A place for theory in history

Unsurprisingly, the recent manifesto, “Theses on theory and history” has received some grumpy responses. Some ask for “evidence” of the analysis, others say “we’ve already done this” (but then concede several points); some honest answers have at least admitted that they don’t quite understand the stakes, or the kind of critical history that is being urged.

So, in this post, I’m going to write a little about the latter. What is the vision, or the dream? To allude to the final psychoanalytic phrasing of the project, what is the analytical practice that can interpret the dream?

A note about my position here: I am trained, and have published, as both a historian and a philosopher. I work in a philosophy department (in Australia), and I research “critical theory” in both its French variant (a loose tradition) and German guise (The Frankfurt School); I’m also conversant with some more ‘analytic’ fields. My PhD dissertation included a study of the history of History and Theory, and other journals, involved in the philosophy of history, from the 60s to the present. I’m currently working on a book on the philosophy of history. So, you can understand my interest in the Theses, and I understand the interests of both historians and philosophers.

Basic concepts of historical sciencetriangle

Heidegger, at the beginning of Being and Time, refers to a historical theory of scientific progress with the term ‘crisis’. The real movement of the sciences, he writes, is not technical progression and expansion of fields. Rather, it is the extent to which a science is capable of a crisis in its basic concepts. This is exactly what the Theses is asking: let’s make some progress here, they urge.

Crisis, today, is an overused word. But Heidegger’s use is not unique to him. His employment at least has the advantage of being removed from the emotional tenor it has today. The French existentialists also employ the term in a range of uses, (also thinking of Husserl’s famous 1936 text). But the core phenomenological issue, of understanding the basic structure of a scientific project, is common. And the Theses today, though it doesn’t use the word (I think) shares this understanding.

Critical history reflects on its own conditions of social and historical possibility. It specifies the theoretical assumptions, orientations, and implications of its claims. It elaborates the worldly stakes of its intervention.

The kind of project that the Theses are encouraging is not one that is radically different in form than the other social sciences, like sociology, anthropology, and so on. And it is simply a logically necessary element in a scientific project. In fact, many a historian, especially those who work in interdisciplinary areas and collaborate with other disciplines, are likely writing just this kind of critical history. I can think of several of the top of my head. It doesn’t mean that they don’t do archival work of various kinds. It doesn’t mean that they don’t strive to produce a thoroughly justified ‘objective’ account. It does mean that they know exactly what is meant when they use the word ‘objective’.

The point then is to submit the basic concepts relied upon to systematic scrutiny. This does not just mean doing a “history of those concepts” (unless Foucauldian genealogy is you thing). The historians reflexive critical gesture is to historicise. That’s exactly the gesture to examine! But this means that there’s a practical problem here, which is hinted at in the Theses by what they call ‘thematising’, and the formulaic applying of a theory. This problem is the practical deficit in knowing how to engage with a theory. There’s a need for some philosophical training, and practically, at first, that means collaborating with a philosophy department to provide that training until history departments possess the philosophical skills in-house.

I’m sure some scholars in literature departments, or interdisciplinary programs, might take umbrage at that suggestion. Historians, too, might feel this is “invading” their turf, and are likely to pull out a whole bunch of stereotypes about philosophers being ahistorical. But let me anticipate both responses: I’m interpreting ‘philosophy’ broadly, in its classical, and not necessarily institutional sense. I think it’s right to suggest that those whose professional practice is to research and teach daily on the ontology, epistemology, and normative concepts, arguments and, theories involved in historical knowledge are likely the people who will be able to design philosophical courses for historians’ purposes – whatever kind of department they end up being in. I know philosophers who’ve wound up in English, Sociology, and History departments. And there are people like me, trained in history, in Philosophy departments. To be sure, literature and philosophy departments also have plenty of problems that demand scrutiny, but that’s not our focus right now.

A second part of this response is that there is a broad tradition of philosophy that is precisely historically sensitive. All post-Hegelian philosophy is sensitive to this – nobody can study and teach Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, de Beauvoir, Derrida, Foucault, or Rancière, without having to critically confront the historical inherence of discourse, concepts, social forms of every topic and are that they discuss. These scholars are in a good position to contribute and interact with historians – learning from them, and asking questions, and providing insights. Collaboration. Not invasion, attack, “deconstruction” or “destruction” (in their common and misunderstood sense) and so on. The point is to work together. Philosophy, history, sociology, anthropology – all these disciplines are interdependent. To deny this is counterproductive.

