‘Questioning Theories of History’ at the IHR (Autumn 2015)

A themed series of ‘Philosophy of History’ seminars organized by Kalle Pihlainen (Adjunct Professor of Philosophy of History and Political History, University of Turku, Finland and Seminar Co-convenor).


A briefly sketched collective review of and personal reflections on the term’s papers.

(Peter P Icke)

Jouni-Matti Kuukkanen (Associate Professor in Philosophy at the University of Oulu, Finland) launched the seminar series on 15th October with his interesting PowerPoint presentation titled ‘Do We Need an Analytic Philosophy of History’. And it became clear during his exposition that while Kuukkanen recognises the contribution that “narrativism” has made to history theory since, let’s say, the late 1960’s, he nevertheless feels that in terms of what he calls ‘historiographical evaluation’ the field has been left somewhat in limbo. In short, he wishes to go beyond narrativism into a mode of cognitive evaluation which focuses on what he sees as the ‘rational and argumentative virtues’ that histories possess. A sort of “analytic”, argumentative style of validation effected through the attention to those virtues, rational and otherwise, which are taken by him to deliver the most compelling accounts of past events, situations, etc. Accordingly, in his view we are indeed in need of an Analytic Philosophy of History. For me, however, there remains a huge, central problem with the analytic approach to history theory which fatally disrupts this view and which, I think it’s fair to add, figured prominently in the post-paper debate.

The problem is this. People, broadly speaking, read histories for explanation and meaning. That is, they seek through history the explanations for past events and the meanings of those events, thence to move on to lessons that might be learnt from them. But “historical” explanations and meanings are simply “effects” generated within history texts and they are (as Alun Munslow would put it) contingent upon historians’ arbitrary epistemic choices of, for instance and not least, modes of emplotment, tropology and argument worked up on the back of this or that historian’s ideological positioning. These and other choices cannot be shown to be informed by the historian’s object of enquiry, the past, since the past itself is mute and its surviving traces, also being mute, cannot determine or fix any particular reading of themselves. Histories, at the central and crucial level of explanation and meaning, are constituted by what we – or rather historians – put into them and there is thus nothing new to emanate from them or to be learnt from them. But the analytic approach to history theory is, by Kuukkanen own admission, sketchy on the this very pivotal matter of explanation and blind to the equally pivotal matter of meaning production. It seems to me that one has to turn to continental theory and literary theory to find adequate instruments and arguments for the purpose of grasping something of the nature of history and, I would add as an afterthought, something of history’s hopelessness vis-à-vis its central goal which is to conclusively appropriate, as if that were even possible, the actuality of the past at the level of the past’s own intrinsic explanations and meanings. So, for me the Analytic Philosophy of History, interesting though it might be in its parts, retains right at its centre a scarcely observed yet massively compromising blind spot which renders it inadequate to its task.


On the 29th October Anton Froeyman (Department of Philosophy and Moral Sciences, University of Ghent) delivered the second paper of the series, ‘The Excluded Middle: Levinasian Ethics as a Middle Ground between Historical Representation and Historical Experience’. Briefly put, this paper first explored the oft-cited opposition between ‘language’ and ‘experience’ in history theory and then suggested how that conflict – between what must surely be two very different “poles” of discourse – might be overcome through the establishment of a synthesised Levinasian inspired middle ground of argumentation. And having supposedly validated this ingenious and I must say robustly argued mid-point discursive platform, Froeyman moved on to his associated assertion that, using language to its full extent, one could then actually ‘create the experience of a genuine encounter between people from the past and those in the present’.[1]

