Empathy in Historical Studies

The next event in the Futures of History seminar series (Centre for the Philosophy of History) will be:

Dr Tyson Retz

The History and Function of Empathy in Historical Studies: re-enactment and hermeneutics

Wednesday 18 January 2017

St Mary’s University, Twickenham

Senior Common Room:  2– 4pm.

In this paper Dr Retz explains the link between empathy, the history discipline, the philosophy of history and history education. He examines the concept’s basis in German historicism and R.G. Collingwood’s philosophy of history, as well as considering its legacy in twentieth-century hermeneutics. The conjunction of Collingwood and Gadamer on the importance of question-and-answer logic is offered as illuminating the historical context that empathetic understanding should attempt to identify.  

About the speaker:

Dr Tyson Retz received his PhD from the University of Melbourne in 2016. His current research takes German historicism and its methods as a basis for examining the development of French historical thought and writing in the first half of the nineteenth century. 

This is a free event and all are welcome. As usual there will be homemade cakes and plenty of time for discussion.

For more information please email mark.donnelly@stmarys.ac.uk or claire.norton@stmarys.ac.uk

We hope to see you there for what we are sure will be a stimulating discussion.

‘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.

History and Heritage Institutions: a mini-symposium


The next ‘Futures of History’ research seminar takes place at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, London on Wednesday 20 May 2015.  It will be held at 2.00 pm in the Senior Common Room (finishing around 4.30 pm)

There will be two papers:

  • Helen Bendon (Middlesex University) will talk on ‘Multiple Perspectives in Museum Settings’

Working in lens-based and locative media, Helen’s practice is anchored around the position and telling of marginal stories. She has worked recently with the RAF Museum on the Raising of the Dornier 17 project (http://rafmuseum.mdx.ac.uk/dornier17/) and is about to launch an App for Alexandra Palace Trust entitled Time Stands Still, a locative audio app exploring the little known narratives around Ally Pally’s use as a prison camp during WWI.

  • Andy Pearce (UCL, Institute of Education) will talk on ‘The Holocaust in Britain’s historical culture’

Andy has worked for the Holocaust Educational Trust, authored the Wiener Library’s travelling exhibition Never Again? Thinking about the Holocaust, and assisted the Imperial War Museum in the curation of its Moscati Collection. His monograph Holocaust  Consciousness in Contemporary Britain (2014) is published by Routledge.
The papers will be followed by an informal discussion and home-made cake.

There will also be a  virtual Dornier 17 on the St Mary’s Campus on the 20th that will be viewable via I-Pad/phone see here for more details

All are welcome. No need to register. But please do let Mark Donnelly or Claire Norton know if you intend to come so that we can organise sufficient catering.

Image taken from http://rafmuseum.mdx.ac.uk/dornier17/ (last accessed 11/05/15)

Copyright © 2013 RAF Museum and redLoop: the Middlesex University Design and Innovation Centre. All Rights Reserved.

Disobedient Objects and Counterpower at the V&A Museum


Are museums, the sites where objects ‘come to die’, capable of helping us to think critically about our current politics? If Martin Davies is right they cannot. He reads them as part of a network of public institutions that use historicization to stop us thinking for ourselves while they get on with the business of replicating and reproducing the political and social status quo. ‘Museums’, argued Davies in Imprisoned by History, ‘ultimately infantilize public attitudes…They invite everyone to subordinate themselves to their historicized conception of reality…museums are just another coercive public agency which “does our thinking for us”’. London’s V&A museum is a prime example of Davies’s argument about how history-focused institutions bind political and economic values together. From its opening in the 1850s the museum fused the activities of design, manufacturing and British imperialism. Now advertising itself as ‘the world’s greatest museum of art and design’, the V&A has dealt almost exclusively with objects of elite production and commodification. Its politics of knowledge usually acquiesce in the reproduction of a common sense that suits dominant interests, including one would imagine those of its own corporate sponsors. As the custodian of a public space that is integral to Britain’s tourism, heritage work and education, the V&A is a very ‘obedient’ institution.











