1 The Philosophy of History: Talks Given at the Institute of Historical Research, London, 2000-2006. Edited by Alexander Lyon Macfie. Pp. xii, 256. Basingstoke and New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2006, $84.95.
REVIEW ESSAY ON THE PHILOSOPHY OF HISTORY
Article first published online: 16 FEB 2009
© The author 2009. Journal compilation © Trustees for Roman Catholic Purposes Registered 2009
The Heythrop Journal
Volume 50, Issue 2, pages 299–303, March 2009
How to Cite
MEYNELL, H. (2009), REVIEW ESSAY ON THE PHILOSOPHY OF HISTORY. The Heythrop Journal, 50: 299–303. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2265.2009.00452.x
- Issue published online: 16 FEB 2009
- Article first published online: 16 FEB 2009
I shall first give a summary of the contents of this stimulating but perfectly maddening collection1, and then make some comments.
In his Introduction, the editor cites the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy to the effect that the philosophy of history has two general concerns, to find some ‘metaphysical meaning’ in the sequence of past events; and, in a less high falutin' vein, to discover how one acquires or might acquire knowledge of what happened to human beings in the past. The former kind of inquiry is supposed to yield results of the kind exemplified by Christian theories of the work of providence in history, and by Hegelian and Marxist parodies or repristinizations of this. Both forms of philosophy of history appear to be in poor shape due to the assaults of postmodernism. The former has ‘all but collapsed’; while ‘objective, empirical, evidence-based, truth-seeking … history has survived – it may be supposed – only because (to use a not entirely appropriate metaphor) most of its practitioners, sturdily resistant to the findings of the postmodern critique, keeping their heads down in the trenches, have chosen to soldier on regardless’ (p. 1). What they are regardless of is the fact that their whole enterprise, of getting to know about past events, has apparently been shown to be impossible.
Eccy de Jonge writes of the place of history in Spinoza's metaphysics. One infers from this that, while we cannot gain from historical texts ideas necessary for human happiness, ‘a radical critique’ of them may assist us in bringing out ‘the types of human behaviour that we should seek to avoid if we want to flourish’ (p. 15). Spinoza is vividly aware of the different principles of interpretation which we must bring to bear on Scripture on the one hand, and on the other on a rigorously rational text such as Euclid's Elements (p. 21). ‘Did the French Revolutionaries have a philosophy of history?’ According to William Scott, both revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries thought that ideas were crucial in causing the Revolution, with the difference that one party found ‘modern philosophy’ progressive and emancipatory, the other negative or even nihilistic (p. 29). Revolutionaries often cited such classical authors as Democritus and Lucretius, whose doctrine that nothing existed but atoms and the void seemed to leave them an open field where possible and permissible human relationsips and interactions were concerned (p. 35). (One finds reflections of the same kind in the first generation of Chinese communists, when they were inveighing against what seemed to them the throttling social, moral and political restrictions of the Confucian tradition.)
Some critical reflections on Hegel's history of philosophy are presented by Robert M. Burns, which include a useful overview of Hegel's book on the subject (p. 50) (actually compiled from his writings by his son). Hegel's ‘astonishingly wide-ranging intelligence’ has made him tremendously influential, especially by way of provoking reactions against his way of thinking (p. 45). But this author reproaches Hegel for, among other things, his excessively flexible use of the (for him) laudatory term ‘Germanic’. When he wants to he can extend it to what is Italian because of the Ostrogoths and Lombards, and to what is French because of the Franks (p. 60). (It appears to me a great virtue of Hegel, as of Aristotle, that both thinkers felt an obligation to account for ways of thinking which differed from their own, as opposed to dismissing them, in the logical positivist manner, as so many brands of nonsense.) Leslie Armour examines the roots of the concept ‘civilization,’ and of its use as a historiographical tool. The term first emerged in the middle years of the eighteenth century, and seems at first to have ‘marked out societies manifesting civility and somehow different from other societies, said to be primitive and suitable for study by people who’ by the early nineteenth century ‘had come to be called “anthropologists”’ (p. 68). The notion of a ‘clash of civilizations’ has recently been put about by Samuel Huntington, whose ideas have been grist to the mill of those who are preoccupied by relations between Islam and the West. Others would suggest that ‘even the liberal notion of the West is a cover for a process that is reducing the whole world to a blandly uniform culture in which everyone's principal function is to consume the goods that mass manufacture can produce most efficiently, and that this efficiency is best served by obliterating as many differences between peoples as possible’ (p. 66). Armour concludes, I should say wisely, that ‘(m)ost civilizations, however defined – whether as clusters of cultures animated by common ideas, communities united by a common set of values or societies dependent on a common technology – prove, when examined closely, to be lacking in the degree of separateness and cohesion that would be necessary to identify them as independent entities’ (p. 63).
