Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Two Conceptions of History

‘One of the most remarkable characteristics of human nature,’ writes Lotze, ‘is, alongside so much selfishness in specific instances, the freedom from envy which the present displays toward the future.’ Reflection shows us that our image of happiness is thoroughly colored by the time to which the course of our own existence has assigned us. The kind of happiness that could arouse envy in us exists only in the air we have breathed, among people we could have talked to, women who could have given themselves to us. In other words, our image of happiness is indissolubly bound up with the image of redemption. The same applies to our view of the past, which is the concern of history. The past carries with it a temporal index by which it is referred to redemption. There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply. Historical materialists are aware of that.

--Walter Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History", 1940


The 'historian' adores the past; but the world today has perhaps less place for those who love the past than ever before. Indeed, it is determined not to allow events to remove themselves securely into the past; it is determined to keep them alive by a process of artificial respiration or (if need be) to recall them from the dead so that they may deliver their messages. For it wishes only to learn from the past and it constructs a 'living past' which repeats with spurious authority the utterances put into its mouth. But to the 'historian' this is a piece of obscene necromancy: the past he adores is dead. The world has neither love nor respect for what is dead, wishing only to recall it to life again. It deals with the past as with a man, expecting it to talk sense and having something to say apposite to its plebeian 'causes' and engagements. But for the 'historian,' for whom the past is dead and irreproachable, the past is feminine. He loves it as a mistress of whom he never tires and whom he never expects to talk sense. Once it was religion which stood in the way of the appearance of the 'historical' past; now it is politics; but always it is this practical disposition.

--Michael Oakeshott, "The Activity of Being an Historian," 1955


3 Comments:

Blogger Sebonde said...

Huh? What if the past were a woman?

9:01 PM  
Blogger Scantron said...

Yeah, we should notice that every time the feminine is employed metaphorically in historico-philosophical writing (Machiavelli, Nietzsche, and now Oakeshott!), the result is (un?)surprisingly sexist, but there is a whole lot more going on here as well. Specifically, I was surprised, in reading Oakeshott's essay (which is included in his "Rationalism in Politics and other Essays" collection), that he, who is usually so adamant about incorporating a 'practical' element into everyday activity (especially politics) should give history such a privileged, hermetically sealed disciplinary status. But perhaps he thinks 'history' is a method logically distinct from 'politics'; he was accustomed to separating epistemic categories in this way. Or perhaps he is simply unwilling and/or unable to recognize that treating history as a totally separate entity ('historicism,' as Benjamin would have called it) tacitly endorses the 'patrician' cause of the status quo. (In Oakeshott, much as in the writing of Russell Kirk, 'ideology' is only what other people engage in.)

3:20 AM  
Blogger dchan said...

isn't feminizing the past bound up with how women have been perceived historically/culturally?

does the inability to inbue ideology with any sense of history (as we see in current events, the 'bush doctrine,' etc) result from the inability to disengage it from historicism?

10:36 AM  

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