Over the past six months, however, the V&A’s Disobedient Objects exhibition, which closed last week, sought to turn part of the museum into a different kind of public space. In the words of its curators Catherine Flood and Gavin Grindon, Disobedient Objects was a project ‘both within and against’ the V&A. The free-to-enter exhibition showed how political and social justice activists often use low-tech, improvised and subversive design ideas as instruments of struggle against dominant power. Maybe one way in which the exhibition was ‘against’ the V&A was its staging in the museum’s Porter Gallery, which was built with the support of Dame Shirley Porter – best known in the UK as the Conservative leader of Westminster Council at the time of the ‘homes for votes’ scandal. Or perhaps this was an example of what Marcuse called ‘repressive tolerance’. We might also note here that the coalition government, which has frequently encouraged a hard line against the kind of popular dissent represented in Disobedient Objects, effectively provided the insurance cover that allowed the exhibition to take place. This having been said, the exhibition was a departure from V&A’s usual choice of subjects. In contrast to the elitist aesthetics displayed throughout the rest of the museum, Disobedient Objects featured makeshift tear-gas masks, dollar bills defaced with slogans about hyper-inequality, textiles that bear witness to political murder, lock-on arm tubes used by protesters to make human blockades, and other examples of material culture’s role in the production of counterpower. The sparse design aesthetics of the exhibition space amplified its political stance, with its recycled chipboard display mounts bolted on to aluminium poles recalling the low-cost functionalism of an Occupy camp. According to Flood and Grindon the objects they chose for display were ‘disobedient’ in the sense that their original use constituted a micro-politics of everyday resistance – acts that often pre-dated the formation of a recognizably ‘activist’ subjectivity by their users. The politics of this everyday resistance were invariably directed towards the goals of leftist social movements from the late 1970s onwards: countering climate change, resisting colonialism, extending gender rights, opposing the damaging ways in which global capitalism reshapes people’s relations to work, leisure, technology and culture. In that sense the exhibition took few political risks, its content going with the grain of mainstream liberal political values. The material cultures of far-right and neo-conservative protest groups were excluded from the exhibition, ostensibly on the grounds that their campaigns tend to target minorities rather than authorities. So there was no reference to Greece’s Golden Dawn, for example, Germany’s Pegida movement or the English Defence League. And objects of Palestinian resistance were only a marginal feature of the exhibition’s representational strategy. These exclusions can be fairly criticised, but they were not necessarily fatal to the realisation of Disobedient Objects cultural-political ambitions.











Flood and Grindon of course understand that representation is political and that the politics of representation are contested. In an attempt to democratise their own curatorial process they consulted widely and ran workshops before selecting which objects to include as representations. They ensured that social movement activists who lent them objects could display their own statements about what they had donated (written on yellow labels which appeared alongside the grey labels used for the curators’ comments). They provided wall space for groups who weren’t represented in the exhibition to display some of their campaign materials – over the next few months a sprawling collection of stickers, posters, flyers, post-it notes and graffiti filled and over-spilled onto an adjoining wall and across part of the floor. More important than the ethical working methods of its curators was the fact that the exhibition had some practical value for activists. On the day after the Hong Kong police tear gassed pro-democracy demonstrators in September 2014, for example, there was a spike in the number of downloads from the Disobedient Objects website featuring instructions on how to make a gas mask out of a plastic bottle and dust mask. And when the Public and Commercial Services Union used the exhibition as a space to put pressure on the V&A management to pay employees a living wage, those managers did at least agree to attend pay talks with the union.











Perhaps in such small but worthwhile ways Disobedient Objects showed how, as Chantal Mouffe’s argued, museums can be ‘transformed into agonistic public spaces where …hegemony is openly contested’. Educational and cultural sites are critical to the formation of subjectivities, and this exhibition presented a public discourse about counterpower around which socio-political subjectivities might be formed and reworked. Yes, we know the arguments about how capital reclaims dissidence for itself, and how liberal spectators who visited Disobedient Objects might have seen the exhibition as something that performed their anti-capitalism for them as they enjoyed its spectacle. And yes, the commodification of dissent in the form of exhibition-related merchandising looked all too ‘obedient’. Even worse, as visitors exited the space they were met with an urgent appeal for funds. Was this money to be used to make a symbolic gesture of solidarity with the indignados, sweatshop workers and various other victims of what Mark Fisher calls ‘capitalist realism’ that they had just been looking at? No, it was to help the V&A raise funds to buy the Wolsey Angels, four Renaissance statues that were intended for Cardinal Wolsey’s tomb, but which had been seized by Henry VIII, sold, separated and eventually lost. Hilary Mantel described the recovery of the angels as ‘one of those miracles that historians pray for.’ Disobedient Objects was a least a reminder that there are better miracles than that for historians and everyone else to hope for.


On Truth, or do we need a pragmatist philosophy of history?

The final paper of the current series, delivered at the IHR on the 4th December by Marek Tamm (Associate Professor of Cultural History, Tallinn University, Estonia).


Marek Tamm’s paper, ‘On Truth, or do we need a pragmatist philosophy of history?’, was to be taken, he explained, as an explanatory supplement to some of his arguments as laid out in an earlier paper, ‘Truth, Objectivity and Evidence in History Writing’, which had been made available to the evening’s attendees a week or so prior to the seminar. Accordingly, in this very brief review I shall attempt a broad sweep of his whole argument as articulated across both papers.

