Review of Berber Bevernage’s ‘IHR’ paper ‘The Future of the Theory and Philosophy of History’

Guest blog post by regular contributor Peter P Icke

On 28th November Berber Bevernage (Associate Professor of Philosophy and Historical Theory, University of Ghent and co-founder of the recently formed ‘International Network for Theory of History’, or the “INTH”) presented the penultimate paper of the current ‘Research Seminar in the Philosophy of History’ run by the University of London’s ‘Institute of Historical Research’. And, by way of a very brief sketch of his general position and concerns, I would highlight Berber’s particular focus on the relationships taken to obtain between historical (in)justice and the ethics of history on the one side, and concepts of historicity and historical time on the other. Such concerns being articulated, in part, against a backdrop of government-appointed historical commissions and truth commissions – investigating, for instance, state-sponsored violence or “vanished” persons – where historians are in demand as expert witnesses and thus where the ever problematic notions of historical meaning and historical explanation, summoned in the guise of authoritative informants or perhaps adjudicators, are put into practice.

Turning now to the paper itself (titled ‘The Future of the Theory and Philosophy of History’) which, while embracing these and other such difficulties, was presented very much in the shape of an invitation to the floor to come up with ideas, comments or criticisms that might assist in the determination of how, following its successful launch and bearing in mind at least some of its assumed responsibilities as noted, the INTH should best proceed.  And while it is undeniably the case that Berber’s overall position on the matters discussed in his paper is eminently supportable and indeed crucial, the after-paper debate nevertheless robustly voiced suggestions and certain pertinent concerns in the spirit of that earlier invitation – concerns which were equally robustly answered by Berber.

To give examples of what I have called ‘pertinent concerns’, Berber (who is himself moving towards a broader and collective ‘Philosophy of Historicities’ which is to include, for instance, history, memory, historical time and transitional justice) was questioned on the desirability of bringing history into his moral/political arguments and positions. Or, to put it differently, can the purposeful employment of the discourse of “history” be adequate or even relevant to the demands of such work? After all, history is just a concept which is already ideologically positioned and which functions within boundaries, the operative effect of which would be to severely restrict the breadth of the subsequent discourse. Seen in this light the much broader discourse of the intellectual, who unlike the historian is beholden to no one, might be a more appropriate choice of companion while pushing the exploration of moral and political arguments ‘beyond the boundaries’, as it were. Furthermore, one might perhaps question the lumping together of, or the conflation of, the ontologically different categories of history, memory and justice, if that is what is suggested here.

So, to sum up, I would say that all those present enjoyed and benefitted both from an engaging paper and also from the vibrant exchange of thoughts and ideas which immediately followed it.

Peter P Icke

Review of Frank Ankersmit’s paper “The Ankersmit/Roth Controversy”

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Guest blog post by Peter P. Icke
Review of Frank Ankersmit’s paper ‘The Ankersmit/Roth Controversy’ at the IHR Philosophy of History seminar
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On 31st October Frank Ankersmit presented a paper at the Institute of Historical Research (IHR) which he titled ‘The Ankersmit/Roth Controversy’. A controversy which had some months earlier positively exploded into the otherwise benign ambiance of Auditorium B at the University of Ghent. This splendid clash of theories and temperaments was triggered by Paul Roth’s comparatively blunt delivery of his own hard-hitting paper, ‘Whistling History: Ankersmit’s Neo-Tractarian Theory of Historical Representation’, which sought to fatally undermine Ankersmit’s current and in some respects radically new position as laid out in his latest book, Meaning, Truth and Reference in Historical Representation.  Now, all this over-excitement and academic angst was unfolding during the second morning of a four day inaugural conference organised by the ‘International Network for Theory of History’. And I think that one might take Ankersmit’s subsequent IHR paper (which is under discussion here) as something of an aftershock consequent to or a reverberation from that morning’s disruptive event. I should add that Roth’s paper and an earlier written response to it by Ankersmit, both of which were made available to those attending the IHR on 31st October, will be published in a forthcoming edition of the journal Rethinking History.

So, to the IHR presentation itself. In my view Ankersmit’s “contra-Roth” arguments, delivered from his own exercise book jottings, were generally weak and they failed to properly address issues raised by Roth in his paper. Such shortcomings generated a lively after-paper debate during which Ankersmit, for me at least, failed to adequately tackle pertinent questions raised. For instance, when questioned on “frameworks” (a Quinean notion of frameworks championed by Roth in his paper which, arguably and not least, draws attention to a fatal flaw in Ankersmit’s “experiential” theories) he summarily rejected the notion regardless of its importance to various elements of his own overall theoretical position. And it’s interesting to note here that Ankersmit actually drew on Quinean logic in some of his earlier works.

