Letter: A.J.P. Taylor - still making history

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The Independent Online
Sir: Gareth Stedman Jones ("An imp, but not a great historian", 4 April) berates A. J. P. Taylor for failing to found a distinct historical school. This is to misunderstand Taylor's contribution to history which was that of an exemplar of an existing tradition of historical thought.

The Taylor tradition sees the past as a field of human action constructed out of individual and collective choices in particular circumstances. It emphasises the freedom of individuals to act, the importance of reconstructing the past from the point of view of historical actors themselves, and the role of accident and miscalculation in shaping historical outcomes. Taylor's Origins of the Second World War is a brilliant example of this kind of narrative history - one which has met the research agenda in its field for more than 30 years.

This human action approach to the study of history may not be to Stedman Jones's political or philosophical taste but its continuing relevance and importance is undeniable. Most historians most of the time practise this kind of history. It even figures in Stedman Jones's own work. In this respect, Taylor has plenty of "followers".

Stedman Jones sneers at the fact that there was no great difference between Taylor's academic and popular writing on history, but this is not a weakness but an illustration of the strength of the Taylor tradition in history. The narrative history of individual action and the reasons for action is a commonsense discourse of knowledge - one which is accessible to all and open to popular discussion of the arguments and the evidence.

Perhaps what Stedman Jones really dislikes about Taylor is that he, more than anyone, showed that good history is clear, simple and well-written, and can be read and appreciated by anyone.

Yours sincerely,


Lecturer in Modern History

University College Cork


4 April