The central thrust of Tamm’s argument, then, is directed towards the establishment of a performativity[1] based pragmatist philosophy of history resting on what strikes me as a curiously itinerant relative notion of “truth”. That is to say, a notion of a non-absolute truth (isn’t this an oxymoron?) which must surely be forever on-the-move since it is obliged to keep pace with a shifting ‘disciplinary consensus as to methods of inquiry, cognitive values and epistemic virtues’[2] on which, apparently, it depends. Moreover, this is a notion of truth that is ‘”guaranteed” by fellow historians’[3] through what Tamm describes as a ‘truth pact’ between historians’ and their readers. A truth pact founded on, for instance, an explicit understanding by the reader of a history text that its author, the historian, when writing it, intended to sincerely and professionally tell the truth – not least through the rigorous application of the disciplinary consensus just mentioned – and that the historian should thus be trusted or be given, as it were, the benefit of the doubt on matters of truth in history writing. In addition to the foregoing, Tamm also claims to have established ‘a clear connection between truth and proof in history writing [by] arguing that the “truth pact” is grounded in a critical analysis of the available evidence’[4].

Now, while Tamm’s exposition on pragmatism was well informed and interesting, I remain hugely sceptical about his underlying position as (accurately, I hope) sketched above. And it was clear from the at times animated reception of Tamm’s paper, particularly with regard to his specific take on “truth”, that I can safely assume that some of my own doubts were equally shared with a number of those present. Although I should just point out in Tamm’s defence, even though I find the following consideration at odds with his overall position as stated, that during the after-paper debate he did make it clear that his truth claims were not, after all, based on any proposed direct relation between text and past but, rather, on that between text and disciplinary consensus[5].

But is Tamm’s primacy of this particular relational strategy actually observed throughout his own text? For instance, I fully understand that Tamm’s idiosyncratic style of truth claim with respect to history writing, a claim that rests solely on an “internal relation” between text and disciplinary consensus (as just noted), could not address truth claims regarding the actuality of the past itself or of its supposed meaning. Yet the quotation occupying the last two lines of paragraph two above suggests that Tamm is actually able to establish ‘truth and proof in history writing’ through the agency of a truth pact grounded by way of critical evaluation of evidence. And the idea of a provable, grounded in evidence truth seems to imply some sort of definitive claim on the past, albeit a claim resting on that always problematic notion of ‘a grounding in evidence’, and thus it cannot be of the same kind as the aforementioned internally circulating relational truth claim which Tamm sets up between the text on the one side and a regulating, institutionalised consensus on the other. So, how can these apparently conflicting statements and their associated truths be reconciled?

One might also reasonably question how it is that Tamm’s theory can really be legitimated as a ‘philosophy of history’ when it rejects all interest in the investigation of putative relations between the history text and the actuality of the past, that particular interest being, I believe, a central concern for probably all historians and most theorists of history as well?

However, and to end this review on a more positive note, it has to be said that Marek Tamm’s paper attracted a larger than average attendance and, as intimated above, it also provoked an unusually lively and engrossing post-paper debate which, running late as usual, finally brought this current series of IHR seminars to a close.

Peter P Icke


[1] Marek Tamm’s interest is in the doing of history; in the practical and the performative aspects of historians’ efforts.

[2] ‘Truth, Objectivity and Evidence in History Writing’, Journal of the Philosophy of History, 8 (2014), p265.

[3] Ibid, p265.

[4] Ibid, p265

[5] It might not have crossed Tamm’s mind that the construction ‘disciplinary consensus’ is not an adequate description since it has the effect of covering over and thus losing sight of the underlying operating mode and purpose of a dominant discourse.

‘Impossible Histories: Derrida, the (Re)turn of Religion in Cultural Criticism, and Messianic Historical Theory’

A paper delivered on the 6th November at the Institute of Historical Research by Mark Mason (Deputy Dean, University of Chichester) and reviewed here by Peter P Icke.


Mark Mason’s brilliant, lucid and (considering the demanding nature of its subject matter) remarkably accessible paper, ‘Impossible Histories: etc.’, drew upon the conceptual resources of ‘the (re)turn to/of religion’ as expressed in recent cultural criticism and, in particular, upon its focus on Derridean deconstruction. Or, to put that differently, deconstruction as it equates to the messianic[i] motif in Derrida’s work and the manner in which that motif can be seen to destabilise all historicisations. At bottom, I think that this paper might best be grasped as a singular, uniquely argued and, indeed, damaging critique of ‘historical representations’ as variously circulated in our current cultures, complimented with the suggestion of a positive ‘way forward’ shaped in the form of an appeal for a more overtly self-critical, reflexive mode in its theorisation. That is to say, a suggested style of theorisation which explicitly recognises, foregrounds and affirms the ‘im-possible’ condition of all historical (re)presentations[ii], both in their unavoidable epistemological failures to determine ‘what is to come’ (argued here as a very good thing) and in their, let us say, conspicuous or even wanton over-production generated through the agency of a ‘history machine’ which is simply not configured to reflect on its own condition of im-possibility. And, seen in this way, Mason’s overall argument constitutes a move towards a (messianic) renewal in history rather than a move towards a rejection/extinction of it.

