Daily Archives: October 7, 2006

Dave’s response to McKeon

Michael and I probably agree more than we disagree about these issues of interpretation, but I’ll outline some of the areas of agreement, indicate the main points where we diverge, then get out of the way of discussion.

I should say straight off that the previous post is a very full and useful guide to Michael’s thoughts about historical method, which help a great deal to illuminate the decisions he made in structuring the book and approaching his topic.

Now here are the areas of agreement:

1. I am fine with treating interpretation and explanation as a doublet, both of whose terms represent phases in a process equally necessary for the proper understanding of the past.

2. I also appreciate your concern for beginning with the intentions of historical actors, then fully exploring the social contexts of their actions within those socio-historical settings. Frankly, I don’t know any other way to proceed with historical inquiries.

3. I also understand your caution about reading subsequent historical events (i.e., the “failure of Enlightenment”) backward into the actions and consciousness of those historical actors who had no clue about how those historical events were going to work out.

4. Your whole paragraph on modernity and its failures is really admirable, and explains why we need to remind ourselves and our students what modernity looked like before it was tried out.

Now, here are the disagreements:

5. Having said that, because I hold what you call the poststructuralist belief in the epistemological inaccessibility of the past, I do believe that historicists and presentists both reconstruct the past more or less adequately (or persuasively) in the present; no one can claim a privileged access to the past, no matter what terms they use, or how well they use them.

6. My biggest problem with the notion of “seeing the past in its own terms” is not simply with the question of “whose past [meaning which people in the past should be described],” but also the problem of “whose terms,” meaning whose scholarly interpretations should be preferred, and why.

As you noted, this problem does indeed beg a number of questions: should “the past” be understood in only one set of terms, which we could recognize to be the past’s own terms? How would we which of all the different ways to describe the past are not just true statements, but the past’s own terms? Whose authority decides? In a few instances, we might have direct evidence from contemporary accounts, but otherwise we are relying upon traditions of interpretations/explanations that have accompanied these texts into the present, and then using that tradition as a corrective to our own obsessions and desires concerning these topics.

In other words, I suppose I am stressing the fact that historicist interpretation is not just an individual, synchronic act, but a collective process repeated over and over again on a diachronic axis, rather like your brilliant account of Johnson’s “quantitative” analysis of Shakespeare.

This is one reason why I am less worried about anachronism, since I believe that successive historians are not advancing away from, or towards, some fixed point of historical truth, but are instead attempting to generate valuable insights into their materials that will speak to contemporary (scholarly) audiences. I do take it for granted that the nature of these insights will change over time.

If we think about the historical accumulation of interpretations of the past, we would see really staggering variations in critics and epochs’ views of the past’s “own terms” over time. These wildly divergent views tend to get institutionalized and naturalized, however, into a rather tidy and academic version of the “past in its own terms” that may in fact have little to do with what people in the past may have actually, concretely believed. The views of most 18c readers of an 18c author are certainly “partial” in comparison with what we as scholars take years to internalize.

My Swift students are still shocked to hear that a critic as good as Samuel Johnson could doubt the attribution of a Tale of a Tub, or that the rumors of Swift’s secret marriages or insanity had such a dramatic effect on even the most considered views of him in the 18th and 19th century. These were matters of debate and controversy in the past: whose view, then, counts as that of the past’s? Thackeray’s Swift? Orrery’s? Sheridan’s? Ehrenphreis’s? Do we really believe that these writers use the same set of terms to understand a figure as complex as Swift?

So I appreciate all the cautions that you have given us about projecting our present-day concerns too freely upon the past, but I in turn would caution against over-idealizing the act of historical understanding. Instead, I would call attention to the scrappiness and persistent controversy of actual historical writing in the period under question.

Is it possible that a pragmatic or “rhetorical” orientation toward the past is closer to the actual views of the past held by history-writers between Camden and Gibbon, rather than the more elevated views held by Meinecke or Dilthey? If so, what should this disparity tell us?

Best wishes,


McKeon Responds to Dave and Laura on Presentism (from Comments)

[Since this response ran through three consecutive Comment posts, I thought it would be easier to read, follow, and respond to if I pasted it into a single new post. Laura, if you’d like, perhaps you could respond here? And, please, if others are interested, join us–DM]

Dave and Laura,

I agree entirely that “interpretation” and “explanation” form a dialectical doublet, in their interrelation defining what historical method should aim to achieve. I emphasize the former only because I feel as though “our” attentiveness to the self-conceptions of the past in recent years has been overbalanced by methods and perspectives that derive from modern experience. By this I meant something very imprecise, and the term “presentist” is probably misleading except in so far as it, too, means simply “what postdates the portion of the past that’s under study.” I think “explanation” is crucial to historical study, but perhaps only once (a schematic temporalization) “interpretation” has defined a sense of the past’s self-understanding on the basis of which the claim to “explain” by *other* means can become intelligible.