The place of time in R. G. Collingwood's thought is discussed by Michael J. O'Neill. He makes a contrast between Heidegger's explicit use of the notion of temporality in Being and Time, and Collingwood's rather coy approach to the subject; and examines the use by Collingwood of the work of Samuel Alexander, for whom physics was a historical science, to clarify his own distinction between history and physics, which does not involve the issue of temporality (p. 84). Ellen O'Gorman cites a number of classical and other writers – Lucretius, Cicero, Virgil, Petrarch, Chesterton and Auerbach – to the effect that while the past cannot be recovered as such, it ‘nevertheless can be summoned back through the discourse of remembrance’; and that the historian, through ‘empathetic projection’ into the past, can draw the reader into useful and stimulating consideration of what might have been, and what might not have been (p. 102). The topic of transcendental history and the early Foucault is broached by Beatrice Han-Pile. She asks whether Foucault was ‘mainly a historian concerned with historical method, or a philosopher, concerned with the meta-question of how the conditions of knowledge/truth arise in a given culture?’ She answers that Foucault was a philosopher as well as a historian, attempting as he did, in The Order of Things, to historicize Kant's a priori, and to ‘define the conditions to which statements must conform in order to count as knowledge in a specific culture at a given time’ (p. 118). Han-Pile concludes her study by suggesting that ‘the real thrust of his work is … directed both at empiricism and at any form of philosophy that would claim that it is possible to identify ultimate transcendental constraints from a detached standpoint’ (p. 134).
Keith Jenkins is a leading exponent of the postmodern approach to the philosophy of history, and argues here that we should more or less abandon not only large-scale conceptions of history in the manner of Hegel and Marx, and traditional academic history, but history as such. He follows the lead of Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, Rorty and others, and infers from their writings the conclusion that ‘it is not possible to discover anything in the world that provides a firm foundation for thought, nor is it possible to identify essence and reality’ (p. 138). Postmodernist notions are applied to the politics of historiography by Oliver Daddow. He complains that, though large-scale theories of history have largely been abandoned, ordinary historical inquiries have remained largely unscathed. Decision-makers, as he sees it, should have pointed out to them the inadequacy and unreliability of the historical ‘knowledge’ that they may otherwise be tempted to employ for their own ends. He declares, no doubt correctly, that ‘the lessons of history are no more straightforward to identify and put into practice than are new developments in science and technology’ (p. 155)
In a piece significantly entitled ‘Detachment Dispatch'd: History as Poetics’, Beverley Southgate urges that, in future, historians should ‘abandon the absurd pretence that it is possible to remain objective and opt instead for an approach that reveals to the reader the full extent of their own personal involvement.’ This is not merely because true detachment is obviously impossible, but because, as Nietzsche warned, one may become dehumanized by the very attempt to pursue such a bogus ideal (p. 173). In one of the most sensible contributions to this volume, it is argued by James Connelly that postmodern critics of traditional history are, by and large, in error, through mistaking ‘a partial inability to describe the past accurately for a total inability to do so’. In so arguing, he takes to task such authors as Hayden White – something of a founding father of the postmodern movement of anti-historians – Keith Jenkins, Frank Ankersmit, and Alun Munslow. These writers maintain that historical truth is unattainable; that the past is gone for ever, so our statements cannot properly be said to correspond to it; and that language is self-referential, and so cannot be used to describe the past (or anything else?). In his counter-attack on behalf of history, Connelly fastens especially on these two last claims (p. 187). Mary Fulbrook will have it, that though all historical accounts are inevitably theoretical, it remains that some such accounts are preferable to others. The object of her contribution is ‘to enquire if history is capable of describing “what really happened” in the past, and discovering “how it really was”’ (p. 201). (I am suspicious of quotation marks in these contexts, redolent as they are of ambiguity and underlying confusion. As the author is a specialist in the history of twentieth-century Germany, she has some reason to follow her argument closely. A consistent postmodernist meta-historian, I take it, would have to say that it was an unanswerable question whether the holocaust really happened, or whether there was actually a Führer named Adolf Hitler.)