On the matter of ‘historical truth’ – surely an impoverished, redundant notion today – Ankersmit now claims, contrary to his former and for me much better position on the matter, that truth can be found at the aesthetic or figural level of the whole historical text. Accordingly, it would appear that he is now arguing for a historical-truth-at-the-end-of-inquiry style of philosophy, a sort of reification of the aesthetic/figural, which entirely and rather conspicuously contradicts his earlier works. This new Ankersmitean “revelation”, being unworkable, was robustly and I think effectively challenged from the floor, a challenge which was further compounded through a more general critique levelled at certain inconsistencies and incoherencies which, it was argued, both characterise and diminish Ankersmit’s own philosophical position.

Anyway, by the end of the evening Ankersmit looked somewhat bruised and I think – this is just a hunch – that he might have regretted agreeing to come to the IHR in the first place.  After all, he had travelled all the way from Groningen to air a grievance against Roth which, in all probability, only a small number of IHR attendees would have much known about or, indeed, much cared about.  And it should also be noted that Paul Roth was not, so far as I know, invited to attend the IHR event himself and he was thus not in a position to defend himself against Ankersmit’s various charges as presented – an altogether lamentable state of affairs.

Peter P Icke

Review of Prof. Connelly’s paper at the IHR

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Review of Prof Connelly’s “Truth, Falsity and Value in Collingwood’s Account of Absolute Presuppositions” given at the IHR Philosophy of History Seminar

Prof Connelly (Director of the Centre for Applied Ethics at the University of Hull) gave a very engaging paper on Robin George Collingwood’s notion of absolute presuppositions and their relationship to historical inquiry. These were ideas that Collingwood explored most fully in An Essay on Metaphysics (1940). Connelly first outlined what Collingwood understood absolute presuppositions to be: namely a type of proposition that it makes no sense to doubt; a proposition that is not verifiable, that is thus neither true nor false. Absolute propositions essentially form the framework for our thinking, they constitute the boundaries of our thought processes. As such they are not susceptible to proof, instead the proof of other propositions is derived from them.

Having discussed Collingwood’s conception of absolute presuppositions Connelly then turned to the possible absolute presuppositions relevant to historical inquiry. He first noted a number of possible absolute presuppositions (including historical agency and causality) before asking whether such presuppositions were everywhere and for everyone always the same, or whether they were subject to change. Connelly’s paper was lively, clear and engaging and was followed by an interesting discussion that explored many aspects of the talk. For non-specialists, perhaps the most accessible route into Collingwood’s thinking here is R.G. Collingwood: An Autobiography, a new edition of which was published in November 2013 (Oxford, OUP).

Claire

Introduction to the Philosophies of History Network (PoH)

Today Michael Kelly introduces the Philosophies of History project based at the University of Leeds, but currently going global!

Welcome to Philosophies of History, an international project dedicated to re-emerging discourses and developing networks for collaboration in the theories and philosophies of ‘History’. We began our existence in early 2012 as a group of postgraduates exploring the interplay between history and philosophy and how each influence, and occasionally undermine, the other. These features and curiosities are still central to our project, though we have widely expanded and warmly welcome and encourage participation by all those interested in the philosophy of History.

The general aim of this inter-disciplinary project is to foster open and frank discussions on the construction, performance and interpretation of ‘History’. The purpose is to analyse critically the ways in which we deal with ‘the past’, or pasts, and in so doing help to generate fresh discourses and debates about ‘History’ and ‘Historiography’ their relationship to other disciplines of inquiry, and ultimately their place in social thinking and meaning.

Our original meetings were held only in Leeds, roughly once per month during the academic year.  When we began, we were the first new postgraduate group dedicated to the philosophy of History in the UK in over a decade, and subsequently the first international network of scholars in philosophy of History to be formed in Europe covering the same period of time. Subsequently, a new series, one Centre and an International Network have emerged in the north of England, London and on the Continent, in Belgium. Philosophies of History is very excited about these movements – notably, the Centre for the Philosophy of History at St Mary’s University College, Twickenham and the International Network for the Theory of History – and we are working in close collegiality with them. We hope to hold a joint conference in London between us in May or June 2014.

In the meantime Philosophies of History is running our regular seminars again in Leeds, but also expanding well beyond. In Leeds this year we are holding only four seminars, structured similar to the usual Leeds format – two hours, short presentation, fine cheeses and wine, lots of discussion in an open, friendly environment – but with added dedication to conversation now that we have established a basis of participants and general level of comfort.