Now, I’m profoundly sceptical of the unquestionably oxymoronic construction ‘historical experience’, however defined (for there is much confusion here), and all the currently circulating claims concerning its agency or facility regarding ‘encounters’ with the people from the past, its transmission potential, its authenticity, etc., etc. However, I shall let these controversial matters rest there for the moment and turn to the paper’s central problematical premise; that it is indeed possible to find a middle ground between what are in this case two distinctly different ontologies. Let me explain the distinction in this way. History itself is a concept and any instantiation of that concept, any particular ‘historical representation’, being the contingent product of its writer’s imaginative choices worked up in the absence of any discernible referent, lacks stability. But ‘historical experience’, the alleged receipt by certain “gifted” people of unmediated (partly mediated in Froeyman’s theory, apparently) sensations and feelings directly from the actuality of the past, is of an existential and definitely not of a historical kind. So, how is one to locate a middle ground between an ‘unstable entity’ on one side and an ‘existential sensation’ on the other? My answer is that no such location exists and thus – Levinas or no Levinas, it hardly matters now –  I rather fear that Froeyman’s undeniably engaging argument is undone, for it rests at bottom on a false premise.


We now arrive mid-term with ‘On Disobedient Histories’ presented on 12th November by Keith Jenkins (Emeritus Professor of Historical Theory, University of Chichester). This tightly argued and equally tightly defended paper, articulated about the crucial notion that ‘interpretive closure’ in history writing is not only logically impossible but also ethically, morally and politically undesirable, draws mainly on aspects of the works of Jacques Derrida and in particular on his idea of the aporia, the ‘un-decidability of the decision’. Reducing this Derridean notion to its bare bones in order to facilitate some brief and therefore perhaps risky explanation of it, I would say that the aporia rests on Derrida’s central premise that for a judgement to be worthy of its name it would have to respect the singularity, the uniqueness, of the situation being judged. To make that judgement or decision by drawing on some previous rule or judgement, thus failing to register the inimitability of the situation at hand, would be merely to perform an act of administration, not an act of judgement. Accordingly, to be just the decision called for has to be situated outside any existing rule or system and therefore, in its formulation, it has necessarily to pass through a state of un-decidability, a certain madness or lack of grounding which calls for a degree of invention. The decision, then, takes shape as a “performativity” which simultaneously performs while devising rules both exclusive to and necessary for its performance and which, consequently, will never be quite good enough, will always fail. Moreover, it is in a sense, and very briefly again, the ‘raising to consciousness of the aporia’ that for Jenkins enables and guarantees the perpetual openness of the postmodern and, further, it is this position with regard to the aporia along with Derrida’s notion of ‘reading towards the ethical/moral’ that, convincingly argued in this paper but largely unnoticed, disavowed or simply ignored by academic historians, affords the potential to fatally undercut their style of epistemologically assured histories. And what is finally being recommended here is a move in history writing, if indeed history is worth bothering with at all, towards new disobedient imaginaries which break with academic orthodoxies and offer endless openness in place of definitive closures and which, not least, engender a relaxed attitude towards creative failure.

So, how did all of this go down on the night? Well, broadly speaking I think that audience response fell into two distinctly different camps. On the one hand, those who went with the argument unreservedly and, on the other, those who didn’t much like it at all – no ‘middle ground’ here – and I shall conclude with a summary of just two common misapprehensions which surfaced during the post-paper debate and which do no service whatsoever to the latter of these two camps. I start with the fact/value distinction, both deeply imbedded in Derridean thinking and clearly articulated in the paper. The argument might be expressed thus: I don’t think that anyone has been able to successfully show, in any discourse, that it’s possible to logically derive entailed or definitive values from facts. This is not to say that we don’t routinely associate our preferred values with facts all the time but these associations are contingent, not entailed, and thus they miss the philosophical point. To expand somewhat, such associations are contingent on enculturation, ideological/moral/ethical positionings, religious beliefs, moods and many other factors which, of course, could be otherwise. There is no stability/decidability here from which entailments might logically follow and it therefore appears, in the face of un-decidability and lack of groundings, that we are free to draw whatever values, whatever meanings or significance we wish to draw from facts, both past and present. Facts, it seems to me, simply reflect the “baggage” carried to them by those who would seek to find value in them and until the logical entailment of fact to value can be credibly demonstrated – a most unlikely event – we all remain political, historical, moral, etc. relativists whether we like it or not and whether we know it or not. Can this one be put to bed now, once and for all?

