Friday, November 11, 2011

Historical Theory 3

This should be the last of this specific section.  Previous posts include:


Now, Collingwood and Foucault.
In the mid-twentieth century, we look to Roger Collingwood for the next major moment in the philosophy of history.  First, Collingwood calls the historical method prior to modern times a “scissors and paste” method. [1] To present a particular moment in history, these historians found an appropriate figure from the time they wished to describe and “pasted” an appropriate quote from that figure as an authority on the event.  One problem, as we have already seen, is that these "pre-modern" historians largely did not take into account the biases of the people they were quoting.  Collingwood sees a move forward when such individuals were seen as sources rather than authorities on the day.

His main claim in The Idea of History is that the task of the historian is to “re-enact the past in his [sic] own mind.” [2] It is to bring the past into the present by reliving it.  To do so, one must go well beyond the “outside” of an event, the individual facts. [3] The historian must instead get into the “inside” of the event, what the thoughts and intentions were of the individuals who took part in these events.  Why did they do the things they did?  Collingwood wanted to get beyond simply thinking of cause and effect as a matter of events and get into the minds of the individuals participating in the events.  What was the human question to which the action was the answer?

As we look back at Collingwood, his focus on human intentions seems a bit ambitious and perhaps overstated.  On the one hand, his sense that we only have access to the past in the present is potentially insightful for the historical task.  Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002) would later argue that we do not really have access to the intentions of the authors of texts (let alone the thoughts of people from the past themselves).  We only have the effects of texts as they have played out over time and reached us in the present. [4]  And even then, we come to the text with our own socio-cultural influences.  Reading a text is thus a process of “fusing” two horizons, our horizon with that of a text as it comes to us (see chap. 4).  We have no certain way of knowing how well that fusing relates to the original intentions of the authors of those texts.

Colingwood’s focus on human intention also seems myopically focused on ideas.  What of the experiences of people and their feelings as the events of the world play themselves out in their lives?  Why make rational intentionality the primary focus? [5] More recent times have seen a focus on narrative as more fundamental to human ways of identifying ourselves and thinking about the world.  Arthur Danto’s 1965’s An Analytical Philosophy of History rightly argued that the historical significance of any event can only be unfolded in the context of a story because “history tells stories.” [6] Story seems potentially to capture in proper perspective all the elements that previous historians sought to incorporate and balance—including ideas, intentions, and natural cause and effect. We will return to this potentially fruitful idea at the end of the chapter.

Surely to bring the philosophy of history current we must at least engage the thinking of Michel Foucault (1926-84), whom we will look at in our final chapter as one of the main figures of postmodernism.  Predictably, Foucault resisted labels of this sort, and we wish to discuss him from our perspective rather than from his own.  In particular, Foucault saw his discussions of history mostly as discussions about language as an expression of power and certainly not "what really happened."

From the critical realist perspective we have adopted in this textbook (see chap. 8), what Foucault is helpful for is in calling our attention to historical paradigms and how they shift over time.  He helpfully moves us from merely thinking of individuals and their intentions (Collingwood) to the societal assumptions and matrices by which we assign meanings to events.  Further, he helps us see how structures of human power affect the way we look at the world and at history.

Foucault’s historical studies included topics like how societal understandings of punishment, insanity, and sexuality have changed over time. For example, at one point insanity or "madness" was almost considered a blessing from the gods. [7] In the 1400's, a common image was that of a "ship of fools," where society saw the idea of a wandering ship going unpredictably from port to port on the water an appropriate image of the wandering minds of these "mad" individuals on the borders of society.  Foucault then pursues changes in conceptions of madness until he reaches modern society, where we diagnose and try to treat insanity as an illness.

With regard to sexuality, Foucault argues that the very category of sexuality as we think of it is a recent invention. [8] In previous days, people did not divide human sexuality into the categories of hetero- and homosexual with distinct “orientations.” Homosexual activity was exactly that—sexual activity that some people engaged in. However, such individuals would likely have been married and have children as well. To use our language, earlier generations would have assumed that everyone was a heterosexual but that some people engaged in homosexual behavior as well. But they did not have a category “heterosexual” in their mind.