In addition to the seminars being carried on in Leeds by the Regional Directors there, these same types of meetings will be introduced this year in Canterbury, at the University of Kent. We have also expanded our activities beyond the UK and Europe. We are presently developing reading groups and seminars in Reykjavik (Iceland), São Paulo (Brazil) and Cambridge (Massachusetts, at Harvard University), which will begin this year. Already under way are our meetings, discussions and planning in Israel/Palestine, in Tel Aviv (Cohn Institute, Tel Aviv University), Jerusalem (The Hebrew University & Van Leer Institute) and Ramallah (Birzeit University). At each of these, respectively will be lectures, reading groups and cross-border meetings between students and faculty in Israel and the West Bank/Palestine.

At the moment we are focusing on establishing firm grounding for and dialogue between these international networks and regional groups, but that said, we are always open to suggestions for new affiliations and sponsorships worldwide. As hinted at above, we are currently planning a spring conference in London and would be pleased to hear ideas and proposals for panels, talks and sponsorships. We will be publishing an edited volume in due course as well.

General introduction to our way of thinking
In the inaugural seminars in Leeds we exclusively covered the same topic, a testament to its importance to the series as a whole. In these meetings we interrogated the question of ‘what is History?’, along with its complicated friend, the notion of the ‘philosophy of History’. We chose not to label our project and these seminars ‘theories of philosophy’ because doing so would put the seminars in danger of becoming one-dimensional, in the theoretical sense that Herbert Marcuse meant. Theories of History would provide us with the necessary critical apparatus to explore History as a cultural, intellectual and academic phenomenon, but would not provide a framework for interpreting History as a mode of thought, and a discipline, which ‘philosophies of History’ we hope will allow us to do.
Through the phrase ‘philosophies of History’, we have paired together the two concepts as modifying nouns with History as the point of reference, or, the descriptor. This allows us to focus on History as the main target of inquiry, however, to do it justice we should also think to some initial extent about the supposed set of which it is a part (at the very least, grammatically). Thus, to spin our seminar’s question around, what is philosophy? This is of course just as complex a question as ‘what is History?’, not least because, we imagine, one does not view the question as an essentialist one.  What is important for the present, though we will see where the discussion takes us, is to consider the following: what is philosophy in relation to History, what is a philosophy of History, and how can there be multiple philosophies? Is History a philosophical inquiry? The answer to such as question, we think, depends on one’s approach to writing history. Is the attempt being made to question perceived knowledge?  If so, is it being done simply for its own sake, or is it attempting to suggest alternative ‘answers’ or narratives about a past ‘neighbourhood’, or world? Would we agree with the great ‘anti-philosophers’, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Jacques Lacan, that the latter methodology is not really philosophy at all? What then can we say is a philosophy of History, and how does it help to interrogate the very concept of ‘History’?

After discussing the relationship of Philosophy to History, we turn our energies directly at History and begin to ponder, what it is. The word ‘History’ is thrown around widely today (not that this is necessarily different from certain moments in the past, a connection we should explore). One of the favourite, and the most obvious and rightly-deserved, targets to attack for this hapless use of the term ‘History’ is the media, which keeps telling us that such and such moment or action is historical, or that people are constantly ‘making History’. What the <insert profanity here> does this mean? What is ‘making History’? In media discourse it would seem that all one needs to do to make History is act, but to act specifically in accordance with the media’s (status quo, capitalist) ideals of what should be remembered and noted as important moments (e.g. when the banlieue riots in Paris, or those in London, or the unreported uprisings in Mexico occurred, reporters were not telling us jubilantly that ‘we are watching History being made’). No historians are needed, it seems, to make History, or, the ‘historian’ is in fact the media, which defines the historical for the future. This is a frightening notion indeed since it would seem that we are establishing History as an uncritical, immediate response to pre-defined, non-radical events of the present…an idea Isidore of Seville in the 7th century would say is the ‘nature’ of History, but are we comfortable with this today as ‘History’?

Lest we not be so comfortable though within our academic walls, the media is not the only source that is feeding us ‘History’ as a Lacanian ‘objet petit a’, a specific object of desire that must drive our actions towards a singular goal, for the media this is leading us down the main-stream like cattle, as the way to reach the lofty of heights of ‘History’. Many philosophers and historians too have uncritically accepted, knowingly or not, such a socially dangerous and non-analytical philosophy of History and subsequent methodologies. Some of these writers are even considered the avant-garde of their respective fields, even as radicals.
Furthermore, historians continue to grapple with elementary concepts in philosophy, while leading philosophers put forth theories they claim to legitimate by using History, but which is in turn equally as elementary as the historians’ considerations of philosophy. We believe that these inter-disciplinary attempts are done ‘in good faith’ but that there exists such a gap between the two fields that merging one into the other often deflates the work at hand. A reason for this is the lack of understanding across disciplines of the methods, historiographies, debates, and rationale of the others’ fields.

