Review of ‘A Quasi-Substantive Philosophy of History’

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‘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

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

Review of Dariusz Gafiejezuk’s ‘IHR’ paper “The Inhabited Ruins of History”

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“The Pier” Photograph by Pete Kyle – for more see http://www.petekyle.co.uk

Guest blog post by regular contributor Peter P. Icke

The evening of Thursday 12th December saw the last of the current series of Philosophy of History papers delivered at the Institute of Historical Research. And for this occasion it was Dariusz Gafiejezuk who, drawing from the writings of the cultural philosopher Georg Simmel, talked on the subject of ‘The Inhabited Ruins of History’, an audio-visual presentation that rested on ideas gathered and expressed in his earlier published article, ‘Dwelling Within: The Inhabited Ruins of History’, (History and Theory, May 2013, pp149-170), the central and governing elements of which I shall now attempt to capture in the following brief paragraph.

Well, we have the ‘ruins’ of both titles to consider which, as Gafiejezuk explains, are to be taken not ‘as piles of rubble’ but, rather, as ‘living ruins [which occupy] ….the spaces we continually inhabit’. And, further, that these ruins are ‘intimate to our modern constitution’ which, apparently, is in ‘a process of ruination’. Now, I take it that what Gafiejezuk is probably characterising here is a particular state or “situatedness” of mind which, he then goes on to claim, affords the occasion for ‘….the past to emerge in the moment of our encounter with the “afterlife” of various events, inscribed in texts, photographs, or, in their most extended range, architectural edifices [his punctuation, not mine]’. Furthermore, it would appear that it is Gafiejezuk’s own experience, or close experience, of such a supposed ‘emergence of the past’ (or perhaps many such experiences) that allows him to champion his central and key notion which he calls virtual witnessing and which he describes as ‘a special form of modern perception through which the past and the present encounter each other’. The balance of his text, which is rich in exotic metaphors of description but wanting in any style of explanation, philosophical or otherwise, for me adds nothing at all that might better illuminate, less still validate, Gafiejezuk’s belief that a past that no longer exists and that is beyond apprehension can, of its own volition and intent, get up and tumble into the present in such a spectacular manner.

And, indeed, these claims were generally poorly received, although in fairness to Gafiejezuk I should point out that one of those present actually turned out to be a vociferous supporter of his position. Nevertheless, the speaker and his enthusiastic acolyte failed to adequately counter damaging challenges to that position, one of which, simply put, runs as follows: Could those claimed ‘moments of encounter’ with the actuality of the past be nothing more than the reflections or replications of Gafiejezuk’s own imaginative projections on to one or other of his so called ‘inscribed’ artefacts of transmission? However, the plausibility and explanatory effect of this counter-proposal was lost on Gafiejezuk who, rather forcefully, confounded matters by denying the existence of any distinction between description and explanation, these two words being synonymous for him. Thus, in effect, Gafiejezuk takes the view that his uninvestigated descriptive claims can stand alone and above any need for their explanation. But it seems to me that while both description and explanation are, at bottom, metaphor-bound, explanation differs from description in its function. The point to be stressed here is that explanation operates within a particular strategy, the purpose of that strategy being to sustain the credibility or plausibility of the proposal in question, and to do so in relation to what for now I shall simply call ‘practical consensual knowledge of how things are’ – a sort of informed common sense. Any move beyond this general consensus would be in urgent need of some style of vindication or plausible explanation if it’s to have any chance at all of eventually gaining acceptance and joining that consensus. Accordingly, it is, not least, the lack of any such ‘plausible explanation’ that excludes this arguably bizarre thesis from its chosen discourse, whichever one that might be. And in this connection it should be noted here that – despite Gafiejezuk’s use of the noun ‘history’ and its adjectival companion ‘historical’ throughout both his article and his presentation – virtual witnessing is of a singular, private, non-verifiable existential kind and not of a historical kind. It has no place in the discourse of history. Rather, I would suggest that it might be better suited to and situated in some remote and mystical corner of the discourse of memory studies broadly construed.

Now, this review is already lengthier than intended but I’m not quite finished yet, for there was one particular argument presented from the floor which, for me, eloquently questioned the unexplored suppositions on which the speaker grounded his case for virtual witnessing.

