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

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