The second of the two points mentioned above concerns the inexcusable yet ubiquitous error of conflating history with the past. Let me put the matter this way; the past once happened precisely as it did but it has now vanished leaving traces of its passing, traces which are not to be mistaken for the sublime actuality of the past itself which is, most assuredly, beyond appropriation. Yet for some the past still has the appearance of a reified, discoverable entity situated somewhere out there demanding our attention, our humble respect and fidelity and sometimes it is even alleged to be reaching out to meet with us and to engage with us, “authentically” (how?). But there is no discernible referent out there or back there called the past, nor is there any agency out there bent on communicating with us, warning us or, as some claim, actually disrupting the present. Now to turn to histories which differ ontologically from the past. Histories should best be understood as various attempts (always failed attempts) – mostly effected through the figurative medium of narrative – at “fixing” the past at the level of explanation and meaning through what can never be more than just ungrounded, multifarious readings of purposeful selections from the surviving traces of the past. Or to reformulate, histories are inferences, shaped-up arguments of a tropological or aesthetic kind, resting on ideologically positioned readings of some or other favoured pickings from the remnants left behind by the past. So history and the past just are two very different things and those who run these terms together, thence to claim that the postmodern assault on representationalism and history collapses into an assault on and a denial of the past itself, reveal much about themselves but nothing about history theory.


Martin Davies (Emeritus Reader in the History of the European Enlightenment, University of Leicester) presented the penultimate paper of the season on 26th November under the title ‘Enlightenment or Modernity: The Question of Historical Continuity’; an important paper yet a particularly difficult one to summarise in the space of two or three short paragraphs. Nonetheless, here is my stab at it and I start with the paper’s central premise which is that the idea of continuity, sequential chains of events/situations leading to consequences, was taken to be central to the concept of the “Enlightenment” (though it travels under other names) by its eighteenth-century advocates. And, further, that for today’s historians and advocates of the Enlightenment, and indeed the modern world subsequently created by and proceeding from it, that same premise is also taken to be both necessary and central. Moreover, this notion of continuity reaches beyond ‘temporal sequence’ to the linked concept of ‘process’, in this instance troped in the shape of a trajectory towards consequences indispensable to the notion of modernity and its historicized “self-image”, its self-completion. Thus one can discern here something of an internal, self-affirmatory, autonomous circularity of argument. That is to say that the practice of history, through its internal process of meaning making, performativity generates the idea of the contribution of the Enlightenment’s mode of thought to modernity’s own self-understanding – its raison d’être –  which, in a circulatory manner, “effects” the affirmation of the practice of history per se as its only instrument of dissemination. Succinctly put, history sees its own instrumental self-validation reflected in its historicisation of the Enlightenment.

Just to reformulate the foregoing overall position – and, if I have actually grasped the point, to further capture something of its underlying tow – I would just say that the couching of argumentation in the Enlightenment’s modernist framework of thought simply re-enforces or legitimises that very framework and thus inevitably leads to a discursive, internal circularity of argument; that is, it leads to the tautological or to a state of emptiness and meaninglessness.

But, and to further destabilise the matter, the notion of continuity in modernity (albeit of a historical or historicised and therefore imaginary kind) embodies its own contradictory problems. For instance, modernity first presents itself as rupture, rupture from a previous tradition, and the logical conclusion must therefore be that it cannot itself be immune from rupture. It cannot logically cling to the notion that it is ruled by unchanging laws or conditions but, rather, it must take account of inevitable changes in its ongoing ‘conditions of change’ which would lead to successive and thus inconclusive sequences of change. Accordingly, it would appear that the project of modernity, historicised thus, endlessly postpones its self-completion. Now, as I’ve already intimated, the various arguments which constitute this paper are both complex and fascinating and, due limitations of space, I have only stressed here a couple of primary considerations emerging from it. However, taken in the whole and by way of some sort of conclusion (perhaps, for some, an unwelcome conclusion judging by the decibels exchanged during the evenings post-paper debate), I would say that this paper, through its problematization of an Enlightenment “known” only through its historicisations, not only exposes the fictive or illusory nature of the notion of “historical” continuity with the past but it also draws attention to a certain (fatal) defect in the social process of identity creation. That is, it exposes the deep-seated limitations of a culture which, by default, is incapable of comprehending itself except through that same always self-referencing and hence problematic discourse of “history”.