Now, in such a brief review as this I cannot expand on the multiplicity of concepts indicated above and, accordingly, I direct the reader to Mason’s ‘Deconstructing History’[iii] and his ‘Exploring The Impossible’[iv] for an account of the messianic and its implicit notion of ‘openness to the other’  in Derridean deconstruction. I would, nevertheless, highlight here a central and important strand of Derridean thought, an imperative, which informed to some substantial degree the argument presented. And I refer to Derrida’s urgent demand to keep the future open through the rejection of all ‘discourses of closure’ which, to the obvious distress of some of those attending the presentation, would include pretty much all of history as currently practiced. For the doing of history, notwithstanding historians’ best efforts to claim otherwise, is a goal seeking, teleological enterprise driven by the desire for truth-at-the-end-of-enquiry. The point here being that notwithstanding historians’ acknowledgements of history’s incompleteness, their magnanimous embrace and incorporation of plurality, their understanding and agreement that its arguments might be subject to revision and so on and so forth, it still remains the case that historians’ very evident collective purpose/desire is to eventually, and against all the odds, get at the “truth of the past” and tie it down, fix it once and for all. And that’s closure.

Borrowing for a moment here something of a supplement to that previous point which I draw from Keith Jenkins’ essay, ‘Sande Cohen: on the verge of newness’, where, in the course of reviewing Cohen’s History Out of Joint, Jenkins notes Cohen’s observation that historical writing/narration has, right across the discipline, become very much a war amongst ‘claimants’ – claimants who each seek to legitimate their own individual, contentious, present interests through their respective attempts at narrative closures –  and further that, with all of this in mind, the central thesis of Cohen’s book may now be stated thus: ‘that narrative historicisations aim to prevent the appearance of new claimants on the future’[v].  And, of course, such attempts to close down the future through ideologically positioned ‘fixes’ in the present make no concessions whatsoever to that urgent Derridean ‘imperative’ mentioned above.

To close this short review, then, a summing-up, or rather a summing-up of a summing-up which necessarily carries along with it all sorts of risks. But here it is anyway.

So, the central message advanced and defended by Mark Mason might be boiled down to this; that all historical (re)presentations are already ‘marked for failure’ and that it might just be worthwhile to explore what it means to rethink historical (re)presentation and its theorisation as emancipatory in the messianic sense outlined by Derrida. Or, to spin that around and into the interrogative, what would be the implications of theorising histories as ‘messianic and emancipatory promises’, endlessly subject to failures which would in themselves help to both affirm and maintain the opening of a non-determinable future? That, I think, is the crucial question addressed in this paper.

Peter P Icke

[i] I should make it clear that Derrida’s use of the word ‘messianic’ does not signify a space that belongs to any determinate Abrahamic religion. Put simply, it concerns a performative notion of faith – the ‘believe me’ or, for Derrida, ‘the promise’ which launches any discourse and which, in a sense, can be taken as that discourse’s absolute presupposition(s). This, then, the performative dimension of the promise, is embedded in and rests on the messianic or, better still, the messianic structure that belongs to all language.

[ii] Just a short explanation for the bracketed (re) in (re)presentation as follows: History, articulated through the medium of narrative, merely “presents”. Strictly speaking it can’t “represent”, it can’t be a representation because a representation presupposes a represented and in the case of history there is no perceivable represented available since the past is dead and gone. The very notion of a represented, a supposed concrete referent exterior to the historians text, is an illusory reality effect generated within history’s characteristically narrative medium of transmission or exchange. It’s the product of a style of figurative internal circularity that has no linkage outside its own discourse and this notation, this (re), signals that problematic. To neatly sum-up this point one might say, following Roland Barthes (in spirit at least), that a ‘crafty’ operation is in play here, a scarcely noticed operation which collapses the putative referent into the signified.

[iii]Mary Caputi and Vincent J. Del Casino Jr. (Eds.), Derrida and the Future of the Liberal Arts: Professions of Faith. Bloomsbury (2013), pp93-121.

[iv] Mark Mason, ‘Exploring the Impossible – Jacques Derrida, John Caputo and the Philosophy of History’, Rethinking History, Routledge, No.4 (2006), pp 501-522.

[v] Keith Jenkins, At the Limits of History: Essays on Theory and Practice, Routledge (2009), p283.

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