On Truth, or do we need a pragmatist philosophy of history?

The final paper of the current series, delivered at the IHR on the 4th December by Marek Tamm (Associate Professor of Cultural History, Tallinn University, Estonia).

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Marek Tamm’s paper, ‘On Truth, or do we need a pragmatist philosophy of history?’, was to be taken, he explained, as an explanatory supplement to some of his arguments as laid out in an earlier paper, ‘Truth, Objectivity and Evidence in History Writing’, which had been made available to the evening’s attendees a week or so prior to the seminar. Accordingly, in this very brief review I shall attempt a broad sweep of his whole argument as articulated across both papers.

The central thrust of Tamm’s argument, then, is directed towards the establishment of a performativity[1] based pragmatist philosophy of history resting on what strikes me as a curiously itinerant relative notion of “truth”. That is to say, a notion of a non-absolute truth (isn’t this an oxymoron?) which must surely be forever on-the-move since it is obliged to keep pace with a shifting ‘disciplinary consensus as to methods of inquiry, cognitive values and epistemic virtues’[2] on which, apparently, it depends. Moreover, this is a notion of truth that is ‘”guaranteed” by fellow historians’[3] through what Tamm describes as a ‘truth pact’ between historians’ and their readers. A truth pact founded on, for instance, an explicit understanding by the reader of a history text that its author, the historian, when writing it, intended to sincerely and professionally tell the truth – not least through the rigorous application of the disciplinary consensus just mentioned – and that the historian should thus be trusted or be given, as it were, the benefit of the doubt on matters of truth in history writing. In addition to the foregoing, Tamm also claims to have established ‘a clear connection between truth and proof in history writing [by] arguing that the “truth pact” is grounded in a critical analysis of the available evidence’[4].

Now, while Tamm’s exposition on pragmatism was well informed and interesting, I remain hugely sceptical about his underlying position as (accurately, I hope) sketched above. And it was clear from the at times animated reception of Tamm’s paper, particularly with regard to his specific take on “truth”, that I can safely assume that some of my own doubts were equally shared with a number of those present. Although I should just point out in Tamm’s defence, even though I find the following consideration at odds with his overall position as stated, that during the after-paper debate he did make it clear that his truth claims were not, after all, based on any proposed direct relation between text and past but, rather, on that between text and disciplinary consensus[5].

But is Tamm’s primacy of this particular relational strategy actually observed throughout his own text? For instance, I fully understand that Tamm’s idiosyncratic style of truth claim with respect to history writing, a claim that rests solely on an “internal relation” between text and disciplinary consensus (as just noted), could not address truth claims regarding the actuality of the past itself or of its supposed meaning. Yet the quotation occupying the last two lines of paragraph two above suggests that Tamm is actually able to establish ‘truth and proof in history writing’ through the agency of a truth pact grounded by way of critical evaluation of evidence. And the idea of a provable, grounded in evidence truth seems to imply some sort of definitive claim on the past, albeit a claim resting on that always problematic notion of ‘a grounding in evidence’, and thus it cannot be of the same kind as the aforementioned internally circulating relational truth claim which Tamm sets up between the text on the one side and a regulating, institutionalised consensus on the other. So, how can these apparently conflicting statements and their associated truths be reconciled?

One might also reasonably question how it is that Tamm’s theory can really be legitimated as a ‘philosophy of history’ when it rejects all interest in the investigation of putative relations between the history text and the actuality of the past, that particular interest being, I believe, a central concern for probably all historians and most theorists of history as well?

However, and to end this review on a more positive note, it has to be said that Marek Tamm’s paper attracted a larger than average attendance and, as intimated above, it also provoked an unusually lively and engrossing post-paper debate which, running late as usual, finally brought this current series of IHR seminars to a close.

Peter P Icke

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[1] Marek Tamm’s interest is in the doing of history; in the practical and the performative aspects of historians’ efforts.

