Review of ‘A Quasi-Substantive Philosophy of History’


‘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


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


[1] See ‘History Set into Motion Again’ which is available in its final manuscript form here . 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

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