Keith Windschuttle was a young radical who grew up to become a scourge of the progressive intelligentsia and intellectual fraud. He is a courageous advocate for his causes and he is prepared to venture into the "lions dens" of his opponents to engage them in face to face debate, most recently in connection with his book "The Fabrication of Aboriginal History".
This earlier work is a critique of some modern theorists and theories which threaten to turn history and the humanities at large into an intellectual wasteland. It should be placed on the shelf alongside Sokal and Bricmont's book on intellectual impostures, though unfortunately the downside of both books is that the authors have misread the philosophy of Karl Popper and so depict him as a part of the problem and not as an ally.
The first chapter "Paris labels and designed concepts: The assension of cultural studies and the deluge of social theory" provides a valuable overview of the various intellectual icebergs that are floating loose in the sealanes of discourse. Many of the key players hail from France, though the German Heidegger was a major influence in paving the way. Marxism and socialism in various forms provide a subtext for the movement, even while Marxism in its more rigorous traditional forms has become unfashionable, in favour of cultural studies, catering for the perceived grievances of various groups and political movements.
The deluge of cultural theory incudes structuralism and semiotics, poststructuralism, and various kinds of postmodernism. The latter are classified as: the Neitzsche and Heidegger version; The Paris 1980s version (Lyotard and Baudrillard); the art and architecture version; the literary version; and the popular culture version. Marxism and critical theory still eke out an existence, mostly associated with the Frankfurt School, with Jurgen Habermas as the leader. Respect for reason survives precariously in this group, unlike most of the others, and it will be interesting to see how long its economic illiteracy can survive in the face of the growing profile of the Austrian (Menger/Hayek) school. Another major grouping is concerned with postcolonialism and heterology. Here Franz Fanon was the pioneer and Edward Said is the leading contemporary exponent.
One of the benefits of this book is that it is not all theory and readers will learn some history from the examples that the author has chosen for analysis. One of these is the Spanish conquest of South America. Some historians have depicted this as western serpents corrupting a peaceful and harmonious garden of Eden, neglecting to mention the ferocious and bloodthirsty tyranny of the major empires. In a chapter on Captain Bligh of the Bounty and Captain Cook in Tahiti, Windschuttle shows how a theorist with preconceived ideas was refuted in the one case by his own data and in the other by a more careful study by another researcher. In a long chapter on Paul Carter's account of the first settlers in Australia, Windschuttle explains how a work which appears to be intellectually formidable turns out to be replete with so many self-contradictions, factual inaccuracies and trite interpretations, and is so continuously and odiously pretentious, that it is hard to take seriously. However it displays all the characteristics of the methodological approaches that have now surged to the front in history.
In a chapter on History as a Social Science the author examines some modern developments in the philosophy of science that are attributed to the influence of Popper and Kuhn. Undoubtedly Kuhn and his followers have been a major source of obscurantism and relativism, however in the case of Popper the author does not refer to Popper's views on historical explanation by way of situational analysis and thematic narratives. These were spelled out in Chapter 25 of The Open Society and its Enemies, a book which might have accelerated Windschuttle's emancipation from the left. Instead of addressing Popper's fully-developed account of historical explanation, KW takes issue with Popper's critique of the strong form of empiricism or positivism which demands that all claims to knowledge must be sourced to an observer. Popper demonstrated that this demand cannot be met due to the problem of infinite regress. This problem applies in science and in historical studies, though in Popper's view it does not destroy either enterprise (it just destroys the credibility of strong forms of positivism and empiricism). Unfortunately KW misread this critique of doctrinaire positivism as an attack on the possibility of historical knowledge where we do not have access to any living observers. In fact Popper has no argument with the standard historical methods, drawing on a wide range of sources, though none can be accepted uncritically. This misreading of Popper can probably be attributed to the unfortunate influence of David Stove. For a rejoinder to David Stove, see this review of Anything Goes. Whatever the reason, is a most unfortunate blemish in a valuable book.
Keith Windschuttle, The Killing of History: How a discipline is being murdered by literary critics and social theorists. Macleay Press, Sydney, 1994.