With all of these considerations in mind it is evident that now is an important time to critically interpret, re-evaluate and build novel, cross-faculty philosophies, theories and pedagogies of History, a response to shared intellectual pursuits. We hope that Philosophies of History will be able to forge fruitful discussions between its participants whether one’s aim is as a historian seeking to better understand their own work, or as a philosopher trying to place History scholarly, as a music theorist or literary critic endeavouring to explain your own present through historical terms and research non-reliant on old paradigms of determinist or categorical trajectories, or whether your concern is political, academic and otherwise interested in the past, present or future of History.
If you have any suggestions, comments or questions please feel free to contact us anytime at philosophiesofhistory@gmail.com
Sincere regards,

The Convenors
General Director & Middle East Coordinator
Michael J. Kelly, Visiting Professor, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Regional Directors
Leeds:
Hervin Fernández y Aceves, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Leeds
John Papadopolous, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Leeds
Catalin Taranu, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Leeds
Richard Thomason, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Leeds
Otavio Luis Vieira Pinto, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Leeds
Canterbury:
Stephen Werronen, Lecturer, Universtiy of Kent
Reykjavik:
Jason R. Berg, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Leeds

Centre for Philosophy of History welcomes Prof. Alun Munslow

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Following the launch of the Centre for Philosophy of History at St Mary’s University College, Twickenham earlier this year, recently appointed Professorial Research Fellow Alun Munslow talks about his new role.

“Can I say ‘thank you’ for the invitation to join the Centre for the Philosophy of History. My welcome has been very warm and colleagues have quickly smoothed my path – even to sorting out which trains to catch to get me to and from Euston! I shall certainly do what I can to make the Centre a key feature in the landscape of history thinking and practice in the UK and further afield. The initiative of staff is splendid and funding by the University College is far sighted. I am convinced that the Centre will quickly establish itself as a major UK and international focus for advanced thinking on both the theory and practice of history.” Prof Alun Munslow.

The Centre launched in September and is a hub for organising conferences, workshops and seminars whilst providing a base for recruiting postgraduate research students, as well as for making regular applications for external research funding.

Student Review of the Opening of the Centre for the Philosophy of History

Centre-OpeningLydia Birch reviews the opening of the Centre for the Philosophy of History at St Mary’s University College

On my way to the lecture, I have to admit I was especially sceptical about the post-modernist view of history and believed entirely that I would always remain a constructionist historian. Having had numerous cups of coffee, which I thought was essential so that I could pay attention, I sat down. After spilling coffee all down my front, Prof Alun Munslow, one of the lead thinkers in post-modernist history, began his lecture and whilst taking notes I started to become lost in his theory of history and the idea that there is no history in the past, there is only the past and history is what we make it today. Before, this had always seemed as a radical approach to me because throughout my education, history had always been a solid and definite subject, but Prof Munslow made me question this in a way which I had never approached before. After five minutes of being in the lecture I realised that the coffee was not necessary at all because the theory was incredibly endearing and engaging, it was a thrill to listen to this anti-narrative theory of history.MunslowProf Munslow touched on the idea that historians turn the past into a narrative and it was the imagination of historians that turn something that didn’t exist into existing, and as a result of doing this the history went from being fact into story. Thus creating the suspicion that there is no certainty anywhere, and I started to doubt something that had always been cemented fact in my mind, that the study of history is actually the study of historians and their judgements. He argued that not all history is fact because we will never be able to produce an exact representation of the past. Overall, my scepticism at the beginning seems completely irrational, and this lecture simply made me look at history in a completely new light, it leaves you with the question what it is to be studying history? And why would you study history?

Lydia Birch

Centre Launch

centre-opening-blog-1On Tuesday 1st October our new Centre was officially launched. A number of very eminent philosophers and theorists of history had agreed to give short papers and participate in a Q&A session, but before the talks began there was time for a sandwich lunch and some refreshment. At 1pm after some introductory words by Head of the School of Arts and Humanities Prof Lance Pettitt and myself, the event began with a fascinating paper by Prof Alun Munslow. This was followed by a Q&A session where Alun and Prof Keith Jenkins expertly fielded a variety of questions asked by the audience including some by our students.CakeThere was then a short break to cut the cake (expertly iced by Pauline) after which Dr Glenn Richardson awarded Graeme Ancient the Kenneth Breen Memorial Prize for History. We were pleased that the winner of the prize in 2012 (Sam Spranger) and the 2013 winner Graeme were both present at the launch. In fact the participation in the day by so many of our students was a highlight for us. The day concluded with very interesting papers by Martin Davies and Prof Nur Masalha who from different perspectives explored the intersection of politics and history. After the official close of proceedings a number of us retired to the Dolcé Vita Cafe for more cake and animated discussion. We would like to thank everyone who not only made the day such an enjoyable event, but also those people who have provided guidance and support in the establishment of the centre.Claire