A good deal of what Foucault had to say about such things seems to work when we apply them to history. For example, the Bible arguably never addresses the question of homosexual orientation—attraction to the same sex.  It only seems to address homosexual activity.  The category of a “homosexual” arguably did not exist until the 1800’s.  It is our contemporary way of thinking about sexuality that leads us to assume that the men of Sodom and Gomorrah must have been homosexuals because they want to have homosexual sex.  In the thought world of Genesis, these are more likely men who want to rape the angels.  Judges 19 confirms this conclusion because in this very similar story, the men of the city go on to rape a concubine to death. [9]

Foucault thus corroborates what the cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1926-2006) taught when he advocated what he called a "thick description" of culture.  Indeed, as Collingwood indicated, true historical understanding cannot think it has explained the meaning of some event by telling the facts of what happened and certainly not if we simply assume the key players thought exactly the way we do.  This is a major issue when we as Christians read the Bible.  When we read of a biblical figure doing something or even saying something, we must explain the meaning of those actions and words in terms of the socio-cultural matrix in which they were done or spoken, which will not at all likely be the same as our socio-cultural matrix.  Further, this warning applies even to the very nature of the narratives themselves--we cannot assume that we are seeing a straightforward presentation of what happened in the biblical narratives, since this is also an assumption of modern historical narratives.

A second caveat with which Foucault has bequeathed us is the fact that "history is told by the winners."  In a set of public lectures in 1976, Foucault indicated that those who emerge the winners in societal struggles have a tendency to try to eliminate competing versions of the past.  Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005) put it even more accurately: "We carry forward at the same time several versions of history... We turn to them, abandon them, resume telling them much like a chess player who plays several games at once, now playing one game, then the another." [10]  Those in power have a tendency to use their power to support their version of the past in order to support who they are in the present and what they wish to do in the future.

[quote from Orwell's 1984--"He who controls the present, controls the past.  He who controls the past, controls the future.]

We end our treatment of historical theory with brief mention of new historicism, which is not so much a movement in historiography as a movement in literary theory. [11] As a perspective on literature, new historicism represents a return to trying to read literary texts in terms of their original meanings, although not from the narrow historicism of the past but an understanding of history that takes on board Foucault's "insights" into how broad cultural dynamics and power structures affect meaning.  While it is known significantly for its interest in "lost histories" and mechanisms of repression and dominance, it can represent for us a "chastened" approach to historical inquiry that has learned from the postmodern critique without abandoning its sense that we can still legitimately investigate the past and come to valid conclusions.

[1] The Idea of History (Oxford: Oxford University, 1994 [1946]).  I am thankful again here in what follows for Day’s presentation of Collingwood in Philosophy of History, 16-18, 121-29.

[2] Idea, 282.

[3] Idea, 213.

[4] Truth and Method

[5] A similarly, almost bizarre ideological perspective on history was that of Arthur O. Lovejoy (1873-1962), who might be considered the originator of a field known as the "history of ideas."  In his The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea (1936), he laid out the notion of a "unit-idea" or individual concept.  Like an atom of thought, he saw the history of thought as the assembly of such unit ideas into various combinations.

[6] An Analytical Philosophy of History (1965), 111.

[7] Madness and Civilization (1961).

[8] History of Sexuality, 3 vols (1976, 1984).

[9] Indeed, if we look at the way Jesus discusses Sodom and Gomorrah in the light of the socio-cultural categories of the day (Matthew 10:15), the way Sodom treated guests is the most significant wrong in the story.  The context is talking about cities and villages that might reject the disciples, just as Sodom and Gomorrah rejected God's messengers. The wrong of the homosexual act in the passage compounds the wrong to be sure, but it is only our current cultural paradigm that makes this act the central point of the passage.

[10] History and Truth (1965), 186.  As usual, I have paraphrased him to give his thought greater clarity.

[11] Stephen Greenblatt (1943-) is generally considered the originator of the movement.

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