of subjective ‘experience’ of the individual (and the collective it helps to constitute) became so important to him. The turn to the individual ‘subject’, if you like, allowed the connection between the individual/collective, the socio-economic and cultural framework for him. However, what the ‘subject’ was, and how its experiences were constituted remained untouched by Thompson.

Now this turn to ‘culture’ away from the analysis of ‘society’ which engenders a new interest in anthropology instead of sociology is something many historians at the time are interested in. And we shall meet some of them Robert Darnton and Carlo Ginzburg in the next sessions. So we come back to a history, which becomes to be called the ‘new cultural history.’

Now, let me return to Thompson – and indeed many of historians who followed him. To move the attention to the individual ‘experience’ (that made up the collective as you like – ermind them of the materialist version of that) as a way to get at the past, Thompson believed that he as a 20th century historian and radical social activist with his ‘experiences’ was able to unlock and pinpoint the experiences of those radicals who lived 300 years ago. There was a straight connection between these experiences. Thompson never really problematise human ‘experience’ or considered it incommensurable – means no common measure between two things. He left it unproblematised, believing that as an historian and human being he had the capacity to do.

Now… in his belief Thompson – and those who worked in his line – did not remain uncontested. And today we shall talk about scholars who, for the live of them, would not agree with him. These were scholars who had turned to philosophy and the investigation of language or linguistics for answers about how to deal with human experience. And they came up with fundamentally opposing views, in fact, views that entirely undermined Thompson’s political and moral beliefs. They established a fundamentally different world view. (Well, I am sure he didn’t care…). They established a radical new view of the human subject. Indeed, as some of their enemies argued, they ‘killed’ the subject.

Today, we are going to talk about some of these scholars who were part of what is now called ‘the linguistic turn’ –

(slide with definition)

The ‘linguistic turn’ was a major development in Western philosophy during the early 20th century, the most important characteristic of which is the focusing of philosophy and the other humanities primarily on the relationship between philosophy and language.

coined by Richard Rorty’s anthololgy The Linguistic Turn


The author you’ve read Barthes, White and Scott are important re-presenties of this turn to language and the consequences it had for the study not only of history but any field in the humanities, and indeed it also affected the study of the natural science and the way we understand them (Science Wars).
The linguistic turn engendered a most fundamental reconception of reality and what constituted the human subject and subjectivity.
This lecture will introduce you to it and to the most basic terms and ideas of postmodern history writing. Following lecture, and of course particularly the one on Foucault will deal with these basic ideas. So, this lecture offers you tools to deal with a great proportion of history writing after the 1970s, first on the continent in France in particular and then from the 1980s/1990s onwards in the English-speaking world (UK lacks behind here).
We will be doing three things today:

  1. We need to remind ourselves of some key terms first: modernity, postmodernity

  2. We will then look a bit more closely of what this ‘linguistic turn consists of. Its basis of linguistic theory and some of the different shapes it took. Such as structuralism/poststructuralism and, horror, horror deconstructionalism.

  3. Finally I will turn to the authors you’ve read and put them in this landscape of the ‘linguistic turn’.






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