[2] ‘Truth, Objectivity and Evidence in History Writing’, Journal of the Philosophy of History, 8 (2014), p265.

[3] Ibid, p265.

[4] Ibid, p265

[5] It might not have crossed Tamm’s mind that the construction ‘disciplinary consensus’ is not an adequate description since it has the effect of covering over and thus losing sight of the underlying operating mode and purpose of a dominant discourse.

Student Conference – Philosophy of History: Truths, Power, Ethics

Today is our Fifth Annual Undergraduate  Philosophy of History Conference and we have come interesting papers – I am looking forward to it. Below is the programme:

Philosophy of History: Truths, Power, Ethics

Fifth Annual Undergraduate Conference

Friday 5 December 2014

Senior Common Room

 

10.00  Refreshments

10.10  Welcome: Mark Donnelly & Claire Norton

 

10.15  Panel One: Whose truths?

  • Joe Hooper, Paul Antick’sBhopal to Bridgehampton. Does the use of fictive devices make an account any less valid?
  • Joanne Rolling, Zlata’s Diary: An Exposition of Truth from the Siege of Sarajevo.
  • Alexandra Melham, Fact and fiction: can we learn from historical novels?
  • Jack Cooke, State controlled history: Memory and the manipulation of the masses.

 

11.00 Refreshment Break

 

11.15  Panel Two: Museums, remains and representations

  • Lorna McGrath, Museums: how are they presenting history?
  • Ciaran Clint, ‘The Burden of History:’ Activism, Museums and Disobedient Objects.
  • Georgina Woolfe, When will the dead be able to Rest in Peace? Human Remains and their place in museums.
  • Caitlin Jennings, To what extent do Interpretive Communities influence how history is written?
  • Nadia Townsend, What makes Truman Capote’s bookIn Cold Blood an historical account?

 

12.15 Break for lunch

 

12.45  Panel Three: Memory, memorials, Mau Mau

  • Ashleigh Weaver, Death and Memory as Tools of Activism: The Anarchist Subculture in America, 1890-1939.
  • Emily Lundie Authority in a historicised world: exploiting the past and the politics of collective memory and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial​.
  • Fatima Ullah,The rightful remembrance for the Mau Mau?
  • Maria Alempic, Mau Mau and the function of history
  • Amy Mawson, Why memorials can be problematic.

 

1.45    Panel Four: Fact, fiction and naming

  • Sebastian Reynolds, Blurring the Boundaries of History: Art Spiegelman’s ‘Maus’.
  • Rhianna Doran, ‘Maus: a challenge to Power, historical methodology and the fact/fiction divide.’
  • Harry Batory, Does historical fiction and literature produce similar or dissimilar narratives?
  • Cate Blackmore, No Longer a Terrorist Movement: A discussion on interpretive naming and the change in theoretical discourse in relation to Apartheid South Africa.

 

2.30    Refreshment Break

 

2.45 Panel Five: Pedagogy and authority over the past

  • Cas Hance, History, authority and teaching the national curriculum
  • Aimee Garraghan, The Second World War and Key stage 3 History curriculum
  • James Dodd, The use of a textbook as a symbol of authority
  • Maria Bourke Are historical films representative of historical truth?
  • Anthony O’Reilly, Should we eradicate the authority of history?

 

3.45 Panel Six: Making histories

  • Siobhan Trainor, Are historical accounts written using innovative or experimental forms a less reliable source?
  • Plum Bou-Assouf, Title unconfirmed
  • Lydia Birch, Title unconfirmed
  • Anthony Wareham, Title unconfirmed

 

4.30    Closing remarks

Conference ends

‘Impossible Histories: Derrida, the (Re)turn of Religion in Cultural Criticism, and Messianic Historical Theory’

A paper delivered on the 6th November at the Institute of Historical Research by Mark Mason (Deputy Dean, University of Chichester) and reviewed here by Peter P Icke.