So in these terms, the presentism I sought to rebalance in Secret History is the tendency to read the period in which modernity first seems to emerge (which I take at least to include the 18th century) from the viewpoint of the failures of modernity, paradigmatically, capitalism, the bourgeoisie, class conflict, liberalism, the public sphere, separate spheres, “The Enlightenment.” To study these things from the viewpoint of “the past” is, as I’ve already quoted, “to view the past not only as the prelude to our present but also as a response to its own past” (xxvii), a formulation that suggests that the distinction between interp. and explan. can also name the difference between attending to the intentional *motives* with which past activities, etc. were undertaken and elaborating a theoretical or *causal* understanding whose possibility depends on taking a certain distance from the aims of the past culture in question. In 1690 capitalism meant not commodity fetishism, alienated labor, and the extraction of surplus labor but freedom from hierarchical political and economic control. The bourgeoisie was not a self-conscious class whose ideology sought to universalize its own interests. Indeed, whether it even existed is a definitional rather than an empirical question–hence my objection (74) to the translation of Habermas’s burgerlich as bourgeois rather than civil. What people *experienced* in 1690 was not class conflict but a conflict between status-based assumptions about the coextension of birth and worth and emergent class-based assumptions that worth was a function of labor discipline within one’s calling, or simply one’s industrious accomplishments and the upward mobility that attended them.

Except for a few thoughtful “Tory feminists,” “liberalism” wasn’t an ideology of human rights and negative freedom that nonetheless silently drew the line at women and indigent men but a revolutionary alternative to the tacit belief in monarchal legitimacy. Similarly, the public sphere wasn’t a hypocritical claim to inclusiveness and equality but a revolutionary intuition that the determination of public affairs should be the work of others besides the king and his ministers. Separate spheres was not simply the modern, more ruthlessly efficient instantiation of patriarchal inequality but one result of reconceiving gender relations no longer as a matter of better vs. worse but instead as a matter of equality in difference. And the Enlightenment was not the dogmatic adherence to rational and instrumental “objectivity” but a dialectical effort to make sense of the difference between the object and the subject, science and the humanities that had been bequeathed by the quarrel of the ancients and the moderns. This is not to fashion an apology for modernity but to fill in its other side (as it seems these days necessary to do) so as to come closer to an understanding of the past as, like the present, historical process.This sort of presentism can’t be laid at the door of any single recent critical movement: the post-structuralist demystification of “history,” utopian Marxist contempt for the achievements of modernization, new historicist efforts to “do” history outside the protocols of empiricism–i.e., without abandoning the poststructuralist belief that “history” is epistemologically inaccessible–all these have contributed to the haze of “negative hermeneutics” (Ricoeur) of our times. To recur to one of your points, Dave, although I see what you mean about the comparable vulnerability of “presentism” and “historicism” to partiality, I’d rather reorient these terms, partly on the precedent of previous usage. I take presentism itself to be a mode of “historicism” in the now very general sense of historicism as entailing any commitment to historical understanding. But as I see it, “historicism” came into usage to name what I’ve been calling “interpretation,” the aim to study the past in its own terms, as opposed to the aim to elaborate general laws of historical formation and development that can “explain” history in a more trans-historical fashion, i.e., the attempt to apply the model of scientific “natural laws” to sociohistorical experience.(I associate this meaning of historicism with, e.g., Troeltsch and Dilthey; but ironically Popper and others later adopted the term to describe and discredit what I’m calling “explanation”.)