The editor follows this up with an essay on the paradoxes of ‘orientalism’. Edward Said's book on the subject has made an enormous impact on a wide range of disciplines. As Said saw the matter, the European myth of ‘orientalism’, which goes back to Aeschylus and beyond, ‘effectively created the Orient as Europe's (the West's) essential Other’, and the Oriental was seen as being ‘irrational, inferior, backward, inauthentic and feminine’. The resulting racism may be seen to have been an effective pretext for later imperialism, colonialism, and other forms of exploitation (p. 213). A leading position in the world of British historians, as an historical sceptic, has been established by Alun Munslow; who has contributed to this volume an essay on the theory and practice of the criticism of biography and history. Munslow ‘believes that historical narrative is not usually (italics added by reviewer) a record of what happened in the past but an unstable meaning-making system of representation that tries, but invariably fails, to inject order into the chaos of the past’ (p. 226). (By what token and by what means, one wonders, does it ever manage to describe what actually happened, on Munslow's view?) He goes on to describe biographies which display the kind of self-consciousness on the part of the author that he wishes to encourage (pp. 226–7). A propos Werner Heisenberg's intentions in visiting Niels Bohr in 1941, Michael Frayn remarked: ‘Thoughts and intentions, even one's own – perhaps one's own most of all – remain shifting and elusive. There is not one single thought or intention of any sort that can ever be precisely established.’ In ‘Getting inside Heisenberg's Head’, Ray Monk argues to the contrary, in the teeth of postmodernist disclaimers, that one may in principle determine what an agent meant in acting as she did, given evidence that is sufficiently clear and abundant (p. 237).
The underlying assumption of many of these authors seems to be that, in order properly speaking to ‘know’ a fact or event, we must directly ‘confront’ it, as perhaps we may be said to do our laundry bills or our angry neighbour, in the here and now or the immediate future. Does not such an unreasonable stipulation invalidate virtually all our knowledge-claims, and not merely historical ones, but those of common sense, science, and about the thoughts and feelings of other people? The crucial point seems to me to be this. To know that a fact is the case, or that an event is occurring or has occurred, in the vast majority of cases, an act of constructive intelligence is necessary. This is most obvious in three kinds of case, the thoughts and feelings of other people, the deliverances of theoretical science, and the facts and events of the past. To get to know them, it is of no use our just staring at the relevant data; we have in addition creatively to hypothesize, and to judge that some hypothesis is certainly or probably true as accounting best for the data. Some hypotheses – like that Horatio Nelson died peacefully of old age in Norfolk, or that the phlogiston theory of combustion is true, or that the old lady who lives opposite you is plotting to murder Gordon Brown – turn out to be falsified by the available evidence, their contradictories corroborated by it. Such, according to the true, or ‘critical realist’, theory of knowledge, is what it is to get to know that facts are or have been the case, that events are occurring or have occurred.
‘But we're not absolutely certain on these matters, as we are that our immediate present material environment is as it is here and now; as I am that I am working at my computer here and now, or that there is a printer within ten feet of me.’ But why fly in the face of ordinary usage, by restricting ‘knowledge’ with such a requirement? In the ordinary sense of ‘know’, we can know perfectly well that our aunt is feeling angry with us, or believes that the plays attributed to William Shakespeare were written by Francis Bacon; that Darwin's theory of the origin of species is true; that Alexander the Great fought battles in India. The sort of generalized historical skepticism which is affected by many of these authors, in other words, is founded on nothing better than erroneous beliefs about the nature of knowledge, and consequent bogus assumptions about what is to count as ‘knowledge’.
Why assume that authors like Foucault and Derrida are in the main right, when it can easily be shown that, though brilliant to be sure, they are thoroughly wrong in many respects? Derrida once remarked that sawing off the branch on which one is sitting is a perfectly feasible manouevre. But perhaps a better analogy is with the intending mass-murderer, who inadvertently shoots himself before turning his attention to his victims. What has to borne in mind is the irrefragability of the principle of sufficient reason. It is not unfair to ask a Derridean, when she makes a judgment, what is the justification for it. (Quod gratis affirmatur, gratis negatur.) If she gives sufficient reason for her statement, she seems to be committing herself to the principle that one tends to get at the truth by providing justification for one's statements. If she does not, what is the point of paying attention to her? Derrida in effect sidesteps this principle, by making all his judgments in a jokey style, so that it seems tactless to hold him to them. As to Foucault, he has provided effective criticism of many authorities as believing what they do about insanity, sexuality, punishment, imprisonment, and so on, as a means of exerting power over those who are different from themselves. But he never, so far as I am acquainted with his writings, provides any reason for thinking that just the same does not apply to his own criticisms as to the work of those whom he is criticizing.