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Mark Mason’s brilliant, lucid and (considering the demanding nature of its subject matter) remarkably accessible paper, ‘Impossible Histories: etc.’, drew upon the conceptual resources of ‘the (re)turn to/of religion’ as expressed in recent cultural criticism and, in particular, upon its focus on Derridean deconstruction. Or, to put that differently, deconstruction as it equates to the messianic[i] motif in Derrida’s work and the manner in which that motif can be seen to destabilise all historicisations. At bottom, I think that this paper might best be grasped as a singular, uniquely argued and, indeed, damaging critique of ‘historical representations’ as variously circulated in our current cultures, complimented with the suggestion of a positive ‘way forward’ shaped in the form of an appeal for a more overtly self-critical, reflexive mode in its theorisation. That is to say, a suggested style of theorisation which explicitly recognises, foregrounds and affirms the ‘im-possible’ condition of all historical (re)presentations[ii], both in their unavoidable epistemological failures to determine ‘what is to come’ (argued here as a very good thing) and in their, let us say, conspicuous or even wanton over-production generated through the agency of a ‘history machine’ which is simply not configured to reflect on its own condition of im-possibility. And, seen in this way, Mason’s overall argument constitutes a move towards a (messianic) renewal in history rather than a move towards a rejection/extinction of it.

Now, in such a brief review as this I cannot expand on the multiplicity of concepts indicated above and, accordingly, I direct the reader to Mason’s ‘Deconstructing History’[iii] and his ‘Exploring The Impossible’[iv] for an account of the messianic and its implicit notion of ‘openness to the other’  in Derridean deconstruction. I would, nevertheless, highlight here a central and important strand of Derridean thought, an imperative, which informed to some substantial degree the argument presented. And I refer to Derrida’s urgent demand to keep the future open through the rejection of all ‘discourses of closure’ which, to the obvious distress of some of those attending the presentation, would include pretty much all of history as currently practiced. For the doing of history, notwithstanding historians’ best efforts to claim otherwise, is a goal seeking, teleological enterprise driven by the desire for truth-at-the-end-of-enquiry. The point here being that notwithstanding historians’ acknowledgements of history’s incompleteness, their magnanimous embrace and incorporation of plurality, their understanding and agreement that its arguments might be subject to revision and so on and so forth, it still remains the case that historians’ very evident collective purpose/desire is to eventually, and against all the odds, get at the “truth of the past” and tie it down, fix it once and for all. And that’s closure.

Borrowing for a moment here something of a supplement to that previous point which I draw from Keith Jenkins’ essay, ‘Sande Cohen: on the verge of newness’, where, in the course of reviewing Cohen’s History Out of Joint, Jenkins notes Cohen’s observation that historical writing/narration has, right across the discipline, become very much a war amongst ‘claimants’ – claimants who each seek to legitimate their own individual, contentious, present interests through their respective attempts at narrative closures –  and further that, with all of this in mind, the central thesis of Cohen’s book may now be stated thus: ‘that narrative historicisations aim to prevent the appearance of new claimants on the future’[v].  And, of course, such attempts to close down the future through ideologically positioned ‘fixes’ in the present make no concessions whatsoever to that urgent Derridean ‘imperative’ mentioned above.

To close this short review, then, a summing-up, or rather a summing-up of a summing-up which necessarily carries along with it all sorts of risks. But here it is anyway.

So, the central message advanced and defended by Mark Mason might be boiled down to this; that all historical (re)presentations are already ‘marked for failure’ and that it might just be worthwhile to explore what it means to rethink historical (re)presentation and its theorisation as emancipatory in the messianic sense outlined by Derrida. Or, to spin that around and into the interrogative, what would be the implications of theorising histories as ‘messianic and emancipatory promises’, endlessly subject to failures which would in themselves help to both affirm and maintain the opening of a non-determinable future? That, I think, is the crucial question addressed in this paper.

