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.
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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.
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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.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Why I am a historian

Patheos asked its writers to finish the following sentence: "Why I am a ..." in 200 words or less. I'm going to give a few off-the-cuff answers for why I am a historian.

I am a historian because I found my undergraduate courses in physics less stimulating than my optional courses in history, philosophy, and political science. In my teens I was fascinated by Friederich Nietzsche and I wanted to pursue anthropology, sociology, or some related humanities subject at Red Deer College because of a good "social studies" teacher I had had at Hunting Hills High School.

I am a historian because I found intellectual history captivating and relevant. As an undergraduate I began to see how studying the past could help me situate myself in the present as the Anglophone Canadian son of evangelical Christians in the late twentieth, early twenty-first century.

On a more mundane level, becoming a historian was an opportunity for me to read, study, and write about figures and texts I had long wished to read, know, and understand. Literally grasping and reading early modern texts - at this moment I'm looking at Jean Le Clerc's De l'incrédulité (Amsterdam, 1696) in the rare book room of the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary - was more exciting than I thought was possible.

Photo: Kenneth Sheppard

Finally, I am a historian because I want to understand and explain the complex, contested, and convoluted way the past is realized in the present, not only by historians, but by politicians, citizens, and religious communities alike.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

American political debate and historical understanding

First, an overgeneralization. Since its professionalization in 19th-century Europe the discipline of history has been pulled towards the sciences and away from its traditional home in the arts. Neither of these longstanding pulls seems to have given way in recent years. Moreover, this tension has been complicated by the fact that professional historical methodologies have proliferated by borrowing the tools of other disciplines, including anthropology, sociology, literary theory, linguistics, geography, etc.

This brings me to a recent piece at Think Progress on how present-day American political debate "uses and abuses history", a phrase taken from an essay by Friedrich Nietzsche. I'm going to pass over Nietzsche in order to focus on the post's conclusion:
Both ideological sides use history for their own purposes often in legitimate and honest ways. But can we objectively determine who is doing better and worse when it comes to abusing history? Probably not. Progressives and conservatives could, however, agree to some criteria for evaluating the use of historical claims in our contemporary discourse. One, are these claims factually correct ? Two, are these claims fair interpretations of both past and current events and do they adequately account for competing evidence? Three, is the aim of these claims primarily to advance our understanding of the past and present or to advance an ideological agenda?
Dividing approaches to the past into the present-day political positions of "progressives" and "conservatives" is unfactual, unfair, and ideological. (See what I did there?) It is unfactual because such a categorization privileges contemporary normative American political experience at the expense of other, abnormal, non-liberal approaches to the past, making it both unfair and ideological as well.

Of course I'm being somewhat playful here. But what I mean to signal is that the very facts at issue in this formulation are themselves already embedded in a contestable ideological interpretation. Who decides what gets counted as a fact and which facts are relevant to the issue at hand? What does it mean to describe a given interpretation as fair, and who decides? What exactly does a non-ideological understanding of the past look like?

To my mind, addressing the use and abuse of history is a lot more challenging than establishing what amounts to a fairly narrow, present-day, bi-partisan political consensus, particularly when the given criteria for such a consensus raise fundamental problems about the nature of historical understanding.