The argument goes as follows: Much of the evening’s paper, and its defence in the discussion that followed, depended on there being a dialogue between the past and the present; that somehow the past could speak to us, make its presence felt and that the historian could thus allow the past to impress itself on him/her. It is on this basis that Gafiejezuk invoked the notion of having an active ‘encounter’, ‘exchange’ or ‘engagement’ with the ‘emergent’ past. But the problem here is that such an active encounter depends implicitly on there being two active agents, or agencies. That is, the past on the one hand and the historian on the other. But if the past is dead, and can only be read by the historian who endows or projects onto the dead/mute past a ‘voice’, then what we have here is a monologue not a dialogue; the historian is the only agent because the past is passive, it has no will of its own, it cannot literally speak to us and it doesn’t come to meet us. The idea of a dialogue, an encounter, cannot then be a literal encounter but only a metaphorical one – the past as if it speaks to the present, and therefore not being a literal, active presence, then the basis of the speaker’s argument fails. To some extent the notion of virtual witnessing, fragmented in the article on which the paper was based, is more nuanced than the presenter’s paper, but not enough, one feels, to prevent the above argument from calling into question its basic, guiding assumptions.

Can this be the final word on virtual witnessing?

Peter P Icke

Review of Berber Bevernage’s ‘IHR’ paper ‘The Future of the Theory and Philosophy of History’

Guest blog post by regular contributor Peter P Icke

On 28th November Berber Bevernage (Associate Professor of Philosophy and Historical Theory, University of Ghent and co-founder of the recently formed ‘International Network for Theory of History’, or the “INTH”) presented the penultimate paper of the current ‘Research Seminar in the Philosophy of History’ run by the University of London’s ‘Institute of Historical Research’. And, by way of a very brief sketch of his general position and concerns, I would highlight Berber’s particular focus on the relationships taken to obtain between historical (in)justice and the ethics of history on the one side, and concepts of historicity and historical time on the other. Such concerns being articulated, in part, against a backdrop of government-appointed historical commissions and truth commissions – investigating, for instance, state-sponsored violence or “vanished” persons – where historians are in demand as expert witnesses and thus where the ever problematic notions of historical meaning and historical explanation, summoned in the guise of authoritative informants or perhaps adjudicators, are put into practice.

Turning now to the paper itself (titled ‘The Future of the Theory and Philosophy of History’) which, while embracing these and other such difficulties, was presented very much in the shape of an invitation to the floor to come up with ideas, comments or criticisms that might assist in the determination of how, following its successful launch and bearing in mind at least some of its assumed responsibilities as noted, the INTH should best proceed.  And while it is undeniably the case that Berber’s overall position on the matters discussed in his paper is eminently supportable and indeed crucial, the after-paper debate nevertheless robustly voiced suggestions and certain pertinent concerns in the spirit of that earlier invitation – concerns which were equally robustly answered by Berber.

To give examples of what I have called ‘pertinent concerns’, Berber (who is himself moving towards a broader and collective ‘Philosophy of Historicities’ which is to include, for instance, history, memory, historical time and transitional justice) was questioned on the desirability of bringing history into his moral/political arguments and positions. Or, to put it differently, can the purposeful employment of the discourse of “history” be adequate or even relevant to the demands of such work? After all, history is just a concept which is already ideologically positioned and which functions within boundaries, the operative effect of which would be to severely restrict the breadth of the subsequent discourse. Seen in this light the much broader discourse of the intellectual, who unlike the historian is beholden to no one, might be a more appropriate choice of companion while pushing the exploration of moral and political arguments ‘beyond the boundaries’, as it were. Furthermore, one might perhaps question the lumping together of, or the conflation of, the ontologically different categories of history, memory and justice, if that is what is suggested here.

So, to sum up, I would say that all those present enjoyed and benefitted both from an engaging paper and also from the vibrant exchange of thoughts and ideas which immediately followed it.