Peter P Icke


[i] I should make it clear that Derrida’s use of the word ‘messianic’ does not signify a space that belongs to any determinate Abrahamic religion. Put simply, it concerns a performative notion of faith – the ‘believe me’ or, for Derrida, ‘the promise’ which launches any discourse and which, in a sense, can be taken as that discourse’s absolute presupposition(s). This, then, the performative dimension of the promise, is embedded in and rests on the messianic or, better still, the messianic structure that belongs to all language.

[ii] Just a short explanation for the bracketed (re) in (re)presentation as follows: History, articulated through the medium of narrative, merely “presents”. Strictly speaking it can’t “represent”, it can’t be a representation because a representation presupposes a represented and in the case of history there is no perceivable represented available since the past is dead and gone. The very notion of a represented, a supposed concrete referent exterior to the historians text, is an illusory reality effect generated within history’s characteristically narrative medium of transmission or exchange. It’s the product of a style of figurative internal circularity that has no linkage outside its own discourse and this notation, this (re), signals that problematic. To neatly sum-up this point one might say, following Roland Barthes (in spirit at least), that a ‘crafty’ operation is in play here, a scarcely noticed operation which collapses the putative referent into the signified.

[iii]Mary Caputi and Vincent J. Del Casino Jr. (Eds.), Derrida and the Future of the Liberal Arts: Professions of Faith. Bloomsbury (2013), pp93-121.

[iv] Mark Mason, ‘Exploring the Impossible – Jacques Derrida, John Caputo and the Philosophy of History’, Rethinking History, Routledge, No.4 (2006), pp 501-522.

[v] Keith Jenkins, At the Limits of History: Essays on Theory and Practice, Routledge (2009), p283.

Ken Breen Scholarship in History

Cherelle and Glenn

The Ken Breen scholarship prize for best performance in history at level 3 was awarded to Cherelle Nightingill on the 7th October 2014 by Glenn Richardson. Cherelle was an outstanding undergraduate student who wrote a first class dissertation on Tudor History.

The prize, worth £500, was founded in 2009 by Mr Stephen Gilham in memory of Ken Breen who was previously head of History at St Mary’s. Previous winners have included Graeme Ancient, Sam Spranger and Danielle Kemsley.

Well done Cherelle and good luck for the future

Review of ‘A Quasi-Substantive Philosophy of History’

Grey_Glacier_icebergs_Stevage

‘A Quasi-Substantive Philosophy of History’

Delivered at the Institute of Historical Research on 9th October 2014 by Zoltán Boldizsár Simon

(Doctoral Research Associate, University of Bielefeld) and reviewed here by Peter P Icke

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This autumn’s series of IHR ‘Philosophy of History’ seminars was launched on 9th October with the delivery of a paper by Zoltán Boldizsár Simon bearing the captivating title ‘A Quasi-Substantive Philosophy of History’. And I must say right away that I was impressed with both Zoltán’s assured style of presentation, his enthusiasm for his arguments and, indeed, his unswerving defence of those arguments during the post-paper debate; a debate which revealed the somewhat splintered nature of the opinions and positions of those present.

But to continue with the matter at hand, I want first to very briefly set out my reading of the central stuff of Simon’s argument. Then I will try to equally briefly set out what must surely have been the most apposite of the counter-arguments despatched against it from what, as I have already pointed out, was a divided floor.

Now, to turn to the paper itself which opened with the declaration that there is no longer the need to propose a quasi-substantive philosophy of history because such a philosophy has already entered the discourse through the works of various theorists including, and in particular, Eelco Runia, Frank Ankersmit and Jean-Luc Nancy. And, further, that this “quasi-substantive philosophy of history” differs from its earlier goal and meaning driven “substantive” counterpart in the extent to which it is ‘without a definite goal, without meaning and without a proper substance’. But, and this can be taken as the central motif or perhaps the “narrative substance” of Simon’s argument, notwithstanding these three ‘withouts’, a quasi-substantive philosophy of history is argued here to set a previously static history[1] on the move again. And ‘history’ in this instance, Simon explained, is to be understood in the sense of our coming future or ‘the history ahead of us’[2].

