Wednesday, August 15, 2007


It is natural to think that history (the scholarly discipline not the process) is the art of writing true sentences about human beings in the past tense. There are no doubt historians who would call that sort of description simple-minded, but I think laypeople tacitly accept that such an art is possible. Consider the possibility, however, that human beings can't (technically) be "objects", i.e., that there can't be "true sentences about" them. When writing about people, we must write just sentences in the future tense. That is, all our judgments about people are about what will happen (or, more precisely, what we would have happen), not was has happened.


Mette Basbøll said...

The possibilities of such a view are beautiful. The gift of a future that we would give the other; to be just in respect to the possibilities we envision for people, could write the story of a people’s process. And perhaps we could leave history to writing itself.

mongibeddu said...

Wait, so historians should avoid writing about people?

Thomas Basbøll said...

No, historians should be mindful of their effect on the future of people. They should not dig up the "truth" about the past but instead (as Mette righty puts it) "write the story of a people's process". They should do "justice" to a "a people to come". They should avoid leaving the impression that they have told the truth. It's the wrong criterion. They should participate in the process justly.

Kirby Olson said...

Thomas, I think this would require knowledge of where you think is the endline (American football image) or a goal line which people should cross, and therefore I think your assessment of history is rather Hegelian.

What would you think, being Danish, of a Kierkegaardian history, in which history was fragments, and anecdotes, and that are subjective, rather than objective, and provide glimpses, rather than a blueprint?

I'm not sure what good such a thing would be, because I think what you want is writing as a guide to some ideal future that is prepared in advance.

What if writing instead were testimonial, or witnessing, of something that we don't pretend to fully understand? Would there be any use in that?

My problem with the history as process idea is that then history would also have to be philosophy, which I think is fine, just so long as it isn't Marxist philosophy.

Locke would do.

If the people were said to be marching Locke-step into some lovely future, then I'd like some historian to write that up, I guess.

mongibeddu said...


I'm having trouble getting my head around what you're saying, the totality of it understood as a method. But, in any case, it did remind me of this passage from John Dewey's Logic, which I know from an old anthology, The Philosophy of History in Our Time:

"That which is now past was once a living present, just as the now living present is already in course of becoming the past of another present. There is no history except in terms of movement toward some outcome, something taken as an issue, whether it be the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, Negro Slavery in the United States, the Polish question, the Industrial Revolution or Land Tenure. The selection of outcome, of what is taken as the close, determines the selection and organization of subject-matter, due critical control being exercised, of course, with regard to the authenticity of evidential data. But the selection of the end or outcome marks an interest and the interest reaches into the future. It is a sign that the issue is not closed; that the close in question is not existentially final."

--for what it's worth.

Thomas Basbøll said...

I'm definitely not altogether opposed to a Kierkegaardian-Deweyite historical sensibility. Thanks for the suggestions.

I think Dewey, however, remains too scientifically respectful of historical "data". I'm guessing he sorts the discipline under "science". Though not in a Hegelian sense, of course, he probably also sees philosophical reflection about history as a viable project.

My view (the pangrammatical anschauung): Poetry is to history what philosophy is to the world. Poetry deals with the "data" (which are really captives) of history in their immediacy (institutions) just as philosophy deals with the data of the world in their immediacy (intuitions).

Where philosophers speak of "sense data" (the reality that is given in experience), poets speak of "motive captives" (prisoners of love, if you will, or the ideality that experience is taken with).

Politics is to history what science is to the world, i.e., the right way to approach it.

Pangrammatically, then, there ought to be no "science of history" (just politics), no historical "facts" (just acts), no historical "objects" (just subjects), no "data" (just captives).

My own personal Geneva Convention, if you will.

mongibeddu said...

And by calling it "Geneva Convention" you situate it within history!

Dilthey would help here. He too is interested in sorting out the different aims, procedures, possibilities, and limitations of philosophy, history, and poetry vis-a-vis experience. He would say, I think, that we are captives of meaning.

"The category of meaning designates the relationship, inherent in life, of parts of a life to the whole. The connections are only established by memory, through which we can survey our past. Here meaning takes the form of comprehending life. We grasp the meaning of a past moment. It is significant for the individual because in it an action or an external event committed him for the future. Or, perhaps, the plan for the future conduct of life was conceived then. It is significant for communal life because the individual intervened in the shaping of mankind and contributed to it with his essential being. In all these and other cases the particular moment gains meaning from its relationship with the whole, from the connection between past and future, between individual and mankind." (Construction of the Historical World, in Selected Writings, ed. and tr. H. P. Rickman)

--again, for what it's worth. These are just splinters of reading stuck in my head, which I pick at as I try to understand your pangrammatical Anschauung.

Presskorn said...

It strikes me as if you are being attacked from the wrong flank (which does not necessarily imply that you should not be attacked). Quite obviously, the conception of history presented here is not at all Hegelian, but rather somewhat Nietzschian: History is not about the uncovering of truth, but about presenting a politics, of clearing the way for a ‘people to come’ etc. etc..

And if history is something like what Nietzsche imagined, i.e. a place of forces, random play and politics, then there is indeed a need for something like a pangrammatical ‘Geneva convention’ of how to treat prisoners of history. That is to say, there is a need for determining the correct Darstellung of history, a manual of how to put history in writing.

The proper pangrammatical attitude (if will allow me to toy a bit with your concept) however strikes me as being equally concerned with justice and determinition. That is, if one had the correct ‘Geneva convention’ of writing history, one should simply (be able to) say: These are the differitial conditions for writing determinable history.

And also: The proper pangrammatical attitude issues equations like “there is no "science of history" (just politics), no historical "facts" (just acts), no historical "objects" (just subjects), no "data" (just captives).”, while it categorically refrains from vague warnings like “historians should be mindful of their effect on the future of people”. Right?

Thomas Basbøll said...

I think Presskorn is right. The "manual" should display the grammatical rules for the construction of proper historical sentences. They will not be evaluated for their scientific correctness (truth) but their (ahem) political correctness (justice).

I should add that most historians, in my opinion, are already much more interested in the political correctness (and incorrectness) of their work than its factual accuracy. But the accumulation of declarative sentences in the past tense that makes up a work of history leaves a different impression.

So, yes, my view is more than just a vague call to "mindfullness". It is a grammatical rule.

Not "It came to pass that ..." but "Let us go now to the ..."

Since it is our orientation towards the future that renders the past significant (Dilthey), it is the future, not the past, we should imagine.

All this is an elaboration of some of the consequences of the basic pangrammatical homologies (object/subject, knowledge/power, science/politics, philosophy/poetry, world/history). I'm always uneasy about it because, strictly followed out, it calls for us to entirely abandon the social sciences and replace them with political projects.

That second step is important. History-as-a-science is to be preferred to a society without any sense of history. I.e., to leaving politics as it is while closing down all the history departments.

One is not at all satisfied with the grammar of our politicians.