And I agree that to conceive interpretation as the study of the past in its own terms begs the question of what, or even more *whose*, past we’re talking about. Thinking of inter./explan. as methodologically a dialectical doublet, however, suggests that this is the necessary next step in interpretation: dividing interpretation–a whole vis a vis its opposition to explanation–into its own parts once that preceding division has been accomplished. This can be both diachronic and synchronic: the former in so far as “the past” we seek to understand is a chronology that needs diachronic subdivision if we’re to sort out different viewpoints and perspectives; certainly the latter once we recognize that any diachronic period is defined apart from others according to a synchronic perception of what makes it, as a unit, different from surrounding periods. I.e., synchronic study isn’t the opposite of diachronic study, it presupposes it as the means by which any slice of diachrony becomes susceptible, by bracketing adjacent chronologies, to synchronic understanding. In this respect I don’t think cultural studies devotes itself to synchronic rather than diachronic study; it brackets the problem of diachrony–and thereby takes a position on diachrony–by conceiving a period (or a decade or a day) as susceptible to its “own” analysis. And I think we owe synchronic study not to any recent thinking but to the Scottish Enlightenment historians and then, soon after, to the full elaboration of Marx, for whom the synchronic relationship between infrastructure and superstructure became as indispensable to “historical” study as is the relationship between one event or period and others. (The attribution of the discovery of synchrony to cultural studies might even be seen as an example of “presentism,” like the case of looking to Said [as Dave points out]for the origins of what Selden already practiced.) And I think that when people castigate “master narratives” they’re not thinking of diachronic totalizations alone. The strong meaning of “teleology” as positing “at the outset a result purported to emerge only as the result of inquiry” (xxv) doesn’t require a linear narrative in which to operate. After all, Marx’s synchronic relation of ideology/material base has been accused (although I think wrongly)of teleology, as well as of “abstraction” and “reduction.” On the other hand, the ambition to hunt out teleology has led some to conflate teleology with linear succession or temporality, which seems to me a mistake. (If this were true, then chronological readings would be ipso facto “evolutionary” readings, whereas in fact they also can be, and can be criticized as, “devolutionary.”)For a discussion of interp./explan. that very interestingly argues the subtlety with which that distinction can be made when applied to micro-questions of whether individual actions are the result of “internal” motive or “external” cause see Alasdair MacIntyre, “The Idea of a Social Science,” in Against the Self-Images of the Age (Notre Dame, 1984), 211-29.

Michael McKeon

What does it Mean to Understand the Past in its Own Terms?

I was really struck by this passage of Michael’s about his critical and historical method, because it articulated an area where Michael and I probably disagree in theory, though perhaps not so much in practice:

But to characterize my method I think I need to have recourse to readings in historiography and historical method, especially the distinction between interpretation and explanation–to simplify, the difference between understanding the past in its own terms and understanding it in terms not available to it.

Now, Michael immediately qualifies this distinction between the “presentist” and what I’d call the historicist positions, by saying that we need to pursue both. Nonetheless, he does stake out a position that “presentist” studies have dominated theory and criticism for quite some time, and seems to suggest that such a historicism could act as a corrective to presentism. And this seems a worthy point: any critical method, pursued without sufficient awareness of its limits, can generate mechanical and unpersuasive results. This seems as true of “presentism” as it does of the most scrupulous historicism.

But if Michael’s dialectical method has any validity (which I think it does), the position of the careful “historicist” is going to be as conditioned by the present as the most rampant presentist, who is nonetheless going to be determined by his own historical situatedness. In other words, both sides will have constructed their notions of past AND present in a present that impinges upon them in various ways, and in response to their perceptions to the past. In other words, I don’t see any automatic advantage on either side, though both are obliged to be as scrupulous as possible in their reconstructions of both past and present.

Let me give a few examples from our own discussion: Carrie Hintz made some interesting points about secrecy in our recent political past, with her references to the Lewinsky scandal. And even as our little discussion has unfolded, a very lurid sex scandal (phone sex! on the floor of the House! whoops, not true!) has overtaken political argument in this country. Even as we discuss scandals like the warming-pan baby, the notion of “scandal” takes on a new saliency in both the present and in our reconstructions of the past, because of events none of us foresaw a few weeks ago (I hope). I’d argue that both historical interpretation and explanation use metaphors for us to render the past intelligible, and that these metaphors are as likely to come from present-day scandals as they are from past ones, for example.

In your own explanation of the traditional/modern divide, Michael, you had recourse to Chinua Achebe and his presentation of perceptions of tradition in a non-Western context. These are obviously things that chronologically and conceptually were unavailable to John Selden, though Selden had an admirable interest in “Oriental” languages and cultures. But talking about Selden’s interest in such things indeed seemed charming and “antiquarian” until critics began to think more critically about the West’s discursive constructions of “non-Western” or “traditional” cultures in pre-20th century writers. Though sustained critical interest in such topics was only generated, say, after Said, I don’t think it’s fair to claim that pursuing those questions is purely presentist, since these parts of Selden’s scholarship have been known about for some time, though they were known as part of his philological work on biblical languages. But is calling it “biblical” any less mediated or presentist than calling it “orientalist”? As you acknowledge, we need both kinds of approaches, and use them both together, all the time.

There are other issues here, as well, like the dangers of hypostasizing “the past” so that only a particular set of terms can be defined as “its own.” The virtue of the dialectical method, I think, is to put us on guard against believing that any particular set of terms could be considered self-sufficient or adequate for such explanations. Does the resident of Edinburgh in 1704 inhabit the “same” present or past as the resident of London in the same year? Does the illiterate laborer digging up Roman ruins for the local clergyman’s researches share his sense of antiquity? Etc. etc.

So I appreciate your notion that we must be careful about introducing anachronisms into our analyses, but I believe that a historicist may be in as much danger of doing so as a presentist.