So, how exactly does this argument hang together? Well, the ‘move’ just mentioned rests on a notion of identity-shift brought about through violent rupture or discontinuity in the passage of past events (the French Revolution being often taken as its paradigmatic example) which effects a dissociation with the immediate past and its identity or ‘ontological subject’, the previous ‘them’ as Simon puts it, while giving birth to a new ‘we’. That is to say, the birth of a new ontological subject which, in the fullness of time and midst ruptures arising out of ‘monstrous deeds’ to come[3], would itself become the previous ‘they’ to the birth of the next ‘we’, and so on. All this comprising a ‘movement’ based on discontinuous change since each new ‘we’ is a break with rather than an unfolding of its previous ‘they’.

Thus, this proposal for a quasi-substantive philosophy of history takes shape as a self-repeating mechanism driven by human nature and rooted in rupture and disassociation which, from time to time, imposes change on or ‘movement’ in human affairs. Not a substantive move towards some goal or fulfilment of an ultimate purpose (in other words, not a teleology) but, rather, a movement that’s destined to continually repeat itself contingently, as it were. That, I hope, is a fair reading of the core element of Simon’s much broader and complex position which, along with those of Runia, Ankersmit and Nancy[4], seems to me to be phenomenological in kind and, consequently, I would like to register, right here and now, the not insignificant point that one might thus question the validity of their appearance in the discourse of history. Anyway, I guess that I should best let that contentious issue rest there, at least for now, and promptly move ahead to the matter of the audience response to Simon’s presentation.

Well, it seemed to me that the initial clutch of post-paper questions merely worked around the periphery of Simon’s theory without presuming to dislodge or destabilise it in any way. However, later on in the debate a question was raised which confronted and challenged one of the paper’s primary underlying presuppositions head on, so to speak. And that question turned on the general understanding that all descriptive language is of a metaphorical kind and that Simon’s paper comprised a set of descriptions and, therefore, it comprised a set of metaphors. The paper thus constituted, as metaphors do, an invitation to its listeners/readers to adopt a particular point of view on its subject matter. Or, put differently, an invitation to “a way of seeing” but not “the way of seeing”. However, the paper appeared to be presented as an explanation for its subject matter, as the definitive way of seeing, without the support of any validating authority outside its own descriptive metaphorical constructions. Hence, the central thrust of that questioner’s challenge – the demand to know at what point and by what mechanism the metaphorical language of the paper’s descriptive constitutive elements transformed itself into a sort of “literal” language of definitive explanation – seems to me to remain an urgent question bereft of any sort of answer.

But, as I have already observed, the floor was divided and even a little perplexed by this difficult yet thought provoking paper which undoubtedly sees the current series of IHR ‘Philosophy of History’ presentations off to a pretty good start.

Peter P Icke

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[1] See ‘History Set into Motion Again’ which is available in its final manuscript form here http://uni-bielefeld.academia.edu/ZoltanBoldizsarSimon . It’s in this paper that Simon explains more fully his own notion of ‘history in suspension’.

[2] Simon has a number of uses for the word history (something I find rather confusing). Here he uses it in a ‘prospective’ sense, elsewhere he uses it in the sense of historical writing, in other places as things done in the past (res gestae) and finally, following Nancy, he uses the word to signify what he calls the ‘disrupted singular’, the moment or break in which history is on the move again. However, I take the view that ‘the past’, ‘history’ and ‘the future’ are of different ontological kinds and that to gather them together under the single term history is to obscure that distinction. For me the past or the before now happened exactly as it did, it’s fixed, it’s vanished and all we have as evidence of its passing are the traces of its one-time actuality. Histories, by contrast, are the end products of historians’ efforts to grasp at that vanished past through the medium of narrative figures and devices worked up on the back of positioned readings of preferred selections of the often scant traces of that vanished past. Accordingly, histories might best be taken as variously construed, ideologically positioned substitutes for a vanished and ultimately unknowable past which escapes all attempts at its appropriation. And, to complete my threesome, the oft-times radical contingency of our yet unrealised ‘coming future’ consigns it to yet a third category, doesn’t it? Obviously words are empty signifiers awaiting their endowment with meanings which are, in the end, arbitrary – you can always get another meaning – but “for meanings to mean” it helps if they have analytical consistency.

