Review of Berber Bevernage ‘The Past is evil/evil is the past: On retrospective politics, philosophy of history and temporal Manichaeism’

An IHR seminar review by guest blogger Peter P Icke

The last of the Spring Term series of ‘Time and History’ themed papers, titled ‘The Past is evil/evil is the past: On retrospective politics, philosophy of history and temporal Manichaeism’, was presented by Berber Bevernage at the Institute of Historical Research on the 27th March.

It should be noted here that I have already briefly outlined some of Bevernage’s central concerns in my review of his earlier IHR paper, ‘TheFuture of the Theory and Philosophy of History’ (posted below on 11thDecember 2013) and this current paper links-up with those concerns. That is to say that it deals with what Bevernage calls ‘historical injustice’ and its attendant differences of opinion concerning the actual operation of the ‘retrospective politics’ which it employs. These differences are taken to fall into two oppositional positions as follows: first, that of those who take the view that the use of retrospective politics in consideration of past injustices is not only crucial but that it also constitutes a ‘noble cause’ and, second, that of those who claim that the retrospective political process is undesirable since it obscures present and future orientated politics and, furthermore, that it tends to be anti-utopian. And it’s my understanding that Bevernage’s proposed resolution of this dichotomy requires and depends on the realisation of a new form of retrospective politics which would have the effect of complementing rather than opposing the desired emancipatory and utopian elements of present and future directed politics.

Now, Bevernage himself recognises that retrospective politics can appear to have negative effects. For instance, he explained that such politics can lead to a form of temporal Manichaeism which tends to treat evil primarily as a manifestation of the past – as intimated in the paper’s title – thereby distancing evil from a putatively more innocent present. But such effects, he further explained, are taken to be the product of what he sees as a problematic ‘underlying philosophy of history’ which treats the past, present and future as discreet ontologies and which, on this view, is seen by him to hinder or prevent a proper understanding of trans-temporal injustices. Accordingly, this paper’s arguments collectively constitute an appeal for a philosophy of history which, in effect, rethinks temporality on the basis of the conviction that past, present and future can be lumped together into a single ontological category.

But, as was argued from the floor during the post-paper debate, if past and present can simply be collapsed into each other in this way, then surely the very idea of an equitable, problem-solving philosophy of history seems to be somewhat redundant. Moreover, victims of past injustices seek judicial resolutions to those injustices in the present and their ability to do so will turn on the play of politics and power relationships in the present. Is this not then a question of who has the power today to investigate, resolve and thus close down such matters? This being the case, then how, the questioner put it, can a philosophy of history usefully intervene or inform such judicial proceedings?

Other interesting arguments arose, and indeed were answered, in what became a lively and valuable exchange of ideas following yet another of Berber Bevernage’s thought provoking papers.

Peter P Icke

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