What social philosophy can learn from medieval history

One of my current writing projects looks at the historicist methodological principles in contemporary critical theory. With a colleague, we’re arguing that restricting one’s gaze to so-called “modern” forms of freedom contradicts the theory of freedom (insofar as it bids us recognise our equals wherever and whenever they may be), and in particular, ignores the moral demand of the past on contemporary philosophy. Our consciousness of contemporary social pathologies and shortfalls of justice are indebted to past struggles. If we set a date beyond which we refuse recognise these struggles, then we are stopping our ears to their cries, and also blinkering our view of suffering and struggle in the present. The past informs today’s hopes and fears, however “distant” they apparently may be. If this sounds like Walter Benjamin to you, then you would be correct. It is to Benjamin that we turn to make the positive argument.

What I want to write here, however, are some comments on what social historians might think of all of this. And from my review of a range of medieval historians (Georges Duby, Lynette Olson, Jacques Le Goff among others), I think they would also be critical of the historicist tendancy to insert a radical discontinuity in the mid-18th Century in order to justify something like a modern epoch. Of course there are changes, and discontinuities, and many things begin in the 18th Century. But many other things continue.

Polish dress 14th C
14th & 15th C. Polish Dress

Medieval scholars insist on how the political and social structures that emerge in the medieval period constitute the “birth of Europe”, many centuries before what we call Europe finally appeared. Part of the problem is that the 14th and 15th Centuries appear rather distinct, by virtue of the peasant revolts and uprisings that occurred. The political and social structures that contribute to demands to share in government new and searches for freedom however, stretch at least into the 12th Century with the re-establishment of towns (Duby). In view of such a longue durée, the specificity of modernity becomes far less distinct.

The theoretical and methodological implications are interesting for historical discipline; and philosophy can find a lot to interest itself in here too. The picture that Duby paints (in his inaugural Collège de France lecture, 1970), is of society as a totality, woven like an intricate cloth (the metaphor is mine). A development here pulls threads over there; economic change puts pressure on political orders; agricrultural productivity demands new specialisations not directly tied to land-labour, and thus provides impetus to change in other areas. All this has its effects on the figural and representative realm. A development in one corner makes another corner suddenly seem retrograde. The value isn’t ever fixed, but is involved in constant oscillation of parts and whole, development and regress.

From these observations, Duby draws several methodological principles; but they all flow from a logic of differentiated parts and whole, and from the premise that “social history is all history”. Some of his phrasing is reminiscent of Merleau-Ponty’s “Gestalt” ontology applied to the social level. Or, more accurately and simply, is hegelian. And that throws a certain weight on continuity. Without utter conflagration, continuities will in the main be the rule of the day. The proposition here then, is perhaps we philosophers can learn something from medieval-social historians (and anthropologists, who have interchanged ideas with historians for decades). Sometimes we philosophers like to paint our colleagues in history as theoretically backwards. But perhaps we’re fooling ourselves on that front.


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