Engraving by Arthur Pond, based on Panini's St Paul Preaching at Athens

Engraving by Arthur Pond, based on Panini's St Paul Preaching at Athens

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Bloch and Merleau-Ponty: a note on the past and history

One of the standard characteristics of contemporary historiography is its object: the past. Yet this "object" has been notoriously difficult to grasp. Take the reflections of the historian Marc Bloch and the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty on this point.

In The Historian's Craft Bloch observes that "the very idea that the past as such can be the object of science is ridiculous. How, without preliminary distillation, can one make of phenomena, having no other common character than that of being not contemporary with us, the matter of rational knowledge?" In the Phenomenology of Perception Merleau-Ponty argues that "reflection does not itself grasp its full significance unless it refers to the unreflective fund of experience which it presupposes, upon which it draws, and which constitutes for it a kind of original past, a past which has never been present." Both writers, then, find a gap between the past as such and the mediation of the past in the present. To Michel de Certeau in The Writing of History, modern western historiography "begins with the differentiation between the present and the past".

Bloch goes on to suggest a way beyond the existential impasse. For him change is the matter which the historian seeks to grasp, change in the human element of the past. He continues, however by observing that in "the film which [the historian] is examining, only the last picture remains quite clear." In the wake of twentieth-century continental philosophy, which has focused in part on the nature of temporality, this metaphor seems to miss the mark. For, as Bloch perceptively notes, change presupposes some form of background continuity. We might well wonder if the recently past is in fact any clearer to us than that which preceded it simply because of its temporal proximity.

One possible solution to Bloch's problem can be found in Merleau-Ponty's work. The "original past" of which Merleau-Ponty speaks is an "unreflective fund of experience" presupposed by phenomenological reflection. In the same way that the unreflective fund of experience of the primordial past is presupposed in phenomenological reflection, so too is the horizon of experience that constitutes the unity of the subject or object of experience. According to Merleau-Ponty we find this presupposed primordial layer by reflecting on the assumption in the background of the things and ideas which come to being. In order bring this primordial layer of being to our awareness he analyzes the various modes of perception. So it is in the case of vision, for example, that our embodied gaze, our localized fixation upon a specific situation, distinct from the totality of perception as an unintelligible spectacle, is realized through an intentional or directional act. In other words, recognition in sight is realized through the common cause of our natural vision with an intentional gaze. Merleau-Ponty goes on to suggest that this bodily attunement or reverberation to the primordial is what enables any sort of signification to occur at all. And this attunement he calls a temporal synthesis.

When he shifts from the primary past in general to our personal existence Merleau-Ponty finds a similarly primordial background in what he calls the "prehistory" presupposed in human action. On this level the coexistence of things in space are present to the perceiving subject and "enveloped in one and the same temporal wave." This wave necessarily entails a preceding and succeeding wave or temporal pulse which presupposes the production and retention of succeeding and preceding waves. In short, "[t]he lived present holds a past and a future within its thickness." These temporal horizons, which only subjectivity can unite through an intentional synthesis, enable things and instants to link up and form a world since the objective time of the earth is presupposed by and in the projection of the historical time of the world. But this historical time leaves an impression that the world is somehow outside us, for the temporal and finite perspective of man seems to presuppose a world beyond my visual field and a past beyond my present. This finitude, Merleau-Ponty contends, corresponds to a certain inherence of consciousness of a body in a world, an inherence which is my particular, incarnate perspective in the world.

The ambiguous presence of the past as a presupposed field is the background against which the whole temporal cycle is opened up through the expression of new intentions in speech or action; an acquired past in the present is directed towards a possible future. In this way the past is always carried forward with us as an ambiguous presence, more or less opaque as it is more or less consciously taken up; and Merleau-Ponty claims that through recollection we may, so to speak, "reopen time", by re-considering a moment whose horizon is now closed. The living present opens upon a past. It similarly opens onto temporalities outside my personal living experience in a social direction, such that a collective history is taken up and carried forward in the same manner as a personal history.

Here we have one phenomenological answer to an existential question about temporality. Although this answer,  as I have summarized it, says rather little about the relationship between temporality and historiography, it does begin to offer a way of framing the transition from the one to the other.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Plutarch and the descent of history

Following up on my last post on Plutarch and historiography, I thought I would add another brief reflection. It is simply this: historiography, the writing of history, remains even today a prose genre. In a dialogue entitled Why Are Delphic Oracles No Longer Given in Verse?, Plutarch has one of his characters (Theon) outline the descent of history in terms of the history of speech:
Men began, very rightly, to accustom themselves to letting the elegance of moderation rival that of extravagance, and to treat the plain and simple as no less ornamental than the luxurious and elaborate. Speech too shared in the change, and set itself free. History descended from the chariot of metre, and prose became the mark that distinguished fact from fable. Philosophy came to prefer clear instruction to emotional impact and made her inquiries in plain prose.
In being prosaic history is here tied with philosophy in directing its efforts towards truth. It is of course questionable whether or not philosophy has ever consistently preferred clarity. Philosophers from Plato to Martin Heidegger, including Plutarch in dialogues such as Socrates' Daimonion, often used myth and poetry to convey the truth of their teachings. By contrast, historiography has, as per Aristotle's categorization, tended to shy away from intentionally embracing myth or poetry. It is also one of the kinds of markers by which Donald Kelley thinks (see Faces of History: From Herodotus to Herder, esp. chap. 1) western historiography constitutes a kind of retrospective intellectual tradition or canon.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Plutarch and the marvelous work of memory

Ironically, it can sometimes be difficult to remember that reflection on the relationship between memory, the past, and history is itself an ancient phenomenon:
Think of the marvelous work memory does in preserving and safeguarding the past – no, not the past, but the non-existent, since nothing in the past is or subsists, but everything comes to be and passes away in a moment! Deeds, words, events – the stream of time bears all away!
This quote comes from "Oracles in Decline", a dialogue by Plutarch (c. 46-120 AD) found in the catalogue of his work known as the Moralia.

Friday, May 03, 2013

History, Atheism, Community

I've got a new post up over at Patrol in which I reflect on what a popular blog post on atheism's history can tell us. Here's a taste:

Consider the brief “history” of atheism as outlined in a recent post by a member of an atheist group in Tucson, Arizona. Here history is construed as the presentation of facts across time; to tell the history of atheism quickly all that is required are the names, dates, and arguments of various figures presented in chronological form. Although the post raises questions about the certainty with which we can establish certain historical facts, what we get is a straightforward chronology and a series of minimally interpretive bullet-points. The purpose of the sketch seems to be to trace doubts about the divine throughout the whole of human history.

Read the rest here.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Performing Histories at MoMA

On a recent research trip to New York City I had the chance to visit the Museum of Modern Art and was pleasantly surprised to discover an exhibit called "Performing Histories". Particularly intriguing was the exhibition's exploration of how the past is realized in the present - in this case, through its performance in various artistic media.

Photo: Kenneth Sheppard.
"Exploring social and political conditions and reconsidering their own personal pasts, the participating artists in Performing Histories (1) have deconstructed histories, focusing on the ambiguity of history and the impact of ideologies on individual and collective consciousness. The installation guides the visitors through a space of diverse readings in which connections can be drawn across different perspectives on history. Examining history as both document and fiction, the exhibited works raise questions about how the past is constructed and how it can inform the present."
The "diverse readings" in the exhibit are often quite thought-provoking and include reflection derived from a variety of thinkers, not simply Jacques Derrida.