Peter P Icke

Review of Frank Ankersmit’s paper “The Ankersmit/Roth Controversy”

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Guest blog post by Peter P. Icke
Review of Frank Ankersmit’s paper ‘The Ankersmit/Roth Controversy’ at the IHR Philosophy of History seminar
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On 31st October Frank Ankersmit presented a paper at the Institute of Historical Research (IHR) which he titled ‘The Ankersmit/Roth Controversy’. A controversy which had some months earlier positively exploded into the otherwise benign ambiance of Auditorium B at the University of Ghent. This splendid clash of theories and temperaments was triggered by Paul Roth’s comparatively blunt delivery of his own hard-hitting paper, ‘Whistling History: Ankersmit’s Neo-Tractarian Theory of Historical Representation’, which sought to fatally undermine Ankersmit’s current and in some respects radically new position as laid out in his latest book, Meaning, Truth and Reference in Historical Representation.  Now, all this over-excitement and academic angst was unfolding during the second morning of a four day inaugural conference organised by the ‘International Network for Theory of History’. And I think that one might take Ankersmit’s subsequent IHR paper (which is under discussion here) as something of an aftershock consequent to or a reverberation from that morning’s disruptive event. I should add that Roth’s paper and an earlier written response to it by Ankersmit, both of which were made available to those attending the IHR on 31st October, will be published in a forthcoming edition of the journal Rethinking History.

So, to the IHR presentation itself. In my view Ankersmit’s “contra-Roth” arguments, delivered from his own exercise book jottings, were generally weak and they failed to properly address issues raised by Roth in his paper. Such shortcomings generated a lively after-paper debate during which Ankersmit, for me at least, failed to adequately tackle pertinent questions raised. For instance, when questioned on “frameworks” (a Quinean notion of frameworks championed by Roth in his paper which, arguably and not least, draws attention to a fatal flaw in Ankersmit’s “experiential” theories) he summarily rejected the notion regardless of its importance to various elements of his own overall theoretical position. And it’s interesting to note here that Ankersmit actually drew on Quinean logic in some of his earlier works.

On the matter of ‘historical truth’ – surely an impoverished, redundant notion today – Ankersmit now claims, contrary to his former and for me much better position on the matter, that truth can be found at the aesthetic or figural level of the whole historical text. Accordingly, it would appear that he is now arguing for a historical-truth-at-the-end-of-inquiry style of philosophy, a sort of reification of the aesthetic/figural, which entirely and rather conspicuously contradicts his earlier works. This new Ankersmitean “revelation”, being unworkable, was robustly and I think effectively challenged from the floor, a challenge which was further compounded through a more general critique levelled at certain inconsistencies and incoherencies which, it was argued, both characterise and diminish Ankersmit’s own philosophical position.

Anyway, by the end of the evening Ankersmit looked somewhat bruised and I think – this is just a hunch – that he might have regretted agreeing to come to the IHR in the first place.  After all, he had travelled all the way from Groningen to air a grievance against Roth which, in all probability, only a small number of IHR attendees would have much known about or, indeed, much cared about.  And it should also be noted that Paul Roth was not, so far as I know, invited to attend the IHR event himself and he was thus not in a position to defend himself against Ankersmit’s various charges as presented – an altogether lamentable state of affairs.

Peter P Icke

Review of Prof. Connelly’s paper at the IHR

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Review of Prof Connelly’s “Truth, Falsity and Value in Collingwood’s Account of Absolute Presuppositions” given at the IHR Philosophy of History Seminar

Prof Connelly (Director of the Centre for Applied Ethics at the University of Hull) gave a very engaging paper on Robin George Collingwood’s notion of absolute presuppositions and their relationship to historical inquiry. These were ideas that Collingwood explored most fully in An Essay on Metaphysics (1940). Connelly first outlined what Collingwood understood absolute presuppositions to be: namely a type of proposition that it makes no sense to doubt; a proposition that is not verifiable, that is thus neither true nor false. Absolute propositions essentially form the framework for our thinking, they constitute the boundaries of our thought processes. As such they are not susceptible to proof, instead the proof of other propositions is derived from them.

Having discussed Collingwood’s conception of absolute presuppositions Connelly then turned to the possible absolute presuppositions relevant to historical inquiry. He first noted a number of possible absolute presuppositions (including historical agency and causality) before asking whether such presuppositions were everywhere and for everyone always the same, or whether they were subject to change. Connelly’s paper was lively, clear and engaging and was followed by an interesting discussion that explored many aspects of the talk. For non-specialists, perhaps the most accessible route into Collingwood’s thinking here is R.G. Collingwood: An Autobiography, a new edition of which was published in November 2013 (Oxford, OUP).

Claire