Critical history and a critical theory of history

So, there are indeed theoretically adept histories, but, at times, they happen in spite of the profession because as a disciplinary norm, the theoretical training is too low. There are indeed programs that train historians theoretically and practically, but they are exceptions, not the rule. Philosophers or other theorists can collaborate with historians to develop the training they need, not because they are smarter or more righteous, but simply because they have a practical specialisation that is of use at the present time. Without it, historians won’t recognise their naïvety, and will continue to use history as a surrogate for the theoretical justification of their discipline. But here we can narrow down further and ask what kind of theory? For the Theses don’t simply demand epistemology. They exhort us to a critical theory.

Maritain - history diagramWhat is a critical theory? It’s not often recognised, but “critique” and “critical” are technical philosophical terms which go beyond a generic attitude. The point is not to be simply skeptically “critical”, that is “negative” about everything. Critical theory has a positive vision, and that isn’t simply more “critical thinking” as one response sees it.

The idea of critique is connected to the idea of crisis I mentioned earlier. It implies analysis of course (laying bare the structure of an object), but also specifying the conditions of analysis and its relation to practice, the grounding of standards of evaluation to be utilised, and finally, it implies decision, ie. action; that through critical analysis, new possibilities become available that concretely change practice. In the social philosophical tradition, that possibility has always been understood as concrete freedom – not simply freedom in the liberal, negative view. The point of critique is emancipation from domination, exploitation, and suffering of various historical kinds. Social critique, therefore, focuses on different areas of experience that are overlooked, underrepresented, and without which we risk having a distorted view of the state of a society. Many histories are clearly, implicitly (or occasionally explicitly), motivated by aims like this. But it is the second and third elements that the Theses argue are missing – the reflexive justification of the analysis. To insist on this isn’t “militant” theoreticism, but good science. It is to ensure that the scientific practice is safeguarded against complicity in the problems that it diagnoses.

Practical steps

A survey course of theories isn’t sufficient here, I think. Here’s why: A survey, (such as I have taken as an Honours/MA student, and later taught), presents a series of ‘houses of history’ or methods – a series of choices, like jams at the supermarket. That approach presents the student with a series of fully developed possibilities – but it does not teach how theories were made, the considerations that go into criticising them, evaluating them, or reforming them. The student, therefore, is just a consumer of theories, and is not a participant in constructing, contributing, or objecting to, any given approach. Even more, the presentation of the theoretical possibilities often leaves a lot to be desired – surveys produce such simplistic versions, prioritising far too wide a coverage, that few representatives would be satisfied with any single version, nor is enough depth presented at any point.

What to do then? As I’ve already suggested, departments can collaborate with philosophers and theorists from other departments. Practicing Historians can decide to research their theoretical preference, and so develop graduate training in concert with this. Here are two philosophical theories that have implicit potential to develop the sort of historically sensitive criticism that the Theses is promoting.

  1. Frankfurt School Critical Theory

The current Frankfurt generation is led by Honneth’s social theory that focuses on processes of Recognition. Honneth’s first essay is actually a detailed critique of Althusser’s philosophy of history. Honneth always seeks to preserve and respect the historical experience and agency of those involved in social struggles. Moreover, his entire theory is focused on provided detailed conceptualisation and empirical support for placing experiences of disrespect at the centre of historical change of diverse kinds. That means there are conceptual resources that historians’ can use to identify potential historical projects, but also, historians are equally placed to clarify and expand the horizon of the theory itself – as myself and JP Deranty recently argued.

2. Phenomenology (including Derrida)

The second body of theories is more broad, with a number of possible foci.9780226355115 Phenomenology in its development turned explicitly historical, though in a very nuanced sense. Merleau-Ponty, Derrida, and others, explicitly took up the historical challenges posed by Husserl and Heidegger. Here, an excellent place to begin is with the synthesis provided by David Carr in his excellent book Time, Narrative, and History. This book demonstrates the genesis of full-blown historical narratives from the pre-theoretical lifeworld of action and community life. This sort of approach lends itself to two specific theoretical contributions, I would suggest. The first would be the conceptualisation of archives and facts in terms of their implicit temporal, objective, and evaluative aspects; the second would be in understanding the ethical value that is placed on collective narratives, such as history often provides.

So, I’ve tried to suggest why the Theses on Theory and History are to be welcomed and are not viewed as a militant sort of action. Hackle-raising responses of that kind are hardly helpful. Everybody relax, and see the potential there is to actually make some decent progress that isn’t simply the sort of trying to find a new narrow niche of investigation, but one that opens up a collective dialogue about disciplinary practice.


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