[3] Such ‘monstrous deeds’ are argued here as the inevitable consequences of the human psyche’s subliminal drive to commit horrendous deeds to fellow humans

[4] While the arguments of these three philosophers/theorists appear in the paper alongside Simon’s own arguments and could perhaps be taken to be “of a kind”, I should point out that Simon made it clear that he was not arguing in support of them. Rather, he was presenting his own unique position.

Photo: Grey Glacier Icebergs by Stevage

Lies my Teacher Told Me?

220px-Lies_my_teacher_told_me

I came across this interesting ‘comment is free’ article by Jeb Lund in the Guardian last week which is worth taking a look at. He discusses how the majority conservative school board of Jefferson County, Colorado want to make changes to the Advanced Placement American History Curriculum taught in schools in order to ensure that the history taught in the classroom “promote[s] citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free market system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights”. To achieve this they have drafted a curricula proposal that will ensure that lessons only present American history in a positive light – any negative aspects will be omitted. Students, teachers and parents are protesting – see here  and here.

This is a great example of how history is used in an educational context for political, ontological and ideological purposes as well as to encourage compliant citizens – a topic I am very interested in. Incidentally James W. Loewen has an excellent book on this subject called Lies my Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook got Wrong (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995) – I recommend reading it.

We could ask whether it is wrong for school history lessons to be so partisan and political? We could ask whether it is wrong that history as taught in schools essentially has political and economic functions – it is intended to promote citizenship, patriotism and the free market – rather than simply conveying the truth about the past.

But I would ask is it ever possible for history to be taught in a neutral, non-political way? Would we really want that?

What interested me about this piece is summed up in this quote “[t]he bind facing the Jefferson County school board and the conservative movement in general is that history happened, and pretending it didn’t takes effort.”

“History happened”.

Well I am not so sure about that. For me history is a literary genre, a way of writing about events, the ‘before now’, the past. As such it offers a perspective on events, an interpretation.  While of course we can make judgements about historical texts – we can check to see if they adhere to the (contingent and temporary) protocols of the history profession and we can comment on their aesthetic, literary and political aspects – we can’t distinguish between politicised accounts of past events and those that simply record what happened.

All histories are politically motivated. Yes, some histories flout the conventions of history writing by deliberately ignoring commonly agreed upon ‘facts’ or ‘evidence’, and some employ interpretative strategies that many would find inappropriate – we consider these to be bad histories or not history at all. However, all histories to some extent either implicitly or explicitly have a political agenda – it is just that this only becomes obvious when it conflicts with our own perspective and political preferences. What we agree with is impartial, what we disagree with is partial.

What do you think?

History, Ethics and Justice

history and Justice

The next Futures of History: Cake and theory seminar will take place on Tuesday 7th October at St Mary’s University. The seminar will start at 2.30pm in the Senior Common Room – for more details about the series see here

The seminar will consist of two papers by Berber Bevernage and Anton Froeyman both from the University of Ghent followed by a discussion

Berber Bevernage

History courted by law: Some reflections on the judicialization of
history, historicization of jurisdiction

Anton Froeyman

Ethics for historians: an overview

There will of course be cake and everyone is welcome.

The image is of Justice and History a sculpture by Thomas Crawford located above the Senate bronze doors on the Capitol’s East Front – see here for more details.