Now to the very last of this semester’s papers, a thought provoking presentation titled ‘History between Story and Argument: Reviving Narratological Analysis of Professional Historical Writing’, delivered on 10th December by Wulf Kansteiner (Associate Professor of Memory Studies and Historical Theory at Aarhus University, Denmark and Associate Professor of European History at Binghamton University, USA).

Wulf Kansteiner’s project, clearly articulated in his paper, is driven by a central motivational premise; the need to now reach beyond that cluster of earlier narrativist arguments – arguments which together are generally understood to constitute ‘the linguistic turn’ of the 1970’s/80’s – and to focus more attention on the analysis of the actual production (and, indeed, consumption) of historians’ texts, paying particular attention to the manner in which their modes of argumentation and narrativization are both framed and interwoven. And I should add right away that Kansteiner takes on board those earlier narrativist arguments, including the problematic of “reference”, but insists that such theories and considerations are not part of his exposition. Rather – and for his purposes here he used extracts from Saul Friedlander’s Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945: The Years of Extermination – Kansteiner demonstrated how close textual readings, undertaken with specific regard to the texts’ underlying styles of narration and argumentation, reveal certain embedded authorial unreliabilities, discontinuities, uncertainties, etc., which have the effect of destabilizing their respective segments of text. And it was argued that these authorial destabilizations, running parallel with or perhaps in a sense even mimicking the Holocaust’s Jewish victims’ own dreadfully destabilized circumstances, subsequently govern the general vein and nature of the text’s reception by its readers. Its reader’s receipt of “knowledge” of the event. Kansteiner further argued, as I recall it, for a possible prioritisation of argumentation over narrativization, a theoretical move which would, in effect, obscure the narrative component of his two-part argument and thus appear to allow forms of access to aspects of the past through argumentation alone.

But it seems to me – and I hope that I’m not misrepresenting Kansteiner’s intentions here – that this particular writing strategy, as briefly outlined above, is broadly speaking directed towards a heightening of the narrative’s reality-effects and, accordingly, a heightening of its readers’ involvement with and grasp of the events as narrated. Surely such strategies constitute deliberate and arguably arbitrary impositions projected onto their respective texts. And while it’s no doubt the case that “readers’ experiences” coloured by these impositions might be vivid and might provide insights into (in this case, for instance) darker aspects of human nature, I still remain in something of a difficulty vis-à-vis the precise positioning and originality of Kansteiner’s overall argument in relation to history theory. As noted above, Kansteiner indicated at the beginning of his paper that he wished to move beyond ‘the linguistic turn’, beyond Hayden White, into a new sphere of unbroken-ground, as it were, distanced from and uncontaminated by that earlier discursive position. But has he? Is it not the case that he remains immersed in the tropological, the poetic and the imaginative? That is to say, the figurative, aesthetic sphere of narration and argumentation which, in short, entangles him with that which he had hoped to escape. However, and notwithstanding my own probably idiosyncratic doubts in this instance, I would add in conclusion that the engrossing and comparatively lengthy post-paper debate, at times challenging and at times supportive, brought to a very satisfactory conclusion what for me has been one of the most varied and rewarding series to date of the IHR’s ‘Philosophy of History’ seminars.

Peter P Icke


[1] This claim is also expressed in Froeyman’s conclusion to: ‘Never The Twain Shall Meet? How Narrativism and Experience Can Be Reconciled by Dialogical Ethics’, History and Theory, 54(May2015), p177.

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