segunda-feira, 11 de agosto de 2014

Bevernage, Delanote, Froeyman, and Van de Mieroop on contemporary historical theory’s relation with its past

Commented reading: Journal of the Philosophy of History, 2014, 8, 3 – Part 1

Berber Bevernage, Broos Delanote, Anton Froeyman, Kenan Van de Mieroop. Introduction: The Future of the Theory and Philosophy of History, pp. 141-148.

International Network for Theory of History’s inaugural conference took place in Ghent, Belgium, last year, “around the central theme of the future of the theory and philosophy of history.” (141) The current edition of the Journal of the Philosophy of History gathers some of the papers presented there.

In this introduction, the authors ask themselves: “[…] what do these articles tell us about the future of philosophy of history?” (146) “[T]he first thing we see”, they say, “is that creating the future requires one to deal with the heritage of the field: the programs, projects and problems of the previous generation.” They evaluate, in short, that new philosophers of history assume “a moderate stance in relation to the tradition”. (146)

The authors point out that the history of the discipline is “is so often emplotted in a conventional narrative form: depending on one’s feelings about positivism and the ‘scientific’ interpretation of the writing of history, this story will almost inevitably take the form of either a comedy or a tragedy.” (146-147) Further, they specify: “If we understand the story of our field as a series of paradigm shifts which were affected by singular heroic acts of intellectual innovation, then it is easy to see how it can be hard to position oneself as a young researcher.” (147) Although the claim seems to me unquestionably accurate, it seems to leave out the what is most essential: the fact that the narrativists thesis not only substantially broadened our understanding of historical epistemology, but are also articulable with, and even openly stimulate, a whole array of new questions.

The editors identify a shift in the field, “from epistemological and methodological questions towards ethical, political and existential questions.” Now, as Herman Paul has shown (in Hayden White: The Historical Imagination), although White's work has generated countless epistemological discussions, it was itself much more worried about issues of “ethical, political, and existential” character. Then, I’d suggest the younger authors’ relation with the tradition of the field is also the result of the merits of their (in W. B. Gallie’s term) “original exemplars”. Danto proposed that “a first test of a philosophical theory should be that it account for itself whenever relevant” (The Decline and Fall of the Analytical Philosophy of History, p. 73): according to him, Kuhn’s paradigm theory could do so, but Hempel’s deductive-nomological model  could not. Here in this introduction, is worth noticing that the authors deliberately explained the “heroic” position often attributed to White resorting to White’s own theories. I would take this as an example of the power of the tools his oeuvre puts at our disposal – although not in an intrinsically heroic way. Continuing the comparison: for Danto, the pre-narrativist debate about the applicability of the covering law-model to history was not solved, but simply abandoned: Hempel’s proposals, for him, were still valid; they merely lost their relevance. Now, as to narrativist debate, seems possible to me to state that the situation is somewhat different: the epistemological discussions lost their relevance, but, on the other hand, other aspects of the tradition kept it – maybe because of its malleability, since narratives and representations permeate both history as process and history as writing and are (arguably, at least) directly related to topics such as memory, experience, trauma, and others.

(Even the most “radical” of the proposals set at the conference, the attempt to effectuate a “a rehabilitation of speculative philosophy of history”, was openly advocated by White in Metahistory, whose first “general conclusion” claims that “there can be no ‘proper history’ which is not at the same time ‘philosophy of history’ [p. xi]. More recently, David Carr proposed a “metaphilosophy of history”, developed in dialogue with Danto’s and White’s paradigmatic thesis [not to mention his own, more clearly stated in Time, Narrative, and History], in which the “classical philosophy of history” is understood not as a cognitive or theoretical embodiment of the teleological structure, but as a practical embodiment of it.” [Re-Figuring Hayden White, p. 25])

The authors also acknowledge what has just been said: in the end, they look for support in the notion of “practical past” – borrowed by White from Michael Oakeshott –, as an antidote to the fact, pointed out by Gabrielle Spiegel, that “the concepts of memory and memory studies in general are in danger of losing their critical perspective”: “What we advocate,” they say, “is a more reflective approach that is closer to what Hayden White has called the ‘practical past’. We welcome White’s call to embrace the practical past provided that the term ‘practical’ is interpreted in a double way: on the one hand as a denotation of a study object (the way the past is used to change or conserve the present), but on the other hand also, and maybe even more importantly, as an urge to make our research practically relevant.” (147-148) Bevernage's History, Memory, and State-Sponsored Violence: Time and Justice is an excellent example of this approach.

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