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

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