It surprises me that the following sort of argument, of the kind that G. E. Moore deployed against the idealist philosophers of his time, does not seem to have occurred to the authors of this school. If their arguments were sound, and their claims correct, we would not know that Horatio Nelson died at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. But we do know that Nelson died at that battle. Therefore it is not the case that their arguments are sound, and their claims correct. This argument, a classical example of modus tollens, is watertight. How do we know this, and many thousands of similar facts, about the past? Following a hint in Plato's Theaetetus, we may say that we know them in that we believe them truly, and have grounds for our belief. For Nelson not to have died at Trafalgar, an enormous amount of presently-available evidence bearing on the matter would have to be other than it is. ‘But’, it may be objected, ‘at a distance of over two centuries, we cannot directly confront the event in question.’ But who, unless she is a naïve realist, is going to insist that we must be able to do so if we are really to know it?
How does the criterion, that we cannot know what is false, operate in practice? Suppose that there is some event in the past, let us call it X, which seems at present as well-established as Nelson's death at Trafalgar in 1805, but which subsequent research shows (almost certainly) not to have been the case. (Absolute certainty is to be sought for no more in history than in science or in ordinary matters of fact.) We would not say, ‘We used to know X, but no longer do so’; we would say rather, ‘We used to believe we knew X for a fact, but we were wrong.’ (We might perhaps say, ‘We used to “know” X’; but the quotation marks would be significant.)
Some obvious implications of what many of these authors say, and to which they never seem to attend, fill this reviewer with horror. While I was working on this review, I was staying with some friends who owned a television, and I saw two programs on the topic of people who had been falsely accused of murder, but had ultimately been vindicated as innocent by the devoted labours of lawyers. If authors of this school were correct, all such activities would be pointless, as we cannot get to know about the past in any case. In Power/Knowledge, Foucault writes something that seems to me peculiarly shocking, but is only too consistent with his principles. He mentions how, at the end of the Second World War, little courts were set up, with minimum paraphernalia – a desk, a couple of chairs, and writing-materials – to find out whether people who were accused of collaboration with the Nazis were guilty or not. Foucault says that such individuals should just have been left to the spontaneous wrath of the people. Now shortly before I read that passage, I had heard about some heroic young women who were in fact working for the Resistance, but were using as their cover being waitresses at a pub frequented by Nazis. They all but suffered the indignity of having their heads shaved; but the truth came out at the last moment.
That objectivity is impossible is rubbish, and pernicious rubbish at that, as is indicated by the example that I have just cited. ‘Genuine objectivity’, wrote Lonergan, ‘is the fruit of authentic subjectivity’; it is not a matter of just staring at what is out there to be stared at. One may be ‘objective’ by deliberately attending to evidence, or envisaging possibilities, which run counter to one's own prejudices, or those of one's political superiors or paymasters. It is such ‘objectivity’ to which are due not only the marvels of the natural sciences, but also the correction of injustices, as when people are at last released from prison for murders which they did not commit. Darwin kept a special notebook in which he jotted down evidence which appeared to tell against his own theories; in this he displayed the objectivity which made him the great scientist that he was. It may be objected that reductio ad horrendum is not the same as reductio ad absurdum. While the truth, however, may have horrifying consequences, at least one ought not to sit down too easily or complacently under them. One ought not to wish it to be the case, that all attempts to rectify injustice, which involve a more accurate knowledge of the past, are pointless. And in fact, epistemological principles are available which do not have these consequences, as I have been trying briefly to show.
Keith Jenkins will have it that it is not possible to ‘identify essence and reality’ (p. 138). Well, here goes. That it is a compound of hydrogen and oxygen is the nature and essence of water; that is to say, sustained inquiry into what water is, corroborated by a vast mount of empirical evidence, goes to confirm that it is so. Reality is nothing other than what we tend to come to know so far as we are unrestrictedly attentive to experience; intelligent in thinking up possibilities which might account for it; and reasonable in preferring in each case the possibility which does best account for that experience. Thus we are able after all ‘to identify ultimate transcendental constraints from a detached standpoint’ (p. 134), and to discover something in the world that provides a firm foundation for thought (p. 138). Strange as this may seem to postmodernists, some people may strive, by being as attentive, intelligent and reasonable as possible, to know the truth just as such, though self-deception on the matter, as is evident, is perilously easy.
I admit that earlier practitioners of the craft of history, prior to the postmodernist critique, were generally operating with inadequate, inarticulate, and largely presupposed epistemologies. What is needed is merely a spelling-out of the correct one. It is to be concluded that the postmodernist attack on the philosophy of history, and on history itself, can be countered by appeal to the epistemological principles which I have sketched; that ‘objective, empirical, evidence-based, truth-seeking’ history is after all possible; while the viability of ‘speculative or substantive’ philosophy of history is moot. Couldn't it amount to a kind of synthesis or Aufhebung of Hegelian, liberal and Marxist approaches, which turned out to be more or less indistinguishable from recognition of the realization of the Kingdom of God as history's ultimate purpose and culmination?