Review of J. Gorman’s paper ‘IHR’ paper “Temporal Stances”

Guest blog post by regular contributor Peter P Icke

Review of J. Gorman’s paper ‘Temporal Stances’ delivered on the 13th February at the ‘Institute of Historical Research’, Philosophy of History Seminar

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The second of this Spring Term’s ‘Time and History’ themed series of philosophical papers, titled ‘Temporal Stances’, was presented by Jonathon Gorman (Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at Queens University, Belfast) on 13th February at the IHR’s ‘Research Seminar in the Philosophy of History’. And I have somewhat reluctantly, as I will explain in a moment, agreed to review it. But first I want to point out that for the purpose of his paper Gorman introduced himself as an analytical philosopher of history. That is to say that he brought an analytical style of philosophical argumentation to his subject matter, a generally reductive style that brings its focus to bear on short, simple subject/predicate sentences which, following analysis, are then taken to be the building blocks for more complex texts, in this case historical texts. But, for me, the analytic position seems to miss, or even to reject, the enormously important matter of what I would characterise as meaning production through narrative organisation. And I’m referring here to the various functional modes of all those rhetorical devices – emplotment and troping being just two examples – which might together be gathered under the umbrella term poetics and which, at a holistic level, generate the conditions of possibility for the production of narrative meaning. So, in short, I’m uncomfortable with the analytical style of philosophy not least because, while dealing with the literary artefacts that we call histories, it appears to deny the possibility that literary theory’s own discourse might already have provided a more appropriate repository of instruments for their analysis. Perhaps such considerations as these go a little way towards an explanation for my ‘reluctance’ as noted above. Nevertheless, I’ve agreed to write a review, so here it is.

‘Temporal Stances’ along with their related companions ‘Historical Stances’ collectively constitute this paper’s central motif and, as Gorman explains, they together stand apart from ‘Philosophical Stances’ which are time-independent. An example of a time-independent subject/predicate sentence is ‘all unmarried men are bachelors’ since it appears to carry an analytic truth (sometimes called a necessary truth); a truth by definition which is at no time false. Of course, some philosophers would deny the notion of a timeless analytic truth, but I’m not going there.I will now let Gorman himself explain the distinction between the other two stances as follows:

A historical stance is a temporal stance, although not every temporal stance is a historical stance. The object of one’s thinking when one adopts a temporal stance may be something of very short as well as of very long duration, while a historical stance characteristically has as its object something which takes an indeterminately longish period ……… there is no distinction of principle here. On the other hand, there is very much more to the notion of being “historical” than merely the length of time that a historical stance is concerned with. Here I will concentrate primarily on the temporal features of “historical”…..[i]

But it seems to me that the distinction that Gorman strikes here between temporal and historical stances is, at bottom, a temporal distinction only and, to further compound the issue, surely the adjective ‘historical’, in this connection, is being misused; how can a ‘stance’ be ‘historical’? A history is an imaginative proposal about how some aspect of the past might have been, it uses the fictive process to generate its meanings/explanations and thus it can, as noted above, be best recognized as a literary artefact because that is what it is. Can I take a ‘literary artefact stance’? I don’t think so. And temporal stances, the central subject matter of Gorman’s paper, are simply positions taken or perspectives in relation to changes that take place over time. Or, in other words, what historians always manage to do, apparently without difficulty.

Now, within Gorman’s text there are many interesting arguments concerning the philosophical positions taken by, for instance, Collingwood, Quine, Frege, Wittgenstein, Peirce, et al, in relation to time and history. But having both read and listened carefully to the paper, I cannot find anything in it – any clear central thrust of argument – that might add to, change or impinge, in any way at all, on the discipline of history or on that of the philosophy of history, the latter being the central concern of the seminar. Furthermore, towards the end of the paper the oxymorons ‘true story’ and ‘true history’ appear (more than once) along with variously expressed claims that history, as an empirical discipline akin to the sciences, is a “truth” seeking enterprise. This claim seems to rest on Gorman’s assurance that the facts of the matter preside over ‘the assessment of the truth of historical narratives’[ii]. And it was, indeed, these very claims that sparked off most of the animated, at times very noisy, after-paper debate.

For instance, it was firmly maintained from the floor by at least two of those present that the notion of ‘narrative truth’ cannot be reduced to, and/or demonstrated by, the truth of the narrative’s constituent facts or statements. Rather, it is the organisation of such otherwise compassless facts and singular statements into narrative form which imposes meaning and explanatory effect on to those facts/statements for a particular purpose and from an individual, unique perspective – that of the narrative’s author, the historian. To favour a particular history is to favour its particular valorisation of the facts with which it engages, and if you find that you no longer like that particular history “arrangement”, then you can always get another one. And the notion that the writing of history is an essentially empirical undertaking was equally firmly dismissed since ‘the empirical’ seeks knowledge through observation, measurement, experiment, etc. of/with the object of its investigation. But in the case of history there is no perceivable object of investigation or unmediated referent, because the past qua past is dead and gone; one cannot see it, hold up a measure to it or experiment with it. The past can only be ostensibly “known” through its contingent traces and the multiplicity of variously construed constructions that historians project on to them: ‘history as much imagined as found …..etc.’

In conclusion I would add just two things. First, Jonathan Gorman, resolutely and sometimes at length, defended his arguments against these and other contrary points raised; however that defence was, in my own view, unconvincing. And, second, that were the paper’s apparent philosophical puzzles to be approached from the perspective of a continental rather than an analytical style of philosophy, then they might cease to be puzzles at all. But that’s another story.

Peter P Icke

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[i] This extract is taken from page five of Gorman’s paper, ‘Temporal Stances’. The paper will be published by Routledge, probably in 2014, in Alexander Macfie’s forthcoming edited collection of essays on history and fiction.

[ii] Ibid. p19

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